Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The impact of COVID-19 on working children in Buenos Aires

The pandemic has made work for many children more important that ever.

Santiago Morales Child Rights International Network (CRIN)
17 February 2021, 7.00am
Poor citizens of Buenos Aires, Argentina, receive food while under quarantine
Federico Rotter/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

Despite many countries announcing national lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19, millions of people around the world don’t have the privilege of working from home or stopping work temporarily. In many countries, such as Argentina, where more than 35% of the population lives below the poverty line, this includes children and adolescents who work. In Argentina they describe themselves as chiques del pueblo (or working class youth). Due to their financial circumstances at home, they see themselves required to work at home or in the informal economy.

To learn more about the situation in Buenos Aires’ low-income neighbourhoods, the Child Rights International Network spoke with Santiago Morales, a sociologist and local teacher in the area. He is also a member of La Miguelito Pepe, a group of community workers advocating for the social and political rights and dignity of working children in partnership with the local, youth-led movement Asamblea REVELDE.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery has reproduced their discussion below. It has been lightly edited for clarity.

In Argentina the prohibition of child labour is effective in that it hides the children who work.

Who are the children and young people you work with?

In the city of Buenos Aires many children and adolescents do the necessary chores so that the adults in the family can work outside of the home in exchange for money. They look after their younger siblings, they take them to school and pick them up, they do the food shopping, and clean and tidy the house. They also work alongside other adults in local markets or family shops. They learn different trades alongside adults with whom they have a trusting relationship, as well as contributing to the work itself.

They can mostly be found working in local markets in socially excluded neighbourhoods. Outside these areas, children and adolescents who work aren’t visible. In our country the policy of prohibition of child labour is very effective in the sense that it manages to hide the children who do work, which has driven child exploitation underground.

Being able to adhere to lockdowns and social distancing is considered a privilege. What do you think about this and what’s the reality of those living in low-income neighbourhoods?

The problem in Argentina, and in all of Latin America, is inequality. One out of every two children in our country lives below the poverty line. Therefore the specific conditions in which quarantine can take place are very different from those in Europe.

To give you an example, there is a house near where one of the members of Asamblea REVELDE lives. Thirty-five people live in this house, which has five rooms and two bathrooms. Two blocks from there, in the same neighbourhood, there’s a group of homes that aren’t connected to the sewer system and have no running water. This is a neighbourhood that’s 20 minutes from the centre of Buenos Aires.

How can people follow basic preventative measures when their living situation suffers from overcrowding and a lack of basic hygiene? How can you ask someone to wash their hands if they don’t have running water? How can you ask someone to stay at home when they live with 35 people sharing five rooms and two bathrooms?

What risks do children and young people from low-income neighbourhoods face during this pandemic?

The main issue they face in the context of the pandemic is access to food. The majority of children from low-income neighbourhoods – that’s one out of every two children – are able to eat thanks to the adults who work in the informal economy. They live hand to mouth. They don’t have a salary, they have an income that depends on them going out to work. If they go out they have an income, and if they don’t go out they don’t have an income.

The national government has created policies to alleviate this situation by distributing packages of basic goods and financial support. But from what we can see in the neighbourhoods, it’s not enough. And if it weren’t for the solid network of organisations, NGOs, local movements and community workers that manage the delivery of food and basic goods, the situation would be exponentially worse.

The reality is that children from low-income backgrounds work whether international organisations like it or not.

Something else that’s concerning is the violence children suffer at home. They can’t call on school and community support services because everything has ground to a halt. However, children suffer violence in the home not just because of the social class they belong to. This violence mainly has to do with the patriarchal and adult-centric nature of our society, not with poverty.

In Latin America what’s understood by ‘child labour’?

The general conception of child labour suggests that it’s a form of flagrant human exploitation. And any type of economic activity that’s carried out by a child is categorised as child labour. We, with our feet on the ground in real-world Latin America, clearly see that there are different types of work. It’s not all the same.

Excepting situations of violence, abuse and exploitation, there’s a Eurocentric understanding of childhood which equates being a child with play, school, dependence, and therefore an absence of responsibility and work. In Latin America this neocolonial model is so widespread that we also view reality according to European and North American models. These are based on realities that are completely different to ours, yet they’re considered universal. That idyllic conception of childhood just doesn’t correspond to Latin American childhoods.

In particular in Buenos Aires, child labour is generally understood as equal to exploitation. They’re synonyms. But this is because of the abolitionist policies and campaigns led by the International Labour Organization. They’ve really seeped through. The child workers’ movements, in contrast, propose that we need to stop talking about child labour and instead talk about working children. Decolonising the lens through which we view Latin American childhoods is fundamental.

Do you think that the labour activities child workers carry out should be regulated, legalising child employment or at least by lowering the minimum age to work?

The social movements of child and adolescent workers demand that their work be officially sanctioned. In fact, Bolivia’s child labour law was amended thanks to the activism of the country’s child workers’ organisation, UNATSBO.

Blanket bans are not the right approach because they don’t protect children.

Honestly, I don’t know if the work should be legalised. But what I do believe is that blanket bans are not the right approach because they don’t protect children. As a first step, I think it’s important not only to stop concealing this work, but also to stop stigmatising and criminalising it. The reality is that children from low-income backgrounds work whether international organisations like it or not. And in the future many more will be working.

The argument that child labour should be abolished presumes that being a child is one specific thing. It is closed to the possibility that multiple forms of childhoods exist in Latin America. Moreover, it’s an adultist approach in the sense that it doesn’t recognise children’s capacity to be social subjects and actors in overcoming their own realities, which are, of course, the product of inequality and poverty. What should really be prohibited is overcrowding, hunger and the concentration of wealth.

You mentioned the word ‘adultist’ – what does it mean?

Adultism is linked to adultcentrism. Basically what the term adultcentrism does is recognise the existence of a system of oppression that establishes access to and denial of goods based on age. That is to say, it gives rise to inequalities in the enjoyment of rights because of age differences.

An adultcentric society not only puts adults at the centre, but also gives them the exclusive right to say what is valid, good, truthful and fair. In doing so our societies do more than deprive themselves of the contribution that new generations can make based on what they experience, feel and know about. They also exclude children from the public domain. And adultism is the concrete form of violence typical of an adultcentric society.

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