Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Empower and protect, rather than prohibit: a better approach to child work

Child labour isn’t going anywhere, so children’s safety in work must become the priority

Edward van Daalen Mohammed Al-Rozzi
11 October 2021, 9.35am

2021 is the UN International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, but that is not going to happen. Not this year, not by 2025 as stipulated by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and probably not ever. There are simply too many children in this world with compelling reasons to work for that to be, or to have ever been, a reasonable goal. Bans on child labour may reduce numbers in some areas or push child workers deeper into the shadows in others. But they cannot eliminate them from the world once and for all.

But if bans don’t work, what does? And if elimination cannot be the goal, what should be? As the guest editors of the special feature now rolling out on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, we submit the motto of ‘empower and protect, rather than prohibit’ as a better approach to child work. To understand what this might mean in practice, we’ve asked our contributors – researchers, practitioners, NGO staff, and working children from around the world – to first tell us what we can learn from the strategies, initiatives, programmes and frameworks currently being used to mitigate the hardship many working children experience. We’ve then asked them to explore ways that practitioners and policymakers might build on these lessons to structurally help working children improve their lives.

What do we mean when we say child labour?

But first, we need to make clear what we talk about when we talk about child labour.

‘Child labour’ is generally portrayed as one of the few remaining ‘social evils’ that continues to haunt the world, and in particular the Global South. Type the two words into any online search engine and an array of very young, Brown and Black children working in dangerous and denigrating places, such as mines, brick kilns and garbage dumps, meets the eye.

Over the last three decades, international organisations like the International Labour Organization (ILO), UNICEF and the Global March Against Child Labour have carefully cultivated, mainstreamed, and transformed this one-dimensional narrative into support for the ‘total abolition’ of child labour. However, what legally and empirically lies behind the catch-all concept of ‘child labour’ is much more complex and nuanced than this narrow and sensationalist representation suggests.

The vast majority of working children combine work and school.

Following the ILO’s Minimum Age Convention, which sets the international standards on child labour that ratifying countries must follow, what is generally prohibited is:

  • any form of work done by children under the age of 12

  • any form of work done by children of 12 and 13 years that is not considered ‘light work’, or which interferes with schooling

  • unprotected hazardous work done by children under the age of 18 years

Said otherwise, in most cases the ILO allows children to enter into full-time, non-hazardous work the day they turn 14. And so the elimination of child labour certainly does not mean all work done by children. At the same time, an 11-year-old child who helps their family for an hour per week, be it on the farm on at the market, has already done enough work for the ILO to include them among the 160 million children it estimated to be in child labour at the start of 2020. These legal categorisations of what is and what is not considered ‘child labour’ can often feel counterintuitive and out-of-sync with one’s own assumptions and experiences. That cognitive stumble should be enough to make people realise that, even legally speaking, child labour isn’t as straightforward as one might think.

The nuances multiply rapidly when we start to dig into research on the empirical realities of children’s experience in work. A wealth of data from numerous researchers and practitioners shows that the international campaign against child labour has been built on a number of inaccurate assumptions, in large part because they ignore the heterogeneous experiences of working children and turn a blind eye to individual context.

One of the primary assumptions of this campaign is that work and education are mutually exclusive. Some abolitionists even go as far as to claim that a child who is not enrolled in school is de facto in child labour. However, even the ILO’s own figures on child labour refute this trope by showing that the vast majority of working children combine work and school. It is also widely acknowledged that work itself holds educational potential, and child advocates have argued repeatedly that formal enrolment in school is not a sufficient metric for capturing where, what, or how much children learn.

Another assumption is that work is intrinsically harmful to children’s health and morale. While some children certainly work under harmful conditions and steps should be taken to minimise this, the ILO’s global estimates suggest that most work done by children is not hazardous. And non-hazardous work can have beneficial effects on children’s psychological and professional development. Take, for example, Fadi, 14-year-old boy whom one of the authors of this piece met in Rafah, Palestine several years ago. He worked as an assistant to a mechanic in a workshop after school. He was doing this work as a form of apprenticeship, and he was paid only what was sufficient to cover his daily expenses. After completing his school education, at the age of 17, Fadi used his work experience to get job as a lead mechanic in another workshop. Fadi’s job today is essential for the survival of his family.

Prohibiting children from working can exacerbate their already precarious situations and those of their families and communities.

A third commonly held assumption is that children undertake work against their will. As with harmful working conditions this, in some cases, certainly happens. But by and large, working children have told researchers that they are there for a variety of legitimate reasons, be it economic, cultural, social or emotional. They have furthermore told them in no uncertain terms that they have a voice, and they want to participate in research, policy and law-making that affects them. Those are not the demands of ‘slaves’, but of citizens who have rights and wish to exercise them.

It is irresponsible to ignore these realities in order to pursue the unrealistic goal of eliminating all forms of child labour. It is also dangerous, as research has shown that prohibiting children from working can exacerbate their already precarious situations and those of their families and communities. Instead, interventions and campaigns should be evidence-based, locally adapted, informed by working children’s own experiences, and should consider well-being holistically. This means that they must attend to the overall well-being and development of the children – physical, mental, social and spiritual – as stipulated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (articles 17, 23, 27, 32).

The special feature

How can we best to support the protection and empowerment of children in the face of a hegemonic discourse against children’s work? To engage with this question, we have invited a myriad of researchers, NGO workers, former and current working children, and representatives of working children’s movements from all regions of the world to reflect on their journeys, insights, and experiences.

The contributions that will be published in the following weeks address a wide range of issues at the centre of the debate on children, work, and education. The objective of this collection is to start an inclusive conversation on how best to support children in realising their aspirations. We hope that these articles contribute to the many debates on children’s work that are happening at different levels around the world. They contain a wealth of ideas on how to think about and engage with child workers differently, and if they are engaged with in good faith then readers just might find themselves on a path to taking both the beneficial and the damaging effects of child work seriously. Working children will thank you for it.

Explore the series

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