Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Time to recognise the rights of child workers

Child workers have many, at times conflicting rights. Practitioners seeking to intervene must honour them all

Olivia Lecoufle
8 November 2021, 9.43am
Selling chickens in Kathmandu, Nepal
Rainer Krack/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Action’ is the buzzword for the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. But which actions bring progress and improve the lives of children who work? Which actually make things worse? These questions are intensely debated in both academic and policy spaces, and positions range from supporting the abolition of ‘child labour’ to fostering ‘child work’. I have engaged with grassroots organisations for over 15 years as well as worked with a large international child rights NGO. In this time I have come to the conclusion that we must look at children’s work from a rights perspective if we really want to design programmes that work for working children.

What does this mean in practice? To start, it means acknowledging that child work is an activity that is already strongly enshrined in a rights framework administered by the United Nations and the International Labour Organization. Its main building blocks are, in chronological order, the ILO Minimum Age Convention (1973), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999). This rights-based framework is important, but it is not internally harmonious. Tensions arise in interpretation and application whenever all three conventions are considered together.

For example, the protective rights and the participatory rights found in these documents often come into conflict whenever working children enter the conversation. The two ILO conventions focus on protection and emphasise rights like the right to not experience violence and exploitation. The UN convention, meanwhile, details children’s rights to participation, to education, and to having their indigenous and traditional practices protected. These don’t necessarily have to conflict, but in practice the socio-economic circumstances of most working children and the regulatory landscapes of most countries make it impossible for all of these rights to be simultaneously realised.

To truly uphold children’s rights, a response to the issue of child labour cannot prioritise one sets of rights over another.

Many children have to work in order to afford school as they live in unequal societies that do not guarantee free quality education. Moreover, many societies traditionally include children in work from a young age as part of their upbringing, as a key means of imparting cultural values and essential knowledge and skills (such as agricultural ones), and plenty of young people choose to participate in economic life. However, children often cannot find work that does not involve exploitation of some kind. Or their work, regardless of what it is, is considered illegal because of their age. So the question of which parts of the framework get prioritised has a direct impact on the selection of rights working children experience as real.

The current push by the ILO to eliminate all forms of child labour globally is broadly in line with the priorities of its own conventions, but it’s important to recognise that this comes at the expense of other recognised children’s rights. This is highly problematic considering that human rights are indivisible and interdependent, which means that each and every right is equally important and cannot be fully enjoyed in separation from the others. In other words, to truly uphold children’s rights, a response to the issue of child labour cannot prioritise one sets of rights over another.

While it is worth remembering that rights themselves remain the representation of the power (im)balances of a time, and as such should be continuously re-evaluated, I still believe that the rights’ framework can lead us to progress for working children. With all its flaws, this is the framework we have to work with. It has solidified over years. The ILO has dedicated significant resources to getting its conventions widely ratified and the UN convention has, by this point, been ratified by every country save the USA. As practitioners in this field, we work within the authority of this dominant but problematic framework. So what should our programming look like?

A child rights approach to programming around child work

One proposition that I support is to apply a solid child rights analysis in all programmes and responses directed at protecting working children. This implies an understanding of work within a two-dimensional continuum of realisation of rights (benefits) and violation of rights (harms).

Lecoufle image.jpg
Visual aid by author

In practice this requires stakeholders to conduct a Child Rights Assessment (CRA) to see how each right contained in the UN convention (life, education, play, health, participation, association, respect of Indigenous culture, and so on) is fulfilled or violated by the particular work being targeted for intervention. A CRA enables us to tailor a response that will address violations while enhancing the potential benefits of that work, rather than simply trying to ban it because we see problems. The intervention itself must also be continually assessed to measure impact and ensure accountability to children.

In order to be relevant, the assessment must account for children’s lived experiences by ensuring that the voices of working children are included – both girls and boys in all their diversities. The Time to Talk project is a good place to turn to for help here. It has experience in supporting working children, and has developed useful tools to aid practitioners in understanding and evaluating their situation as workers. A good CRA must also involve all other relevant stakeholders in the target communities: parents, local civil society organisations, businesses (big and small), public and private services providers, and government officials (local and national). Once data gathering is complete, it needs to be evaluated at both the national and local levels in order to identify both shared systemic violations and the nuances of local contexts.

Ideally, this consultative process would be further supported by a nationally integrated system, whereby the government (the primary duty bearer) ensures that all relevant services for children have effective coordination mechanisms across sectors (education, protection, health, employment, leisure and sport) to support a child-centred, holistic response. Unfortunately, such mechanisms are often lacking and, in general, there is little accountability at the national level to deliver on children’s rights.

The partiality of good intentions

Child labour programming to date has been really good at demonstrating rights violations within work. Some of these violations are: being a barrier to formal education; violence and exploitation, including sexual exploitation; lack of time for play and leisure; and harmful working conditions negatively impacting the health of the child. These same programmes have not, however, shown nearly as much interest in understanding the good that might come out of this same work. Serious attempts to analyse the evidence on the benefits of child work – and indeed, to build up an evidence base around this at all – is lacking. This must change.

Organised working children have repeatedly expressed how unfair it is to target them as if they were the problem, rather than the inequalities at the root of their conditions.

Programmes also remain shockingly unaccountable to working children. There are many examples of past interventions that led to working children being pushed into worse situations. Today we are still witnessing interventions that attack children’s right to dignity when campaigns and programmes employ language that stigmatises and/or criminalises them. The negative impacts of stigmatisation during childhood, particularly in the context of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) children, have been widely documented, and the effects on their mental, spiritual, moral, and social development can be dramatic. Organised working children have repeatedly expressed how unfair it is to target them as if they were the problem, rather than the inequalities at the root of their conditions. Yet, programmes that explicitly or inadvertently encourage stigmatisation of child workers have never been brought to account for doing so.

Denying children their right to participation is another shortcoming of mainstream responses to child labour. There is an urgent need to embrace the political and civic rights of children: from the design of local programmes to providing the space for children to meaningfully contribute to public policy on all child-related policies, including regarding child labour.

For these and many other reasons, the core of child rights analysis must be a comprehensive monitoring, evaluation, accountability and learning framework that measures children’s well-being as a whole. The goal must be to capture the realisation of all their rights rather than cherry-picking a few with a one-sided analysis.

Change is possible

Addressing child work through a true, rights-based perspective requires a shift. Those who are responsible for “actions to eliminate child labour” – governments, international organisations (particularly ILO and UNICEF), and civil society (particularly INGOs) – must begin to recognise children as active subjects of rights rather than as solely objects of protection. Understanding children’s active role in building resilient communities, including through their work, is a key part of that shift.

So too is recognising the damage that can be (and has been) done in the name of ‘protection’. As the proverb says, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Without emancipation and agency, terrible crimes can be committed using the language of protection.

Changing attitudes with regard to working children is especially pertinent now, as the development community reflects on the broader shockwave provoked by Black Lives Matter on anti-racism and decolonisation as well as on the application of the Grand Bargain and its localisation agenda (a strategy in humanitarian and development circles that puts local knowledge and capacities at the forefront in interventions and hence transfers resources and power to local actors). Now, more than ever, there are no excuses to deny children their social and political rights, or to deliver action without accountability to their well-being. The International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour should be a year for thinking about how to effectively and meaningfully uphold children’s rights rather than for rallying behind harmful slogans. We, collectively and individually, have a responsibility to make this change.

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