Child labour: a lesser evil?

Child labour: a lesser evil? – includes related article on the number of child laborers in the world

Sophie Boukhari

When there is no possibility of schooling, perhaps it’s better for children to work in dignity than hang out in the streets. Some children’s movements are contesting United Nations policy to abolish child labour

For the media, child labour is a guaranteed tear-jerker. Journalists nearly always report on the most heart-rending situations – children working down mines, child domestic servants being beaten and raped, kids preyed on by paedophiles. Western consumers are stepping up campaigns to boycott goods produced by child workers.

More than 250 million of the world’s children work at jobs (see box). This figure, which UNICEF calls “monstrous”, has spurred most NGOs and Western governments, along with the United Nations, to make a determined effort to eradicate child labour.

“Kids in poor countries have the right to a childhood, just like you and me in Europe,” says Robert Saintgeorge, spokesman for the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s worldwide programme to abolish child labour, launched in 1992. “Turning children away from education is like abolishing the future,” says the head of the ILO in France, Jean-Daniel Leroy.

But some of the young would-be beneficiaries in developing countries are objecting. Thousands of children and adolescents, mostly of them living in towns and cities, claim they have a right to work in proper conditions. They are called Nats, from the acronym of Ninos y Adolescentes Trabajadores (“Child and Teenage Workers”), a movement that has sprung up in Latin America. It began in Peru (see article page 39) in the 1970s, spread to many other Latin American countries a decade later, and then to West Africa and India in the 1990s. It is now making headway in Asia, notably Thailand.

The Nats are also trying to build a worldwide structure to give them a voice in matters that concern them. They oppose a legal minimum age for starting work and are strongly against boycotts of goods they make for export, which are produced by only 5 per cent of all child workers, according to the UN. They want the UN to “make a distinction between exploitation of children and other forms of work which help their development.”

In fact the ILO conventions are becoming more flexible. The first one, which dates from 1919, set the minimum age for factory work at 14. But the main international legal instrument is Convention 138, signed in 1973. This fixes the minimum age at 15 (or at the end of compulsory education) and makes many exceptions.

Punishable crimes

But most developing countries think this is too strict and only about 20 of them have ratified it. A more widely accepted version is currently being negotiated in the ILO and is due to be adopted in June 1999 in Geneva. This one will deal only with the most inhuman and dangerous categories of labour, like slavery, prostitution, drug trafficking and work harmful to health.

For the Nats, these activities should not be regarded as work but as punishable crimes. Their existence, they say, should not be an excuse to throw the baby (a child’s right to work) out with the bath water (the inhuman tasks they are sometimes forced to do). What’s more, according to Michel Bonnet, a former ILO official who has written a book called Le Travail des enfants: terrain des luttes (“Child Labour: A Battleground”)(1) only 10 per cent of Nats live in intolerable conditions, mostly in Asia.

At big conferences, complains Dibou Faye, a 14-year-old maid from Senegal, “adults speak for us. They say that if children work, they’re no longer children. When I was seven, I would’ve preferred to go to school. But as my parents didn’t have the money to send me, I decided to work instead.” Since the maids in Dakar have organized themselves, and march in the annual May Day procession alongside trade unionists, their working conditions have slightly improved.

“When one of them is beaten or wrongly accused of something, she can count on the support of others and can lodge a complaint. Before, the police wouldn’t even listen,” says Hamidou Coly, of ENDA, an NGO that supports Nats in West Africa. ENDA provides the children with an education geared to their situation (in the evenings and with the content worked out with the students), legal aid and help in negotiating cheaper medicine and hospital care.

“In Africa,” says Coly, “the minimum legal age for starting work is usually 15. Education is compulsory and supposedly free up to the age of 12. But even if they go to school until then, what are kids going to do between 12 and 15?”

Nats are being helped by organizations like ENDA in Africa, MANTHOC in Peru and Concerned for Working Children in India. This does not rule out “the risk of being manipulated”, says Bonnet, who nonetheless welcomes the emergence of the Nats.

“They want to be respected, get a decent wage, have work breaks, and access to education and health care. What they don’t want is to wake up and find in their district some ill-thought-out project from a rich country which is going to lose them their job.”

Duncan Green, a British worker with the Catholic Aid Agency, who spent several months last year with the Nats in Latin America, laments that “most [Western] adults think child workers in the Third World are the equivalents of the little boys used as forced labour in British factories in Victorian times.” Not so, he says. “Working gives them self-confidence, know-how and money to feed themselves.”

UNICEF and the ILO have been forced to recognize this. “The lesson of 1994 has been digested,” Leroy says. That year, the owners of textile mills in Bangladesh sacked 50,000 child workers after a bill was put before the U.S. Congress to ban the import of clothing made by child workers. Some of the children thrown out of work were forced to go begging or become prostitutes.

Accepting that working in a factory is better than being on the street, UN agencies set up a programme enabling some of the children to be rehired and also have access to education and health care on the job. Brutal solutions should be avoided, says Saintgeorge, “but we can’t legalize child labour. If we do, we’ll have no way of controlling it in many countries.”

Minimum standards

The UN recognizes it is unrealistic and dangerous to want to abolish child labour. Developing countries, often forced to cut social spending, do not have the resources to provide education for all and social security coverage for poor children. But the UN continues to campaign for abolition. UNICEF “is strongly urging the World Trade Organisation to adopt a ‘social clause’,” which would require minimum standards from companies, including a ban on child labour.

This ambiguous position illustrates the complexity of the problem. “whether they work or not, poor children are at risk. You just have to know which risks are the worst,” says Bonnet.

1. Editions page deux publishers, Lausanne, Switzerland.

RELATED ARTICLE: 250 million child workers in the world

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) says 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 are working – 61% of them in Asia, 32% in Africa, 7% in Latin America and a small number in rich countries (two million in the European Union). One in three children in Africa works, one in four in Asia and one in five in Latin America.

On top of that, 15-20% of children in developing countries work for no pay, often as domestics or farmworkers. Two-thirds of child workers live in the countryside: 20% of them are between 5 and 9 years old, compared with only 5% in this same age bracket in towns and cities.

About 120 million children work full time. This means they can neither go to school or learn a trade and have little time to play.

Sophie Boukhari, UNESCO Courier journalist


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