by Keetie Roelen
2021 is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.
According to estimates of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), 152 million children around the world are in child labour. Of these, almost 75 million are said to work in conditions or circumstances that are hazardous. The eradication of all such labour by 2025 is a target within the Sustainable Development Goals, making it an international political priority.
Although everyone will agree that no child should be working in harmful or exploitative conditions, opinions differ considerably on exactly what constitutes harmful work and how this should avoided. Many international organisations, under the auspices of the ILO and key international recommendations, take a rather rigid stance with respect to what types of work might be acceptable for children and at what age. This often leads to considering almost all work that children do as undesirable and something that needs to be avoided at (almost) all cost.
“Without disputing the good intentions underpinning an abolitionist approach to child labour, reality shows that such intentions are often misguided.”
Without disputing the good intentions underpinning an abolitionist approach to child labour, reality shows that such intentions are often misguided. Children’s complex lives mean that there is no easy choice between harmful work, ‘better’ work, or no work. If a child’s earnings make the difference between putting food on the table or the whole family going hungry, is it preferable that the child stops working? Which of these two options are more or less harmful?
Clearly, the fact that so many children are engaged in child labour and work in hazardous conditions requires action. But too often efforts focus narrowly on eliminating the occurrence of work with policies focusing on behaviour change or adopting punitive measures, as opposed to addressing the underlying causes such as deep and structural poverty.
“We make an urgent call for more realistic and evidence-based approaches to child labour, and for those approaches to be developed with working children themselves.”
In an open letter published on Open Democracy, academics and researchers supported by many experienced practitioners of development NGOs and agencies and working children themselves have made an urgent call for more realistic and evidence-based approaches to child labour, and for those approaches to be developed with working children themselves.
The Covid-19 pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences has pushed many more children into work. The multidimensional nature of this crisis and its likely deep and long-lasting effects that form part of why children engage with work, mean that the target of eliminating child labour by 2025 is unrealistic at best but harmful at worst. Policies and programmes that are only focused on getting children out of work without taking into account the realities in which this plays out will put children at even greater risk.
As noted in the open letter: “To be helpful, interventions must be adapted to situations that vary not only locally, but also according to the specific status and circumstance of the children concerned – boys, girls, disabled children, children in minority groups, and children of different socio-economic statuses all have different needs and different vulnerabilities. Intervention should consider well-being holistically: it 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 (UNCRC; articles 17, 23, 27, 32). Subsequently, children’s work and the developed interventions must be assessed according to the actual effects – both beneficial and damaging – on the children’s well-being.”
If you are interested in joining this call and in learning more about critical understandings of child work, forced labour, trafficking and slavery, make sure to follow the Beyond Trafficking and Slavery project on Open Democracy.
Note: The photo accompanying this post is by Mahmudul Hoque Moni, a PhD student at the Institute of Development Studies and talented photographer.
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