Today is the World Day Against Child Labour. It is the most visible point of a largely unseen political and institutional consensus, one which pushes governments, NGOs, and international agencies to invest hundreds of millions of pounds annually in support of policies and projects to end ‘child labour’. We contend that this money often does more harm than good.
The drive to ‘do something’ about child labour has only increased in urgency with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and with the release of reports suggesting that children may suffer the brunt of the fallout more deeply. We agree with the ILO that coronavirus will undoubtedly impact child workers. But in order to ensure that its negative effects are mitigated rather than exacerbated by policy, we feel compelled to highlight the significant body of evidence showing that there are major problems with orthodox thinking around children’s work.
The dominant approach involves preventing children from working in sectors deemed unacceptable and removing them from sectors where prevention has failed. Implicit here is the concept of ‘harm’ and the idea that certain kinds of work are inherently harmful for children. Yet researchers from all continents as well as movements of working children themselves argue that this approach fails. At times it even harms the young people it is supposed to be serving.
What do they mean by this? What actually is harm?
Challenging the dominant narrative on child labour and ‘harm’
The International Labour Organisation defines child labour as work that is mentally, physically, socially, or morally harmful to children. It views ‘hazards’ as anything with the potential to do harm and ‘risks’ as the likelihood of potential harm arising from a given hazard. But for all the extensive lists developed to identify hazards and risks, nowhere has the institution actually defined harm. The ILO’s definition of hazardous child labour as “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” is imprecise and subject to interpretation through different lenses.
Ultimately, as with most human rights, the boundaries of hazards and harm tend to be delineated by those in positions of institutional power. Their understanding of these terms is particular to themselves, yet they assume their understanding is universal. This is a problematic, exclusive, and unscientific basis on which to build policy.
By contrast, anthropological and sociological research into child work has repeatedly found that removing children from work that is difficult, dangerous and at times even damaging is often not in their best interests. This is because, as working children themselves argue, it prevents them from accessing the resources they and their families need to get by. It also overrides their autonomy and interrupts their social development.
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