Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Can campaigns to stop child labour be stopped?

Working children’s organisations have had limited success in challenging dominant abolitionist perspectives on child labour. Working children’s realities and conceptions of rights need to be taken more seriously in international debates.

Edward van Daalen Karl Hanson
26 February 2016
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Tamil Nadu, India. Mat McDermott/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Organisations of working children have been active in Latin America since the late 1970s and in Africa and Asia since the late 1980s. These grassroots organisations provide support to their members by offering training and leisure activities, mutual assistance, and networking opportunities. They also communicate their members’ demands to local authorities in order to improve working children’s living conditions. The African Movement of Working Children and Youth, for instance, cites the acquisition of a classroom for literacy classes, lowered health costs at a local clinic, and settlements with the police so that street vendors can work in security as concrete results of their lobbying activities at the local level. In India, working children united in Bhima Sangha, a union of working children, were instrumental in setting up the first local children’s councils in the state of Karnataka.

In some countries working children’s organisations also engage in collective political action at the national level. These advocacy efforts are often directed at changing existing or newly proposed child labour policies and legislation, which almost exclusively focus on the prohibition of child work. Such protest and lobbying activities have met with some success at the national level, particularly in Bolivia. The Code for Children and Adolescents (2014), which has been drafted with direct input from the Bolivian Union of Working Children and Adolescents (UNATSBO), contains provisions that protect working children from exploitation and the abuse of power while at the same time enabling them to work under ‘decent conditions’.

As such, working children’s organisations take a dissenting position in the child labour debate, fighting an uphill battle against the dominant, abolitionist approach endorsed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), many large development organisations, and international NGOs. The mainstream abolitionist approach is backed by international legislation on child labour, in particular ILO Convention no. 138 on the Minimum Age (1973) and ILO Convention no. 182 on the Worst form of Child Labour (1999). Respectively, these aim to prohibit child labour under certain minimum ages and immediately abolish the ‘worst forms’ of child labour.

From such a perspective, children’s fundamental human right in relation to work is framed as ‘the right to be free from child labour’ as opposed to the ‘right to work in dignity’. Many organisations of working children, especially those based in Latin America, see the latter as the better option. They believe that, under the current socio-economic circumstances, children should have the right to choose whether they want to work (or work and study). If they choose work the government should take the necessary measures to ensure that the work and the working conditions are dignified.

Working children’s organisations in Latin America, Africa and Asia have, on multiple occasions, attempted to form a world movement of working children’s organisations. A global network, they hope, would give them the power to challenge the ILO’s dominant perspective. The peak of this international cooperation took place in the 1990s, when working children representing their organisations actively participated in the conferences that gave birth to the ILO Convention no. 182 on the Worst forms of Child Labour (1999). Yet despite these relative success stories a sustainable global movement of working children never took shape.

Working children have had more success in the creation of regional bodies to represent their interests. The African Movement of Working Children and Youth has a permanent office in Dakar, and all Latin American organisations are united in a Latin American Movement of Working Children (MOLACNATS), which holds annual international meetings. Representatives of MOLCANATS were recently present at the ILO’s 2015 International Labour Conference in Geneva. They succeeded in having a meeting with ILO staff to discuss their own approach to child labour. Notably, the ILO decided to make no mention of the meeting and those who had attended were told that none of the statements made by the staff could be ascribed to the ILO itself.

On the last day of that same conference in Geneva, during the ‘high level panel discussion on child labour’ the ILO launched their 50 for Freedom campaign against modern slavery. This campaign aims at promoting ratification and implementation by at least 50 states of the 2014 Protocol to the 1930 Forced Labour Convention (No. 29). The purpose of the protocol is to “take a more comprehensive approach to forced labour by focusing on prevention, protection and remedy”. Whereas the discussion between working children and ILO staff went unnoticed, the ILO gave a prominent place to Kailash Satyarthi, a longstanding anti-child labour campaigner and Nobel peace prize laureate, at the official launch of this campaign. Although neither the protocol nor the original convention have any child specific provisions, the ILO deemed it comprehensive enough to be presented as the new international legal instrument to combat child labour.

This story illustrates particularly well that, although working children’s organisations have conveyed their positions repeatedly and with fervour to larger entities, their claim to a ‘right to work in dignity’ has never managed to get past the gatekeepers to occupy a more central role on the international agenda. From a study on the priorities of international children's rights advocacy, we have learned that the discourse produced by UN entities and international NGOs pay scant attention to the positions defended by working children’s organisations. Instead, they most often speak of children as innocent victims in need of being ‘saved’ from harm. As such, the major themes of the international agenda are the specific needs and rights of children exposed to emergencies; children’s basic needs; the worst forms of child labour; and violence against children.

These findings highlight that children, notwithstanding discourses by leading child rights organisations about children as active participants and rights holders, are most often essentialised as vulnerable and innocent human beings who cannot know what is best for themselves. ‘Stop child labour’ campaigns thus do not address the local perspectives of working children, that of their families, or that of working children’s organisations. Instead, the ideologies behind the campaigns seem to be immune to the nuanced positions of concerned working children who, in fact, exercise agency by asking for a more realistic approach to the regulation of their working conditions. In doing so, they ignore the human agency that lies at the very core of the human rights framework.

Working children do not need a compassionate saviour from the outside. They need their own rights conceptions to be taken seriously. To do so would require all levels of governance, including international frameworks, to begin addressing the structural inequalities at the heart of working children’s exploitation. It is only when this happens that campaigns to stop child labour can perhaps one day be stopped.

This contribution is based on preliminary findings of an ongoing research project ‘Living rights in translation. An interdisciplinary approach of working children's rights’ which is funded by the Specialised Committee Interdisciplinary Research of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) (Project no. CR11I1_156831).


Further reading:

Hanson, K. & Nieuwenhuys, O. (2013) (Eds.) Reconceptualizing Children’s Rights in International Development. Living Rights, Social Justice, Translations, Cambridge: University Press.

Hanson, K. & Vandaele, A. (2003) Working children and international labour law: A critical analysis. The International Journal of Children's Rights 11 (1), pp. 73-146.

Poretti, M., Hanson, K., Darbellay, F. & Berchtold, A. (2014) The rise and fall of icons of 'stolen childhood' since the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Childhood 21(1), pp. 22-38.

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