Is Child Labour Really That Bad?

is child labor always bad?

How bad is child labour, really? Is banning child labour a form of ‘green colonialism’? Maybe asking the working kids themselves is a good place to find out

By Diane Small

Tell anyone – sustainable fashionista or high street shopper – that their clothes were made by children, and they’re likely to have a small heart attack. It seems that for most Westerners, there’s nothing more abhorrent than the notion of tiny hands sewing our garments.

And we can understand why. Ideally, in a perfect world, kids should be playing as much as possible. Enjoying their freedom and youth. Or, if they’re old enough, going to school and learning useful stuff. They definitely shouldn’t be engaged in hard labour. Or, some would say, any labour.

But our world is far from perfect. And many kids do work. Mainly in retail, fashion and agricultural jobs.

So, just how bad is child labour? And how can we define it? Let’s take a deep dive.

What Constitutes Child Labour?

When I was 12, my parents were discussing whether I was old enough to spend summers working in my father’s office, doing data entry of basic stock for his chain of hardware stores. My mom said they should ask me what I’d prefer: working in the office with my dad, or taking on a part-time job as a neighbourhood dog walker. My father growled that he’d make the decision as I was ‘too young to know what was best for me.’ Mind-numbing data entry it was then, for three long months, over the course of the next four summers.

An office job like that is often regarded as a ‘character building experience’ more than  ‘child labour.’ But there’s one huge difference.

I didn’t have to take on work for my family to survive. Other kids aren’t so lucky, though.

Legal Measures

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales introduced a law that would allow children these children to work legally – even if they are as young as 10.

While the Bolivian law has received much support locally, it has led to sharp criticism from many international human rights groups. They note that it goes against a United Nations convention, which sets the minimum age to work at 14.

But the Bolivian government and supporters of the legislation say that the law guarantees legal protections and fair wages for children, who have been working regardless of laws against it. The fact is, many families in Bolivia are very poor. And the Bolivian government argued that child labour is, in fact, a complex issue. It will not disappear by simply making it illegal. In fact, in many cases, around the world, if children don’t work, their families can’t afford to eat.

So until the wider issues are addressed, it may be better to ensure better working conditions for all those in employment, and lift the threat of taking legal action against the families of working children. Yet the law remains contentious.

The Reality

Child worker in Hainan, China. Image: Wikicommons

A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Labor reported that despite its illegality, more than 20 percent of Bolivians between the ages of 7 and 14 are in work. However, a  U.N. agency reported a figure nearly three times that high in 2008.

Unfortunately, both reports note that Bolivian children work in some of the country’s most dangerous working conditions, such as mining. The new Bolivian law prohibits minors from working in such hazardous fields. Anywhere there is a real threat to human health and safety, children are banned from working. The law instead aims to put them into safer, gentler areas. Like retail and fashion creation.

But it’s not just Bolivian kids who are working. In most developing countries, children area expected to do labor. This could be on the family farm, in the family shop or at the local factory, making products.

Cultures and circumstances vary globally. Formal education is considered a low priority when compared to bringing in income for the family. In some countries where war and disease have taken the adults, with a lack of state welfare and other relatives to care for them, older siblings are often charged with working to pay for not only their own survival, but the survival of their younger brothers and sisters too.

Depravity – Or Survival?

palestinian child selling bread

However, in the vast majority of discussions on the topic of child labour, the term is used as an indicator of depravity. As if the concept of any child working at all is inherently evil. In fact, UNICEF states that “Child labour reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty, undermines national economies and impedes achieving progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.”
Child labour does indeed contribute to all of these things. But rather than a cause of poverty and poor economic development, it is more likely a result of these. And these problems are difficult to solve.
Almost twenty years ago,  The New Internationalist Magazine reported on the International Labour Organisation‘s (ILO) plans to produce a new Convention on Hazardous Child Labour. To help prepare this agreement, a Conference on Child Labour was held in Amsterdam in February 1997.

A Conference For The Kids

Attendees included government ministers, company heads, trade union leaders, NGOs and teenaged delegates from working children’s organisations form Central and South America, Asia and West Africa.
The aims of the conference were:
  • to decide which kinds of child labour are the worst
  • to understand why children work in these jobs
  • to look for ways to stop children from doing these jobs.

The adults put forth the arguments that child labour could be a terrible thing. So there should thus be programmes in place to allow children to live ‘normal’ lives, and that all work for children under 15 should be illegal.

However, to the shock of almost all adults present, the kids strongly disagreed.

They argued that the definition of a ‘normal’ childhood is highly subjective and culturally sensitive. Everyone agreed that there must be a definite date for stopping the worst kinds of child labour. But many child delegates thought it was important to do more than that.

For example, many of the adult delegates thought that:
  • there should be programmes to help the children have ‘normal lives’
  • all young children should go to school and have a good quality education
  • families should try to earn more money
  • all work for children under the age of fifteen should be banned.

One person who agreed with a complete ban on child labour was a delegate from an international garment workers’ organisation. He said: “Nearly all child labour is intolerable and nearly all is criminal. If it is not banned, “future generations of working children will never forgive us.”

Children Speak Out

how bad is child labor

However, the child delegates couldn’t have disagreed more strongly.

They argued that the adults who were most passionately against child labour were those whose livelihoods were threatened by the children taking their jobs. None of the children claimed to be working out of choice. All did so out of sheer necessity and survival. Yet they felt their very livelihoods were constantly under threat by Western NGOs, governments and competing adult workers.

The children argued that trade union delegates, for example, aimed to protect only the jobs of adult workers. Unions are clearly threatened by child employment. Therefore, it was not surprising to the young delegates that trade unions wanted all child labour to be banned.

