State of the World's Children State of the World's Children

Exploding the myths about child labour

Vitor, a 12-year-old boy, was electrocuted while working on a building site with his father. He was killed by a high-voltage shock from a live cable he inadvertently touched while operating a cement mixer.

Vitor might have been one of the many millions of child labourers who work in developing countries in hazardous conditions. But he wasn’t. He lived in Portugal and worked for his father’s construction company.

Child labour, as UNICEF’s The State of the World’s Children 1997 report explains, is a complex, often misunderstood problem. The myths that surround it impede solutions, and the report examines those myths to help dispel them. One myth is that children work only in poor countries. In fact, children work all over the world, in both industrialized and developing countries, although it is in the developing world that most child labour takes place.

Not all labour, however, is hazardous. It is the nature of the work children do and the conditions in which they labour not the fact that they work that determines how they are affected.

In the industrialized world, children of ethnic minorities or immigrant groups are those most likely to do hazardous work, the report points out. In the United States, for example, a high proportion of children working in agriculture come from immigrant or ethnic-minority families. A 1990 survey of Mexican-American children working in the farms of New York state showed that almost half had worked in fields still wet with pesticides and over a third had themselves been sprayed.

Refuting another myth, the report argues that the elimination of hazardous child labour does not have to wait until poverty is eliminated, even though poverty particularly the exploitation of poverty is an important contributing factor. However poor their families may be, children would not be harmed by work if there were not people prepared and able to exploit them, the report says. There are a number of measures that can be taken immediately to reduce the impact of poverty that will help protect children and families from exploitation. Income-generating and credit schemes can alleviate some of the greatest pressures on poor people, as can the provision of basic services such as safe water, health care and education. In fact, education is key to keeping children out of hazardous labour.

Also distorting the picture of child labour is the perception that children in developing countries work primarily to produce consumer goods such as clothing and toys for consumers in rich countries. In fact, only a tiny minority of children work in the export sector. A great many more are doing the kind of work in which 10-year-old Maria is engaged as she weaves between the traffic in downtown Lima, Peru, selling chewing-gum to whoever will buy.

Like Maria, children are involved in a wide range of different jobs outside the export sector. A 1995 study in Bangladesh identified 300 such jobs, ranging from brick-making to stone-breaking, street-hawking to rag-picking. The vast majority of children work for their families or in agriculture or hidden away in houses, far from the reach of the official labour inspectors.

If we allow the notion that the most exploited child workers are all in the industrial export sector to take hold, we would do a grave disservice to that great majority of children who labour in virtual invisibility, says the report. Connected to this notion is another myth: that the only way to counter child labour is through government sanctions and consumer boycotts initiated in developed countries. Such sweeping measures would affect export production only, one of the smallest parts of the child labour problem.

Sanctions and boycotts are blunt instruments that can do more harm than good, when they simply throw children out of work without simultaneously offering them and their families other ways to survive and improve their lives. The report looks at the impact that the mere threat of one such measure, the Harkin Bill in the US, had on the thousands of children involved in the garment industry in Bangladesh, who were immediately let go by their employers.

UNICEF advocates a comprehensive strategy against hazardous child labour, including compulsory education for children and employment for parents. Although much remains to be done, much has already been accomplished to eliminate hazardous child labour and the damage it does to children. Projeto Axé in Brazil, for example, is an imaginative programme that offers literacy and skills training to children living and working on the streets in the town of Salvador. The most important thing, says Axé’s founder Cesare de Florio La Rocca, is to stimulate the child to dream and wish, and to offer a number of concrete opportunities to help the child realize those dreams.

The Child Labour Abolition Support Scheme (CLASS) is grappling with the exploitation of children in the beedi (tobacco) rolling industry in India’s Tamil Nadu state. Most children begin working in that industry to pay their parents’ debts, so CLASS has concentrated on providing new and less rapacious sources of credit for poor families. In addition, project staff have recognized that the best alternative to child labour is to offer high-quality, relevant schooling to children, something very much missing in many countries. So CLASS has pioneered the retraining of elementary teachers to be more participative and enthusiastic in their techniques, using a simple approach called ‘joyful learning’.

There are also projects aimed specifically at encouraging and educating the media about child labour. Since 1989, for example, a media advocacy group called PRESSHOPE has been working in the Philippines to involve both television and print media in child protection. The group is building on the success of a community organization that used an imaginative campaign to put the question of child prostitution in Pagsanjan on the national and international agendas.