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Working children: rights and wrongs

Many children improve their current and future lives through work. Programmes to protect working children should operate within the children’s interests, not ban them from their employment.

Vietnam. Tran Quoc Dung for the ILO/Flickr. Creative Commons.

Child labour can mean exploitation, long hours, harsh conditions, and little chance to develop. However, much work done by children—even some work classified as “child labour”—is not harmful and can contribute to their development.

Children instinctively imitate the activities of those around them, including paid or unpaid work that is performed in the family and community. In this manner they acquire competence and confidence, learn cultural behaviour and values, and establish their positions in their families and communities as members with both responsibilities and rights.

Growing up requires broadening relationships beyond the home. Work often provides a wider range of possibilities than school. Young people frequently cite social attractions as a reason for seeking temporary or part-time jobs. In work, they learn how to engage in relationships with employers and customers and how to share responsibility. Even street work can be educative. Experience of work in childhood and adolescence can contribute to later income and employment, especially where it involves a craft or trade. Learning on the job provides benefits that vocational institutions frequently fail to provide and can mitigate youth unemployment. So employment of children does not necessarily perpetuate poverty by hindering education.

Young people have sometimes commented that work, unlike school, gives them responsibility. In Africa key values of co-operation and social responsibility receive little attention in schools, where the only criterion for success is often academic achievement. For those with little aptitude for school, a sense of achievement must come from activities outside the classroom; sport for some, work for many. Work can offer purpose and hope to disadvantaged children. Work can also provide relief from tensions at home or school.

In poor communities, work may pay for the nutrition necessary to sustain children’s physical and cognitive development. Several studies have shown working children to be better nourished and healthier than their non-working counterparts. Even when not necessary for sustenance, work can contribute to improved quality of life, school expenses, and travel outside their communities (the last of these is often erroneously depicted as trafficking).

Children’s work assists in dealing with economic shocks such as illness of a bread-winner or crop failure. Pride of children in their work can mitigate resulting traumas and contribute to resilience. Work by children in agriculture and other family enterprises can contribute to overcoming poverty and be a sign of economic success.

Few of these benefits are age-specific. Prohibition of work at any age, therefore, may deprive children of opportunities to improve their lives in the present and of learning experience for the future. The broader the range of prohibited work, the more opportunities are lost.

 Working children often prefer jobs that offer hope for the future, even when they entail hazards. Children weigh benefits against costs. Those intervening on behalf of children need to do the same. Costs and benefits vary with context, especially the accessibility and quality of schooling, aptitudes of specific children, situations of specific families, and local job markets. Context-specific assessments are difficult and best performed locally rather than through universal standards.

Because such assessment is difficult, policies to protect children from exploitation and harmful work look for simpler criteria, frequently a minimum age for entry into employment. Many interventions claim to be about protecting children from harmful work, but in practice focus on age of employment. Such minimum-age standards have become a widespread matter of faith, notwithstanding the lack of evidence that age and employment correlate with harmful work.

Many anomalies result from the mismatch between the intention of protecting children from harmful work, and the practical criterion in intervention of age of employment. In poor communities, intervention based on minimum-age standards often focuses on formal employment (particularly in export industries), where the best jobs usually lie; it largely ignores informal and unpaid work, which can be more exploitative. Such interventions are furthermore not concerned with the working conditions of older children. Children dismissed from work on account of age rarely end up better off as a result (although children whose situation is improved in other ways often end up doing less work). On the grounds that they should not be working, support for working children is sometimes denied to vulnerable younger children who need or want to work. The contributions of children are denigrated as ‘help’ and remain unpaid for fear of the child labour stigma. In rural communities, children are involved in all kinds of work for their families, but are prohibited from undertaking benign tasks in export-oriented family plantations and lose the learning such tasks provide.

In contrast to abolishing ‘child labour’, protection programmes for working children can be sensitive to their needs and the benefits of their work. Many employers show concern for their young employees and are willing to improve working conditions to make work safe, decent, and allow for schooling. There have been many successful, flexible school programmes that cater to working children. A programme in Egypt aimed to remove children from hazardous work by finding them safer and more decent work, with some success for those over 15 (employers fearing for their European markets refused to take on younger children, some of whom consequently remained in hazardous work).

In Latin America, Asia, and Africa, young workers have been supported in forming their own organisations to defend their interests. As well as peer protection, these organisations have provided developmental benefits. Their activities are sensitive to the needs of young workers. The African Movement of Working Children and Youth, for example, tries to help young migrant workers to achieve their goals rather than insisting they return to their rural homes. The movement of working children in Bolivia persuaded the government to amend its children’s code to meet the needs of poor children instead of preventing them from earning money.

This points to a constructive way to protect children from harmful work: instead of the bad idea of stopping children from working, support working children to ensure that they benefit from the work they do.

For a more complete discussion, see Rights and Wrongs of Children’s Work.

About the author

Michael Bourdillon lives in Zimbabwe and is Professor Emeritus at the University of Zimbabwe. He has practical experience with street and working children, and has published several books and articles on children’s work.


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