Recognising child workers: dilemmas of abolishing child labour

Toby Fattore, New South Wales Commission for Children and Young People

Cathryne L. Schmitz, Elizabeth KimJin Traver, Desi Larson (eds) Child Labor: A Global View, Westport, Greenwood Press, 2004 (232 pp). ISBN0-31332-277-5 (hardcover) RRP $142.95.

Throughout the world, children do not merely work at the fringes of the labour market. The catchphrase ‘children’s work’ has little respect for the varied and complex skills used by children in the global economy. Still, the question of child labour attracts both consensus and debate in the world community. It is an issue that sustains a lot of attention from policymakers, and the prevailing view is that it should be eliminated. As evidence of this abolitionist sentiment, we need only consider the wide support for the ILO’s Program for the Elimination of Child Labour (ILO Convention 182, 1999). Yet the moral and practical basis for abolishing child labour is subject to much wider debate. When the debate goes beyond the most hazardous forms of work, the issue of child labour draws out broader ideological differences. Is work always bad for children? Should we understand child labour in developing and developed countries differently? What do working children think about their work? Answering these questions forces us to confront problems of economic development, inequality and culture, and whether or not we are willing to fully recognise children as agents and citizens.

Child Labor provides fifteen national case studies from four continents. By examining child labour in its historical, social, political and economic contexts, the book makes a wide-ranging contribution to our understanding of working children. The case studies demonstrate the diversity of child labour in rich and poor countries alike, and the variety of tasks and skills involved in the work that children do. The editors focus on exploitative and hazardous work including the worst forms of child labour. In adopting this focus, the book belongs to a body of research that implicitly understands work as harmful to child development. On this view, work for children should (ultimately) be abolished.

That children should be protected from exploitation is beyond question. But solely focusing on the problem of exploitation sidesteps other, harder questions we need to answer about children’s relationship to work. The editors seem aware of such questions when they ask: ‘What is a child, what is labor, and what entails work?’ (p. 1). The answers are not only of theoretical interest, but have real implications for children who work. The underlying problem is about ideal representations of children. It is commonly held that children are different to adults, or more specifically, are ‘immature’. Accordingly, children should be protected from labour by outlawing their participation in work. We see this norm reflected in minimum working-age conventions. For instance, a central plank of the ILO program is the Minimum Age Convention, No. 138 (ILO 1973); this obliges ratifying states to prohibit child labour, and sets a working age that both corresponds to the end of compulsory schooling and is no less than fifteen years.

This ‘developmentalist’ view of childhood is under attack. By emphasising the similarities between children and adults, some sociologists of childhood have criticised this view for failing to recognise children as active participants in their social world. Jens Qvortup (1985) argues that, to understand children, we do not need to begin by accepting any ontological difference between children and adults. This allows us, as Leena Alanen (2005) puts it, to undertake a conceptual ‘stretching’ whereby concepts and tools used to interpret adult social practices can be applied equally to children.

Children are not merely at the fringes of the global labour market.

Thinking of children in this way has two important implications for understanding child labour. Alanen describes the first. By examining children’s activities such as schooling and play as work, the meaning of work itself is stretched in much the same way feminists have sought to include household work in their redefinition of labour. Recognising activities not conventionally defined as work gives a new significance to many children’s activities, and further raises questions about the place of children in the distribution of paid and unpaid work. A second implication is that, by seeing the boundary between childhood and adulthood as contingent, and understanding children as active social agents, the argument for excluding children entirely from work becomes harder to justify. Ben White acknowledges that children have little power in the labour market. But he questions why the solution is to exclude children from work, a position not adopted for other vulnerable groups. As White asks, why is exploitation any more acceptable for adults than for child workers (1994, p. 872). When we see child labour from the broader perspective of all human exploitation, the problem inevitably shifts from the prohibition of child labour per se to the set of regulations and conditions that should apply to all workers. White does not seek a blanket abolition of child labour. Instead, he argues that society needs to ‘identify types of work and work relations which constitute an abuse of these categories of worker, and to support the efforts of working children in trying to improve their conditions of life and work’ (1994, p. 851).

White’s remark leads us to the core of the moral debate about child labour: how society recognises the agency of working children. Martin Woodhead (1991) has suggested that much of the strategy for eliminating child labour is unclear about how to accommodate the self-understanding and role of child workers themselves. White (1994) even suggests that the forms of work acceptable to policymakers are often those that children report most difficulties with. Whether in rich or poor countries, few working children see exclusion from work as the solution. In fact, children often want the same things as those agencies seeking to protect children in the labour market. The evidence indicates that children want work with appropriate conditions, free from exploitation, and where they are treated with respect and allowed to pursue other things like schooling. Most children aren’t coerced to work—many see work contributing both to their personal development and to the well-being of their families (Woodhead 1999; Miljeteig 2005). Working also provides benefits that are generally denied to them because of their status as children, including autonomy, money, greater social networks and skills.

Child workers have a crucial role to play in the debate on child labour.

