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What’s wrong with the World Day Against Child Labour?

Working children everywhere reject the mainstream anti-child labour paradigm. A major new video campaign tells us why.

A child labourer works at a small metal shop in Nepal. Pradip Shakya for ILO/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Yesterday, 12 June, was the ‘World Day Against Child Labour’ – the annual jamboree put on by the major international child saving institutions. These include the United Nation’s Children’s Agency (UNICEF), the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), a collection of wealthy western donor bodies, transnational corporations, and a plethora of religious, liberal and otherwise establishment-defending NGOs.

‘That’s nice’, you might think. ‘We can all get on board with the current fight against child labour, can’t we’? Well actually no, we can’t. In part because mainstream anti-child labour campaigns are narrow, ethnocentric and very particular. And in part because they frequently end up making life worse for the very children they’re supposed to be helping.

Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail

This is for a number of reasons. First, mainstream anti-child labour campaigns typically advocate blanket bans on children’s work. This means that they equate all work with its worst forms. As a result, they seek to remove children (even forcibly) from contexts that may, for a variety of reasons, actually be very good for them. Second, mainstream campaigns pay little heed to the wishes or views of children themselves. And third, they almost always de-politicise the structural context that has led children to work in the first place.

Worse still, they do this in spite of a truly staggering amount of empirical research that has been done by academics and activists to document the damaging effects of these campaigns. All over the world – and for decades – scholars, civil society organisations, people who work with working children, and working children themselves have urged the anti-child labour establishment to do things differently. ‘Let go of your assumptions’, they say. ‘Talk to us first before you intervene in our lives’. But all to no avail.

This is why today, ‘the day after the world day against child labour’, Beyond Trafficking and Slavery is partnering with Concerned for Working Children and the Latin American Working Children’s Movement to release two videos denouncing mainstream approaches to ‘abolish child labour’. The former, Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail, sits near the top of this page and is a tremendously powerful, first-hand, real-life account of just how damaging anti-child labour efforts can be to the children swept up in them. Fathima was a 14-year-old factory worker contributing meaningfully to her family and to her own advancement when well-meaning foreigners intervened to ensure that she was ‘protected’ from the job that had been changing her life. She ended up worse than she was before.

The latter video, embedded above, echoes Fathima’s perspectives. It has been produced by working children in order to ask those who want to help them to first ask them what help they need. ‘No to the abolition of child work’, they say, ‘yes to laws that protect us’. Here’s hoping that the powers that be will listen.


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