Child Labor: Beyond Pity and Paternalism

The International Labor Organisation (ILO) has just launched its latest campaign to eliminate the “worst forms of child labor”. Newspaper pages are awash with stories and discussions highlighting the terrible fate of working children. Futures stolen, presents dashed.

It is all so familiar.

Since the international community began its crusade to save the world’s children from “unacceptable” work in 1919, the prevailing narrative has barely changed. Pity and paternalism dominate. Families are forced by abstract “poverty” to allow their children to work. They don’t understand how bad it can be. We must expand schooling – where innocent children can be safe – and we must inform parents in order to protect them from themselves. Only days ago, the ILO’s Susan Gunn appeared on Al-Jazeera’s Inside Story to recite the same tropes.

Is it really so simple though? While it is true that many children are compelled, as a result of their families’ destitution, to work in conditions that few anywhere would find tolerable, a growing body of academic research is questioning both the mainstream representation of child laborers and the dominant approach to their “protection”.


History Repeating Itself

The central thrust of the ILO’s effort is to remove children from what it calls the most “hazardous” occupations. Though slavery and prostitution always and everywhere fall into this category, the ILO requires national governments to identify the rest by economic sector. What this means is that, instead of expanding labor inspectorates to ensure safe working conditions across the national economy, states and their donor partners now select particular industries that are targeted for the blanket exclusion of minors.


Haven’t We Been Here Before?

Sadly, yes. In the early 1990’s, as a result of Senator Harkin’s proposed bill to ban Bangladeshi textile imports unless employers could demonstrate that they were “child labor free”, thousands of child workers found themselves unemployed overnight. The result? Many ultimately ended up in demonstrably worse conditions, driven to the streets, to sex work or to factories operating even further under the radar.

Sialkot’s football stitchers tell us a similar story. As Khan’s research showed, before international pressure came to bear on major sports firms importing footballs from Pakistan, stitching was an important cottage industry in Sialkot. Poor families would work on balls in their own homes, and children, when not at school, would help out under the supervision of their parents. What happened when this changed? Omar, a fourteen year-old boy interviewed by Khan offered this summary:

“We used to be able to stitch footballs when we needed to. Now there are no footballs coming to the homes for stitching. Why have they stopped our rozi-roti [means of living]? … They must hate us… Maybe it is because we are Muslims and people in the West are against Muslims.” 

My own research in West Africa is currently uncovering similar patterns. The major sectors facing government and international pressure in the region are artisinal mining and cocoa growing. In the case of the latter, Senator Harkin is once again a key figure, working with multinational firms like Kraft to ensure that supply lines are clean of "child labor".

When I interviewed boys who had worked in the Ivorian plantations, they were shocked about this increasing pressure from NGOs, police and “white people”. “Plantation work is about as easy as you can get”, one young man told me. “Kids do the soft stuff, and are far better here than in something like building”.

It’s the same story with mines. In Benin, the state is placing serious pressure on rural communities who let their adolescent children migrate to Nigeria for mine-work. Slavery is what the authorities call it. Not the teenagers who work there though. “It wasn’t that bad”, Peter tells me. “Sure it was hard, and we spent hours under the sun, but we ate well, we were paid, and we worked surrounded by all our friends”.


Top-down Failures and a Lack of Political Economy

As with many interventions in the fields of both ‘development’ and child protection, what we see here is a situation in which, rather than work with the poor communities whose children work instead of attending school, policy-makers are working on them, forcing them out of jobs that represent the best of a narrow bunch of options. Despite its undeniably good intentions, the international anti child labor community is thus imposing its moral framework on communities who themselves ultimately pay the price – by losing the income that these working children provide.

At the same time, the attention paid to the structures that limit these families’ economic options is minimal. In the case of cocoa plantations, Senator Harkin’s similarly well-intentioned campaign has said little about raising the price multinationals pay producers. Nor has it said anything about the US cotton subsidies which, as the World Trade Organization itself recognised, devastate Beninese household incomes – to the point that children have no choice but to migrate to the mines for work.

When I interviewed one of the crucial figures working with Harkin and the ILO on this latest “eradicate child labor campaign”, “I can’t comment on that, it’s is not our focus” was all I got in reference to the subsidies. Dibi, a senior Beninese government official, simply shrugged his shoulders. “The US is a powerful country”, he said, “there’s really nothing we can do about it”.

Plus ça change then. Until policy-makers, including the ILO and US Senators, push for trade justice at the top and community-developed initiatives at the bottom, the same old pity and paternalism will continue to hold sway. 

Leave a comment