Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Are adults willing to listen to children on child labour?

Working children have the right to policies informed by their views and best interests

Claire O’Kane Ornella Barros
25 October 2021, 6.00am
Boys on a building site in Dhaka, Bangladesh
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BBC World Service/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc)

Children’s work and labour is a complex and multi-faceted issue, and understanding and responding effectively to it isn’t easy. There is evidence to show that children’s work can be both a means to, and a violation of, children’s rights to survival, development, protection and participation. For many working children, positive and negative aspects co-exist. Recognising this and the diversity of children’s work is where any serious conversation on addressing this topic must begin.

Such conversations must engage thoroughly with children and caregivers to inform the design of relevant interventions. They are the key actors who know their realities best, and it is crucial for policymakers and practitioners to understand their specific socio-cultural, economic and political contexts before they act. Working children have important things to share about their motivations and reasons to work, their experiences of work (many of which are gendered), and their suggestions for services, policies and practices that would improve their lives. They must be heard.

We, as researchers heard the views of hundreds of working children’s representatives from 29 Children’s Advisory Committees (CACs) who organised their own research and advocacy initiatives in 2018 and 2019 across 18 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East. Supported by local NGOs, the CACs were part of the global project “It’s Time to Talk!” that was initiated by German NGOs Kindernothilfe and Terre des Hommes in 2016 to support meaningful participation of working children in practice and policy developments that concern them. This article draws upon the insights and lessons learned from these initiatives.

Protect us from labour exploitation, harsh conditions, and risks, and allow children to do suitable and dignified work

Many CACs called for protection from labour exploitation and harsh conditions of work. Some emphasised the need for dignified and suitable work. Children do not want to do work that is too heavy or harmful, and they do not want to work in harsh or risky conditions. They do not want to be exploited by working long hours or by being underpaid. Yet all of this frequently happens. In some countries, boys face increased risks of heavy work, and girls face increased risks of doing unpaid household work for long hours.

However, many working children emphasised that they do not want to stop all forms of work. CAC members from different regions explained that they want to do work that is suitable to their age and capacity in order to contribute to their families, to learn skills, to earn money, and to solve problems. Children described how they are proud to help their families, and they want their work to be valued. CACs that are part of organised movements in Latin America especially emphasised the value of dignified work.

Address poverty; provide decent jobs for our parents; and ensure that basic needs are met

The children participating in the CACs underlined the structural issues that deprive children of decent food, healthcare, and education. They listed household poverty and violence in schools, households, and workplaces as push factors for children to drop out of school, to engage in work, and to migrate.

In each region, children described how the lack of decent jobs for parents and caregivers in rural, remote, and urban settings prevents their caregivers from earning sufficient wages to meet their family members’ basic needs. Children discussed the need to address poverty through a multi-pronged approach that ensures access to livelihood programmes, decent housing, land rights, improved quality education, and access to clean drinking water and sanitation.

These issues have all become more acute with the Covid-19 pandemic and the confinement measures that have gone along with it. Families have experienced heightened job loss, reduced income, and food insecurity. In response, working children have amplified their call for decent livelihoods and income for family members, as well as food security schemes.

When working children’s views are ignored their rights to participation are violated, and they face increased risks of exploitation and abuse.

Prevent and protect working children from violence and discrimination

The children have emphasised the negative impact of violence, and called for an end to violence and discrimination in families, schools, communities, and workplaces. CAC members highlighted that certain groups of children face higher risks of sexual abuse, harassment, discrimination, and other forms of violence due to their gender, disability, and status as a refugee or migrant worker.

Take our education seriously and provide quality education and skill training

Many children struggle to balance work and studies, particularly when they work long hours before or after school. Some manage to combine the two, especially if their caregivers prioritise their education. And, importantly, many children work in order to continue their education.

Before Covid-19 many families were already struggling to pay tuition fees and school materials. The pandemic has adversely affected children’s access to education, and school closures have made the digital divide more evident. Many children lack access to the internet, computers or smartphones, or struggle to pay for their costs. This has further increased school dropouts.

Some CACs highlighted the importance of access to quality and relevant education and skill training. Children called for the education system to be more flexible around the diverse realities and needs of working children, rather than pushing working children to choose between attending school or keeping their work (a choice that may be driven by the need to meet their family’s basic needs). Furthermore, CAC members called for inclusive education for all children whatever their age, ability, refugee status, geographic location or family income.

Listening to children’s insights challenges pre-conceived notions of childhood and forces adult institutions to recognise the trends that perpetuate local and global inequalities.

Listen to us, understand us, and implement laws that respect our rights

CACs are advocating for their views, feelings, and suggestions to be heard, valued, and taken seriously by policy makers, practitioners, caregivers, employers, teachers, and police. When working children’s views are ignored their rights to participation are violated, and they face increased risks of exploitation and abuse. Likewise, when children can speak up individually and collectively they are more able to defend their rights.

Working children want to participate and represent themselves in decision-making processes at the family, school, local and national levels. They also want a seat at the table in regional and global policy forums that concern them. Many CACs organised interactions with local government officials and other influential stakeholders to present and discuss their priority concerns and grievances, and to advocate for improvements to service provision, policies, and budget allocations that would better respond to their needs and rights. Working children also want their associations and networks to be recognised and engaged with as partners to navigate the best way forwards.

Working children are ready to talk. Are you?

It’s Time to Talk!” is now being followed by the project “Dialogue Works”. This will run from 2020 to 2024. Its goal is to expand the spaces for dialogue among working children and duty bearers, from local to global levels, and to promote sustainable platforms for children’s participation in societal and political processes.

The complexities of children’s work and labour reveal the importance of approaching children as actors in the wider context of their families and societies. Only this will ensure a holistic, inter-sectoral response that will fulfil children’s indivisible rights. Recognising children’s agency and listening to their insights not only challenges existing pre-conceived notions of childhood, but forces powerful members of adult institutions to recognise the macro-economic trends that perpetuate local and global inequalities. Listening and responding to children’s suggestions would enhance efforts to address underlying structural issues (inequality, poverty, violence) that prevent children and their families from accessing quality education and other basic services, food security, and dignified work.

Despite 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there has been least progress in realising children’s civil rights to freedom of expression, to access information, to form associations and assemble peacefully, and to be heard in decisions that affect them. Governments, UN agencies, and civil society organisations must strengthen their strategies, plans, and budget allocations to ensure fulfilment of children’s civil rights. This necessitates:

  • capacity building and sensitisation of adults (policy makers, local officials, teachers, caregivers, etc.) to recognise children’s capacities and to listen deeply to children in order to develop, refine, and monitor practice and policy developments informed by children’s views and best interests;

  • an expansion of platforms and spaces for working children’s participation and representation in existing structures, including school governance, local governance, and policy forums on child labour, decent work, quality education, child protection and social protection.

Cultural, political, economic, and institutional barriers to children’s participation and representation must be dismantled so that working children’s views and demands have influence and weight in policy making processes.

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