While child workers have a crucial role to play in the debate on child labour, we are some way off recognising children as legitimate contributors to policies on their work. Per Miljeteig (2005) has documented how child workers in poor countries have organised themselves into movements of working children. These include Manthoc and the Latin-American movement of working children and youth, the Enda-Jeunesse Action and the West-African movement of working children and youth. These movements provide a way for working children to advocate in their interests. While they give powerful expression to the problem of exploitation, they also cast children as activists with real resources in the cause of rights and empowerment. At the local and national level, they provide solidarity and practical support to their members as well as lobbying for improved conditions. For example, working children’s groups in West Africa have organised literacy courses outside work hours for their members, and improved access to health services. At the international level, these movements represent the collective voice of working children, and have sought consultation on measures to improve their situation (Miljeteig 2005).

Yet these movements have met with an ambivalent reception. Because many actors in the international community seek to abolish child labour, they are unsure about how to recognise a movement of working children. This is particularly true for the international labour movement, which, because of a historical commitment to abolishing child labour, is reluctant to acknowledge such an organisation. Yet organised labour shares much in common with working children, and perhaps, is uniquely placed to work with them (see Myers & Boyden 1998; and Miljeteig 2005). Miljeteig (2005) argues that a respectful dialogue should be established with these groups, and that they are represented in international policymaking.

Many of the dilemmas of child labour are also dilemmas of economic development. One of the striking features of Child Labor is its attention to the way rich countries exploit poor ones, and the implications of this unequal relationship for working children. The problems faced by working children in poor countries are qualitatively different to those faced by children who work in rich ones. Indeed, the term ‘child labour’ is used to describe what children in poor countries do while ‘work’ is used to describe what happens in rich countries. The majority of children in poor countries work because they live in poor families, and their contributions are essential for their family’s survival. And such poverty is exacerbated by the economic policies of rich nations. In the latter, however, child labour is less a function of poverty—in fact, the available evidence suggests that children from wealthier households are more likely to work (Lavalette 1994).

How the world deals with child labour reflects larger contradictions of global economic relations. While abolition is a policy response endorsed by the left and the right, and is promoted in rich and poor nations alike, it has unintended consequences for working children, their families and communities. Abolition is incompatible with policies that aim to protect and improve children’s working conditions. Bans imposed by rich nations on the import of products involving child labour have shifted this work underground, forcing children into more hazardous situations. These bans also encourage governments to pretend that child labour does not exist, pushing effective regulations further out of political reality. One investigation of children in the Bangladeshi garment industry after US import restrictions were imposed found that none had gone to school after leaving the industry, and that many were now engaged in more hazardous work (White 1996).

Do we expect the same quality of life for all children?

The reality of inequality and cultural difference forces global society to confront hard questions. What are culturally appropriate standards for children who work? Do we expect the same quality of life for all children, and are we applying different ethical, moral and political standards when we discuss child ‘labour’ in poor countries and ‘work’ in the rich? To better understand and deal with these dilemmas, we need to answer the question that Woodhead asks: what are the criteria for a quality childhood that is universal, culturally sensitive and also sustainable? While we may agree that answering this question is crucial, undoubtedly the answer will remain contested. In the interests of children who work, it’s important the debate continues nonetheless.

Toby Fattore is a researcher in the New South Wales Commission for Children and Young People. He is editor (with Jan Mason) of Children Taken Seriously: In theory, policy and practice, and author of a forthcoming study examining children’s work in New South Wales.


Alanen, L. 2005, ‘Women’s studies/Childhood studies: Parallels, links and perspectives’, in Children Taken Seriously: In theory, policy and practice, eds J. Mason & T. Fattore, Jessica Kingsley, London.

International Labour Organisation 1973, Convention No. 138 concerning minimum age for admission to employment, Geneva, International Labour Office.

International Labour Organisation 1999, Convention No. 182 concerning the prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, International Labour Office, Geneva.

Lavalette, M. 1994, Child Employment in the Capitalist Labour Market, Aldershot, Avebury.

Miljeteig, P. 2005, ‘Children’s democratic rights: What we can learn from young workers organizing themselves’, in Children Taken Seriously: In theory, policy and practice, eds J. Mason & T. Fattore, Jessica Kingsley, London.

Myers, W. & Boyden, J. 1998, Child labour: Promoting the best interests of working children, International Save the Children Alliance.

Qvortrup, J. 1985, ‘Placing children in the division of labour’, in Family and Economy in Modern Society, eds P. Close & R. Collins, MacMillan, London.

White, B. 1994, ‘Children, work and ‘child labour’: Changing responses to the employment of children’, Development and Change, vol. 25, pp. 849–878.

White, B. 1996, ‘Globalization and the child labour problem’, Journal of International Development, vol. no. 8(6), pp. 829–839.

Woodhead, M. 1999, ‘Combating child labour: Listen to what the children say’, Childhood, vol. no. 6(1), pp. 27–49.

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