If we truly want to help child labourers, the young delegates said:
  • the most gruelling kinds of child labour should be stopped
  • there should NOT be a ban on all work for children
  • the real problem is that many people are very poor, and as long as families are very poor, children must be allowed to work
  • while long term solutions to poverty were preferable, the immediate problem for working children is bad working conditions.

Lakshmi Basrur was the delegate from a working children’s organisation in India. She explained:

“It is no use to offer us quality education if you will not allow us to work. Our families cannot survive if we do not work. The day should come when children will not need to work. Until then, they should be able to have dignified work and good quality but appropriate education, as well as time for leisure.”

Lakshmi also said that before any kind of work was banned, it was important to ask the opinion of the children themselves. If you stop children from working in certain jobs – even very bad jobs – their only choice could be something worse, like turning to theft or prostitution.

Indeed, it’s been well documented that after the thriving garment industry in Bangladesh was boycotted by several countries, ostensibly for using child labour, most of the children who were forced out of the factories where they worked sewing and embroidering were forced into the streets, begging, stealing or working as prostitutes.

Green Colonialism

UNICEF concluded in a report called What Works for Working Children” that for kids in the Bangladeshi garment industry, working in clothing factories was “less hazardous, more financially lucrative, and with more prospects for advancement than almost all other forms of employment open to children.”

That’s all fine and well, but it directly contradicts what the UN generally says about child labour. So which one is it?

As for Western campaigns to stop child labor, UNICEF added that boycotts “run into the problem of not being able to distinguish between good and bad working situations for children.” They noted that such bans were often used not out of concern for child welfare, but as an excuse for protectionist import bans. And yes, it turns out was indeed the case behind the Bangladeshi boycott.

In fact, in rural areas of most impoverished nations, many children work. On farms, as street vendors, rag & bone collectors, or garment workers.

When these activities aren’t incorporated into (or threaten) Western trade, we tend to turn a blind eye, or accept this as ‘normal’ within the cultural context.

In short, NGOs and do-gooders might think that by labelling child labour as bad and banning companies that use it, they’re helping children. But in fact, they’re not only harming children, but they’re engaging in a kind of green colonialism that protects Western industries over those in developing nations.

What Working Children Want

All the child worker delegates at the Conference on Child Labour spoke in support of the ten proposals for better lives for working children. These were previously  agreed at the first International Conference of Working Children in India way back in 1996, but were not officially implemented.

The fact that all of the child workers at the conference represented various organisations of working children made it clear that around the globe, child workers are highly aware and active, fighting not for the right to a school-based education, as Westerners would demand, but for a better working life.

In fact, Lakshmi’s movement now has branches five village authorities in her part of India. And The National Movement of Organised Working Children in Peru has written its own curriculum for working children. This is being used in various government schools today. And the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls in Brazil is taking part in establishing the legal rights of working children in Brazil.

The issue of child labour is no doubt a complicated one. But it begs certain questions.

For example, to which extent should children’s voices be heard and considered? What constitutes ‘a normal childhood’? And by banning child labor, are we just protecting Western industries?

Maybe those who can best answer some of these questions are the children themselves.

This article has been updated and was originally published in 2016

Diane Small

4 thoughts on “Is Child Labour Really That Bad?”

  1. Fantastic article. For millennia, education was a luxury. Now it is being demanded as a right. It is the bar that we set civilization against; that somehow those who cannot or do not meet it are either ignorant or pitifully poor. But the kind of childhood that results within nations that are able to provide free education to all children has proven to create unmanageable laziness (entitlement) and a lack of mature, developmental stimulation and growth. Hence, entitlement has taken over, and when expected endowment isn’t delivered, total chaos erupts. Our expectations have inflated to a point of being undeliverable for everyone. Our children lay around all summer not only wasting their minds, but also forgetting their lessons. Education is important, but it has also shown a flashlight in our eyes effectively light blinding us. We are illuminated but cannot see the shadows and their utility.
    NGOs infest nations in hardship. Companies flood these tiny, foreign markets with their products which are cheaper to buy, killing the business of local entrepreneurs, eroding local customs and traditions, food, and items. Countries who are the most poor are steeped most deeply in their oldest cultural traditions. As these countries “develop” and become “educated”, these customs and traditions are no longer lived and celebrated in the same way. The UN and the organizations they’ve tied themselves to effectively whitewash these impoverished countries in goods and services they have never had. And while there is some benefit to have “better” or maybe “more”, it tends to erode the inclination to work hard as time passes and their burdens become lighter. They fall within the mold that all other Westernized states have fallen into, making it easy to market to them and manipulate them. Getting rid of child labor is one more way to introduce these mega corporations who can “lighten” their burden. Commerce wins, man loses.
    For millennia, children have worked alongside their family to sow and harvest, hunt and skin, forage and build, labor and create, and yes sometimes die. Death and hardship are facts that we so desperately want to turn upside down. When in fact, difficulty, hardship, and death of those we love mold and shape us, especially at a young age. When we are shielded from these truths, we grow unable to adapt and cope with their existence. We imagine a world with curved edges and soft landings, and then we call them rights. This is not the world we were born into. This is not the world we live in. As a Westerner myself, I will not say I am not happy to have received an education or that my childhood was so happy and carefree. I am blessed. But I can also be honest with myself and admit that I was not prepared for the realities of becoming a responsible adult. And I do wish that all people could experience the same. But until that era when we eliminate the factors that force children into work (which will never happen in our lifetime) it is important to allow humans to do what they have always done to survive. And while evil has its day, it is my belief that righteousness will overcome.

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