More of the Same in the Fight Against Child Labor

More of the Same in the Fight Against Child Labor

THE INTERNATIONAL Labour Organization (ILO) has recently launched its latest campaign to eliminate the “worst forms of child labor.” Newspaper pages are consequently awash with stories and discussions highlighting the terrible fate of working children, while ILO staff make regular TV appearances urging governments and consumers to do something about it.

The ILO is pushing for an immediate, blanket removal of all 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, in partnership with business, donors, and UN bodies like the ILO itself, to identify the other economic sectors to include. Once a sector has been identified as hazardous, governments are obliged to take all possible measures to make sure that children currently working in that sector are removed and that no others end up taking their places. To fulfill this task, the ILO puts pressure on communities where children work and collaborates with multinational firms and donor states to ensure that their supply chains and partners are on board.

This “abolitionist approach” to child labor represents mainstream institutional and political thought about how best to protect the world’s children from economic exploitation. But the evidence suggests that it doesn’t work.

Unintended Consequences

In the early 1990s, as a result of a bill proposed by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA)—the ILO’s major political backer and the channel through which the institution accesses the bulk of its anti–child labor funds—to ban Bangladeshi textile imports unless employers could demonstrate that they were “child-labor free,” thousands of child workers found themselves unemployed overnight. As a result, many ended up in demonstrably worse conditions, driven to the streets, to sex work, or to factories operating even further under the radar.

The football stitchers in Sialkot, Pakistan tell a similar story. As Ali Khan’s research has shown, 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, said, “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.”

In my own related research in West Africa, I am uncovering similar patterns. The major sectors facing international pressure in this region are artisanal mining and cocoa growing. In the case of the latter, Senator Harkin is once again a key figure, working with the ILO and multinational firms like Hershey’s to ensure that their supply lines are “clean of child labor.” When I interviewed boys who had worked in the Ivorian plantations, they were surprised about the increasing pressure from NGOs, police, and “white people” to get children out of work that they see as a good option. “Plantation work is about as easy as you can get,” one young man told me. “Kids do the soft stuff, and they’re far better off here than in something like building.”

Detailed research conducted by Amanda Berlan confirmed that what I heard were more than mere anecdotes. Most of the children she interviewed found cocoa work to be entirely manageable and often the only thing that allowed them to continue their schooling. Since they frequently worked on family plots or surrounded by their families, they were supervised, given the least arduous tasks, and fed regularly when hungry, all of which differs markedly from the working conditions they would fall back on if ejected from the cocoa sector as a result of international efforts.

It’s the same story with the mines. In Benin, the government, the ILO, and their NGO partners are placing serious pressure on rural communities that let their adolescent sons migrate to Nigeria for mine work. Though large Western firms play no role in these mining operations, the authorities have identified them as targets nonetheless because they see child work there as akin to slavery. To prevent these children from working in the mines, they are using draconian anti-trafficking legislation that mandates heavy fines or prison sentences for anyone caught facilitating a child’s migration. As a consequence, willing teenage boys are being turned back to villages where no economic opportunities exist, and adult relatives are finding themselves in jail for trying to help them across the border.

History Repeating Itself

If so many cases seem to demonstrate the problems with the “abolitionist” approach to child labor, why does it remain so dominant? Much of the answer can be traced back to the ILO’s founding in 1919 and the origins of the international crusade to save the world’s children from “unacceptable” work.

It was in this period, according to Harry Hendrick in his history of British childhood, that two cultural forces coalesced to define and regulate what “childhood,” as a life stage, should entail. On the one hand, motivated by the suffering that accompanied many children’s working lives in industrializing Britain, was the romantic movement and its ideal of youth as a time of bucolic innocence, play, and rest. On the other hand, inspired by a moralistic Protestant concern for piety, social order, and discipline, was what Hendrick terms “Victorian Evangelism,” which saw childhood as a period in which individuals needed both taming and forming, with school being the perfect location for both.

What emerged from this confluence was the notion of childhood as something to be protected and formed. Children were to be sheltered from (but trained for) the “evils” of the workplace. Given Britain’s interwar position as the world’s dominant political, economic, and social power, this new model of childhood quickly became established as a norm across the industrialized countries.

