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Time to take working children seriously

On the occasion of the IV Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour, it is time to listen to working children on what works for them – and what doesn’t.

Child working leather. Alexander Montuschi/Flickr. CC (by-nc)

From November 14 to 16 November 2017, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is holding its fourth Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour in Buenos Aires, Argentina. At this event, a high-level panel will discuss changes that will define the criteria for acceptable future working conditions for children. For child rights activists and all other actors with an interest in the welfare of working children, this is an opportune moment to take stock of global efforts to abolish child labour.

The choice of South America as regional venue for this year’s conference is symbolic. Not only because this region hosted the previous meeting, but also because, in 2014, Bolivia, Argentina’s neighbour to the north, amended its laws to provide an exception for allowing children aged 10 years and older to carry out independent work and other income-earning activities. Two important observations can be made of this amendment.

First, it is a serious repudiation of the ILO’s long-held position, enshrined in the controversial Minimum Age Convention, that only children aged 14 and over should be permitted formal employment or work. Second, this paradigmatic shift would not have occurred without intense lobbying by the Bolivian Union of Child and Adolescent Workers (UNATSBO), an organised group of working children and youth in the country.

The instrumentality of UNATSBO in the Bolivian case and the rising prominence of working children and youth associations over the world in the last decade increasingly raises questions about the ILO’s approach to child labour and to working children. In Bolivia and elsewhere, working children and their advocates have long argued that their work is not the problem per se. Rather, the issue is that they are not offered the same protections as adults who have taken up the same work in pursuit of various goals or in response to their socio-economic hardships.

Working children and their advocates have long argued that their work per se is not the problem, but that they are not offered the same protections as adults.

Others have highlighted the Eurocentric and paternalistic ideals inherent in the ILO’s persistent reference to calendar age as the overarching criteria for determining the permissibility of children and young people’s involvement in work. These reflect a persistent failure by United Nations (UN) agencies such as the ILO to consider the social, cultural and economic circumstances in which children labour, and how these can serve as a conduit for promoting safer or more meaningful alternatives to hazardous work.

Underpinning all of this is the issue of accountability, or rather, the lack of accountability in the child rights regime. The ILO asserts that its child labour conventions and related campaigns are for working children’s benefit. Conferences such as the ongoing one in Argentina are also portrayed as being in the interest of working children.

Paradoxically, working children themselves are not invited to participate in these deliberations or in other efforts to develop new policies and changes that will define the criteria for acceptable future working conditions for them. Their specific and in some cases more informed knowledge about the lived experiences of being a young worker remain largely untapped because of their exclusion from these debates and meetings.

Such disregard and lack of accountability to working children, their families and their communities has been a persistent feature of the ILO’s child labour abolitionism efforts. Organised groups of children and youth such as UNATSBO present a great opportunity for policy-makers to meaningfully and respectfully engage with young workers, as per Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It is an opportunity which has thus far been spurned, to the detriment of all involved, for the ILO has missed out on critical feedback for improving services and designing more realistic and feasible interventions.

The ILO has missed out on critical feedback for improving services and designing more realistic and feasible interventions.

There is no sign yet that working children are going to be given a seat around the table during deliberations on the ILO’s recently launched Alliance 8.7, a global partnership designed to align the efforts of those working towards the achievement of Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to abolish the worst forms of work, including child work. Who, then, does the ILO represent, given that working children are now seeking to speak for themselves in light of their continued marginalisation and exclusion from the making of important decisions about their lives?

There is clearly a legitimacy issue at stake, which the ILO ought to consider during the Argentina gathering. In order to help it do so, we feature here a collection of pieces drawn from a group of around 300 children, adolescents, academics, NGOs, governmental representatives, and others prevented from attending the Global Conference. These gathered in La Paz, Bolivia, in October 2017, from Latin America, Europe and West Africa, to discuss the policies of the ILO and the Bolivian government. You can read their words on these pages. What they call for is no more than recognition and respect.

More on child labour and the ILO

Ignoring the benefits of children’s work
MICHAEL BOURDILLION
Bizarre bureaucratic dysfunction in child labour
WILLIAM MYERS
Open Letter: complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
The Secretariat of the Movement of Latin American and Caribbean Working Children and Adolescents
The La Paz Declaration
La Paz Foundation
The globalisation of dignity
Peter Strack and Manfred Liebel

En Español

Reclamo al Comité de los Derechos del Niño y la Niña
The Secretariat of the Movement of Latin American and Caribbean Working Children and Adolescents
Declaratoria La Paz
La Paz Foundation
Organizaciones de trabajadores infantiles y adolescentes reclaman su derecho a ser reconocidos
MOVIMIENTO LATINOAMERICANO Y DEL CARIBE DE NIÑOS/AS Y ADOLESCENTES TRABAJADORES
Los menores de edad que trabajan en el trafico de migrantes: la historia detras de los "Menores de Circuito" en Mexico
ANA LILIA GALVÁN TOVÍAS, FERNANDO LOERA, CARLOS ZAVALA, and GABRIELLA SANCHEZ
About the author

Sam Okyere is a lecturer in Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He is primarily interested in sociological, anthropological and policy analysis of childhood, child rights, human rights, social justice, (in)equality, globalisation, migration, racism and identity.

Read On
Time to take working children seriously
SAM OKYERE
Open Letter: complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
THE SECRETARIAT OF THE MOVEMENT OF LATIN AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN WORKING CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
The La Paz Declaration
LA PAZ FOUNDATION
The globalisation of dignity
PETER STRACK AND MANFRED LIEBEL
Bizarre bureaucratic dysfunction in child labour
WILLIAM MYERS
Ignoring the benefits of children’s work
MICHAEL BOURDILLION

En Español

Reclamo al Comité de los Derechos del Niño y la Niña
THE SECRETARIAT OF THE MOVEMENT OF LATIN AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN WORKING CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS
Declaratoria La Paz
LA PAZ FOUNDATION
Organizaciones de trabajadores infantiles y adolescentes reclaman su derecho a ser reconocidos
MOVIMIENTO LATINOAMERICANO Y DEL CARIBE DE NIÑOS/AS Y ADOLESCENTES TRABAJADORES
Los menores de edad que trabajan en el trafico de migrantes: la historia detras de los "Menores de Circuito" en Mexico
ANA LILIA GALVÁN TOVÍAS, FERNANDO LOERA, CARLOS ZAVALA, AND GABRIELLA SANCHEZ

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