Global standards miss the nuance in local child labour

Children’s labour entails both benefits and harm that should be assessed at the local level. Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

Images of children working in hazardous and abusive conditions naturally provoke strong emotional reactions. For this reason, measures designed to stop children from working, and make sure they go to school, attract little opposition or debate.

Yet the reality is that a rigid approach to child labour has a downside. Work is neither all good nor all bad for children. It is often both.

Clearly the worst forms of child labour need urgent action. However, the solution is not necessarily a ban. Conditions sometimes can be changed to reduce the risk of harm. Working conditions can be rendered benign or even beneficial, which is more constructive than simply banning work that children often need or want for their own and their family’s survival.

Both benefit and harm in most work

The common assumption that, for children, work in the home is harmless while work for pay is harmful is wrong. There is both benefit and harm in most work depending on conditions, aptitude and training of children. So rather than classifying particular activities as harmful, we should recognise that the same work can entail both benefits and harm that should be assessed at the local level.

So how do we regulate children’s work in Africa, and what can be said about interventions seeking to control children’s labour? The African Union (AU) prohibits work that interferes with children’s development but unlike the UN and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, the AU also recognises that rights are accompanied by responsibilities to family and society.

The term “child labour” results in conceptual confusions. And given the widespread adoption of the 1999 ILO convention, the 1973 convention is now redundant. The 1973 convention prohibits work that is not harmful and is often beneficial. Also, sometimes children are overburdened with work in the home, which is not considered by this legislation.

Cultural norms contrast with global legal regime

Cultural norms suggest what work children of particular ages and genders can or should do from a young age, with a gradual increase in responsibilities. This contrasts with the international legal regime which says only work after a specific age should be allowed.

Children’s work also has a social and an economic context. International trade can affect children’s work and their relationships with their families, – a point illustrated by an Ethiopian case study.

The production of cash crops generates income for families, but it also creates pressures within families, exacerbates gender inequalities, and competes with the production of food for the family. The net effect is that cash crops increase the contribution of children as producers and carers. So, the system of international trade can lead to exploitation of children.

Research also shows how changes in communities and crises within families affect children’s lives and schooling. It also highlights how children perceive benefits as well as harm in their work. The benefits of working are not just material contributions to families and being able to overcome “shocks” (unplanned difficult events), but also the gaining of skills and the enhancement of children’s moral status and esteem.

Work is bound with social relations

The risk of harm to children needs to be measured against these benefits. For these children, not working would be inconceivable. Children’s work is inextricably bound with their social relations with their peers, parents and employers. Work gives meaning to their lives.

Research about poor children working on the streets of Ethiopia and Sudan shows how income from work is essential for the livelihoods of children and their families.

The ability to earn money gives children some control over their lives. Working children develop networks to help each other. Many are able to save money and help their families.

Then there is the issue of the relationship between schooling and work. Our research shows that children undertake work to help their families and earn money for school expenses. While work can keep children from school, force them to drop out, or affect their performance, some children have successfully combined school and work. Others are able to continue schooling because of their work. Our research suggests the need for more flexibility in the school systems to support children who have to work.

In Burkina Faso, the parents and children working on the mines and quarries acknowledge the work as hazardous. But they view it as a necessary response to extreme poverty. Also, children may be better off by accompanying their parents to work than being left alone at home. Interventions to remove children from work tend not to address problems facing their families and the need for alternative support.

In Kenya, a Save the Children programme supports working children, which has led to children’s perspectives being included in a new draft for a child labour policy. However, the programme excludes children under the age of 14 who are supposed to be in school.

Listening to what children say about work

The African Movement of Working Children includes “the right to light and limited work” among its “Twelve Rights” with no mention of age. It is high time that we direct attention to reducing harm in child labour rather than seeking rules that impose a blanket ban on children taking on any work.

A more enlightened approach to children’s work would start by listening to what children have to say and working with local communities to raise awareness of problems faced by working children, especially in balancing work and school, and to enhance the accessibility, flexibility and quality of schooling to cater for working children.

Ultimately, measures to reduce poverty and provide safety nets for children living in families facing crises are more appropriate than approaches that focus narrowly on preventing children from working.


The research referred to in this article has been compiled into a book, Children’s Work and Labour in East Africa: Social Context and Implications for Policy, edited by Alula Pankhurst, Michael Bourdillon and Gina Crivello. It will be published on June 12, the Day Against Child Labour, by the Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa.

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