The conventional international discourse on child labour has been focusing on the elimination of child labour with ‘zero tolerance’ policies, coupled with a narrow understanding of child labour based on a minimum age threshold. This year as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, we should listen to the voices of children and their parents and look at harm to working children as well as the rights of children with a broader landscape.
The United Nations (UN) General Secretary declared 2021 to be the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. This was set for the purpose of accelerating the progress towards the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 8.7: “secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”. In line with this, an event for the launch of the international year was held on 21st January 2021. During the event, around 15 speakers from different organisations and regions in the world shared their views and called for action to eradicate child labour.
2020 was in fact a remarkable year. With the ratification of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) convention (C182) on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour by Togo in August 2020, the universal ratification of a convention by all 187 member states has been achieved. This should be celebrated not only because it was the first universal ratification in history, but also because the convention is highly valued for its differentiated focus on the ‘harm’ to child workers. However, most of the speakers in the event repeatedly made the argument for eradicating ‘all forms of child labour’. Instead, on the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, we should focus on the ‘harm’ to children at work and go beyond the mere ‘elimination of child labour’ discourse. Here is why.
Genealogy of the international discourse on child labour
Issues related to child labour have come into the discourse of ILO legal instruments since the Minimum Age (Industry) Convention (no.5) of 1919, which banned the children under the age of 14 from working in the industrial sector. After several additional conventions for other sectors in this matter, a synthesizing convention – Minimum Age Convention for admission to employment (no.138) – was adopted in 1973 which forbade any children under 18 from working in a circumstance which is “likely to jeopardize the health, safety or morals”. It was after this convention that the ILO became less pragmatic and oriented towards the “getting rid of child labour as quickly and comprehensively as possible” stance, as explained by a social researcher, Professor Manfred Liebel in an interview. Later in 1999, the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (C182) was adopted, focusing on the rights of the child and the harms at work. This adoption gave a hope to some people that there would be a shift from an age-based approach towards a comprehensive and protective one (Bourdillon, 2006). However, the current international approaches seem to focus on the definition of child labour using the minimum age and on the eradication of those under the defined threshold, but not much on the worst forms of child labour or circumstances surrounding child workers.
Is child labour necessarily bad?
Following such international discourse, child workers, researchers and others blamed ILO’s universalistic and narrow understanding of child labour, ignoring benefits that children can get from work. In fact, work is not necessarily harmful to children per se. Indeed, a work experience not only allows children to earn income which can help to cover the costs of schooling, but also provides them with educational and social benefits, such as the opportunity to acquire interactional and technical skills, sense of responsibility and achievement, cultural values, self-esteem and confidence (Bourdillon and Carothers, 2019). Moreover, in most cultures around the world, helping parents with household chores and having work experiences are considered important for children as a preparation to be an adult. This is, for instance, the case in Japan. In Japan 15 years back, I used to help my mother clean the house and dishes (don’t ask my mom if I did enough!) and to visit some companies to have a working experience throughout all levels of the education system. Cleaning the school (including classroom and toilets) is a common after-class daily activity in Japan and is generally considered being part of education.
Working children and adolescents of the Latin America and Caribbean Movement addressed the members of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in an open letter arguing that there are economic activities that are not necessarily exploitative of children and that the absolute age-based threshold renders them illegal and deprives them of the right to be protected. They explained that in their communities, mostly indigenous communities of Latin America, a work experience allows the children to bond with elder people and to learn to stand up for themselves. Such movement led by working children and their supporters is not limited to Latin America, but also seen in Africa and Asia (Liebel and Invernizzi, 2019).
Indeed, the ILO acknowledges that “not all work done by children should be classified as child labour that is to be targeted for elimination” and that “children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling, is generally regarded as being something positive”.
Nevertheless, the current international policies tend to overlook benefits and seek a blanket ban which outcome is often measured by mere statistics such as the number of children removed from work and enrolled in school (Bourdillon and Carothers, 2019). At least during the launch event, the impression that the voices of working children in the letter were not heard was distinct, and the discourse was much about the child labour as intolerable and an absolute detrimental factor to childhood and education, even though the understanding of ‘childhood’ and ‘education’ can vary depending on the culture.