As the twentieth century progressed, that norm both evolved and entrenched itself. In the West, adult wages rose, birth rates fell, and the workforce participation of those under eighteen consequently decreased—to the point where much child work became seen as inherently problematic. Though scholars argued that child work can be and often is both socially and economically constructive (teaching children skills and earning them wages that are useful for them and their communities), the view that it should be eradicated and replaced by school has only grown stronger.

This trend has been mirrored in international organizations such as the ILO. The early-twentieth-century British childhood was fixed as the ILO’s model when Britain and its imperial allies created the organization after the First World War. Consequently, this model of childhood was extracted from its social, cultural, historical, and economic roots and became increasingly understood as “universal” or “normal,” with childhoods that didn’t correspond to it seen as deviant.

This helps to explain the ILO’s continuing abolitionist attitude toward child labor. The organization’s “globalized” notion of childhood assumes both that there is a right way to grow up and that work is not a part of it, thereby marginalizing the work-inclusive childhoods often found in non-Western contexts. This assumption is a powerful one, and child labor abolitionists have failed to learn from the mistakes to which it has led. As with many interventions in the fields of “development” and child protection, policy makers operate within a moral framework that leads them to work on, rather than with, the poor communities whose children work instead of attending school.

The Need for Politics and Participation

What can be done about this? A growing body of academics and activists are pointing to the “two Ps”—politics and participation—as a way out of the impasse. This means coming down to the level of the children and communities whose welfare is supposed to form the central goal of the anti–child labor campaign to allow them to participate in decisions on how best to ensure their own well-being.

In my research with adolescent mine workers and their families in Benin, I found real consternation at official attempts to pass a blanket ban on mine work. In Beninese society, such work is not seen as inherently damaging or as something that must be restricted to adults. “We’re not in France after all,” one teenager told me, explaining that in his community, such work is valued. It is seen as a way for young people to grow into responsible, contributing community members; it feeds them; and it teaches them skills that are necessary in a materially poor environment.

Does this mean that we need (or that they think we need) to side with extreme relativists who claim that no legislation and no campaigns to protect children from economic abuse are acceptable? Of course not. While it is true that adolescent mine workers openly reject claims that their work is as difficult or as dangerous as the ILO would have us believe, this does not mean that it doesn’t sometimes involve exploitation, or that they wouldn’t appreciate better wages or more time off. What would these young workers therefore like to see? In every one of the dozens of interviews I conducted, two recommendations were made: intervention by the authorities to improve working conditions, and the provision of economic or educational alternatives.

That brings us to the second P: politics. While the ILO and its partners expend much energy demanding that governments and low-level employers ban child labor, they pay minimal attention to the structures that limit ordinary families’ economic options and frequently result in children having to work in situations that are less than ideal. In the case of cocoa plantations, for example, Senator Harkin and his undoubtedly well-intentioned partners have said little about raising the price that multinationals pay producers. As has been widely documented, for every dollar that multinationals make from products such as ground coffee or chocolate bars, growers receive between 1 and 3 cents. Harkin’s political clout would be better deployed in arguing for fairer distributions, giving farming families the money they need to keep their children in school or to employ adults instead of the young.

Cotton is another example. The vast majority of the mine-working adolescents I interviewed in Benin come from communities for whom cotton is the major cash crop. Unfortunately for them, the international price of cotton has remained artificially low for the past decade as a result of massive U.S. cotton subsidies, which even the World Trade Organization acknowledges have distorted the market. The consequences of this distortion at the household level, and for child labor, have been enormous. “When cotton worked,” one farmer told me, “none of the youngsters went to Nigeria [to the mines], because they were all in school.” When I interviewed one of the crucial figures working with Harkin on the latest “eradicate child labor campaign,” “I can’t comment on that, it’s not our focus” was all I got in reference to the subsidies. Dibi, a senior Beninese government official, simply shrugging his shoulders and said, “The United States is a powerful country,” adding, “There’s really nothing we can do about it.”

Until policy makers, including the ILO and U.S. Senators, decide to push for trade justice at the top of the chain, little is likely to change. And in the meantime, working children and their families will continue to be caught between the structural injustice that hollows out their incomes and well-meaning but misguided campaigns that prevent them from doing anything about it.

An earlier, shorter version of this article appeared previously on Z-Net.

Neil Howard is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of international development at the University of Oxford.

Image: Child miners in the Congo (ENOUGH Project, 2009, Flickr creative commons)