The abolitionist approach not only victimises and stigmatises some child workers not accounting for their actual situation, but also upholds the mindset that regards children as passive agents in need of a paternalistic policy. Instead, the reality is that children have their own voices and agency. Furthermore, a social policy researcher, Dr. Neil Howard, argues that removing children from work is an apolitical practice and “return(s) those children to precisely the penury that drove them to work in the first place”. This might also lead, in some cases, children to more hazardous, informal or even underground labour in search of means to survive.
Thinking harms on children
While there are benefits from work for some children, it is indeed a serious fact that there are millions of children in need of immediate protection. According to the statistics reported by the ILO, a total of 152 million children are in child labour, and of these, 73 million children are doing hazardous work that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development. Varying from physical harms such as the carrying mineralised sand on 25 to 50 kilometres under a scorching heat; the exposure to nicotine poisoning and pesticides in tobacco farming; the risk of a pit collapse and the use of toxic mercury in gold mining, to psychological harms including trauma and illbeing resulting from sexual, verbal and physical abuses and violence. There are many hazardous factors surrounding child workers, including those that I cannot think of.
Besides, it is also possible that a child is so poor that s/he cannot survive without engaging in labour (Sabates-Wheeler and Sumberg, 2020). If this is the case, merely removing the child from labour does not simply lead to his/her protection, as argued by Dr. Howard. It is also likely that harm arises from a complex combination of different factors, such as the nature of the work and the specific situation surrounding the child and her/his family. In other words, ‘harm’ in child labour should be understood within the context and multidimensionally, notably taking into account both the perspectives of the child and his/her parents (Maconachie et al, 2020).
Similarly, with regard to the necessity of an intervention, Dr. Sumberg and Dr. Sabates-Wheeler of the Action on Children’s Harmful Work in African Agriculture (ACHA) suggest for setting up a policy, ‘trade-offs’ faced by children and their families must be taken into consideration. They add that such trade-offs might include a contribution to food insecurity (in case the child works in the agricultural sector), the ability to purchase medicine, harms at work, against the schooling fee, the quality of education at school and potential harms at school or on the way to school (particularly in the case of girls). As such, while the harm that “jeopardize(s) the health, safety or morals” should be removed, multidimensional factors surrounding child labour should also be considered.
“I would like to challenge everyone who are sitting today, who are participating today, to not just only imagine a world without child labour, but to act on it, so it becomes our reality”, said Amar Lal, survivor of child labour and child rights lawyer in the launch event. The time to think that the children are just poor and miserable has come to an end. It is time to move on from a dichotomous discussion of whether child labour is good or bad. It is time to make discussion grounded and more realistic with a broad and holistic landscape.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Time For Equality.
Bourdillon, M. (2006) ‘Children and Work: A Review of Current Literature and Debates’, Development and Change, 37(6), pp.1201-1226.
Bourdillon, M. and Carothers, R. (2019) ‘Policy on Children’s Work and Labour’, Children and Society, 33, pp.387-395.
Liebel, M. and Invernizzi, A. (2019) ‘The Movements of Working Children and the International Labour Organization. A Lesson on Enforced Silence’, Children and Society, 33, pp.142-153.
Maconachie, R., Howard, N. and Bock, R. (2020) Theorising ‘harm’ in relation to children’s work, ACHA Working Paper 4. Brighton: Action on Children’s Harmful Work in African Agriculture, IDS.
Sabates-Wheeler, R. and Sumberg, J. (2020) Understanding Children’s Harmful Work in African Agriculture: Points of Departure, ACHA Working Paper 1. Brighton: Action on Children’s Harmful Work in African Agriculture, IDS.
Photo credit: ILO ( Pouteau/Crozet/Albouy) / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 IGO)
My name is Yuki Fujita, born in Japan and acquis professional and academic experiences in different countries (Japan, France, The Netherlands, Haiti). I am currently enrolled in the Master’s program in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in Erasmus Rotterdam University in The Netherlands. My major is Social Policy for Development, focusing notably on issues such as poverty, inequality, exclusion and discrimination. -I am passionate to learn about and contribute to the social transformation for a better society with respect, dignity, inclusion and diversity.