NO kindergarten


It is the natural instinct of predatory capital to attack the weakest first. Often in the face of dangers ranging from being overlooked for promotion through loss of livelihood to the threat of employer- and state-sponsored terror, working men and women throughout the world have struggled to build organisations with which they can defend and advance their interests. This is never easy, but for one group of workers our solidarity and concern are more than ever essential in the fight against exploitation. Below, Diana Sutton looks at child labour, South and North.

It is indisputable that considerable numbers of children work. They work in the household, and engage in household production, such as on family farms or in family businesses; they work to earn money through wages or self-employment; and they work in order to enable others to work, for example by caring for sib­lings while parents work elsewhere. The con­ditions and nature of children’s work vary widely from occupations where children are able to develop responsibility and skills, and combine work with schooling, to conditions of extreme hazard and exploitation. Children are often more vulnerable than adults to exploitation and abuse and may require specific meas­ures to prevent their exploitation.

The phrase “child labour” summons up imag­es of sweatshops, and mines, or children work­ing on the streets. However, much of the work children do is invisible. Because of this invisi­bility, it is almost impossible to obtain reliable statistics. A recent estimate by the Internation­al Labour Organisation (lLO) is that world­wide, 250 million children aged 5-14 work and of these 120 million work full-time. A fo­cus on visible forms of work can obscure the many other ways in which children work. Ru­ral working children, for example, are mainly engaged in agricultural activities and collect­ing water, fuel and fodder. In many countries, poor girls work as domestic servants for richer families. Almost everywhere, children, espe­cially girls, perform unpaid work for their fam­ilies. The ILO estimates that this constitutes 80 per cent of children’s work. Yet, the mere fact that work is done in the home or in family en­terprises does not necessarily make it easier or more acceptable. As one child said at a recent hearing on the issue in Oslo: ­“Working children have many problems with their employers, especially in my work (a housemaid). Sometimes employers do not pay us for two or three months. If we protest, sometimes they beat us. If you are sick, there is no health insurance.”

Hazardous and exploitative forms of child work, which jeopardize children’s physical, mental, educational or social development should be eradicated. Any work children un­dertake should assist them to develop social­ly and educationally. Achieving this requires co-ordinated action, which addresses the fundamental economic and social causes of exploitative and hazardous child work on a number of levels.


Many children have limited options: they often need to work to ensure their own and their families’ survival. The conditions of poverty and inequality that give rise to this situation derive, in part, from economic ine­qualities between regions, countries and people. In some cases, unregulated rapid growth of market economies has made things worse, by increasing the vulnerability of poor households, and by reducing the re­sources available for state educational and welfare provision. In such contexts, chil­dren’s work can make a critical contribution to household income, and can constitute a more attractive option for children and par­ents than underfunded, low quality educa­tion. Policies and interventions to address child work must incorporate an analysis of the impact of macro-economic trends and policies and on children’s lives.


In addition to poverty, other structural social inequalities based on gender, ethnicity, age, class and caste, influence which children work, the kinds of work they do, and their working conditions. For example, girls may be expected to work while their brothers attend school. The inequalities in social and ed­ucational service provision and in economic opportunities between rural and urban areas can create particular pressures: on rural chil­dren to work long hours and not to attend school, on urban children to take advantage of particular so called economic ‘opportuni­ties’, and sometimes on rural children to mi­grate, voluntarily or forcibly to urban areas to take up these legal and illegal ‘opportunities’. Children living and working away from their families are often particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Addressing social inequalities of this kind requires action at governmental and sometimes inter-governmental level, as well as action locally.

Often a combination of factors push and pull children into work. In addition to the factors that promote the supply of children’s labour, such as poverty, social inequality and different perceptions of childhood, in certain sectors there is a demand for children because they are cheaper, more docile, and, some argue, more nimble. Lack of access to quality education, or the existence of particular income-earning op­portunities, may pull children into work. Inter­vention strategies must be based on a thorough understanding of the complexity of the reasons children work in particular contexts, though this should never be allowed to constitute a justification for failing to address hazardous and exploitative forms of child work.

Children’s work in hazardous, exploitative, so­cially damaging or educationally limiting oc­cupations is unacceptable and should be eradi­cated. These include commercial sex work, in­volvement in military operations, bonded la­bour, mining, and all industries and agriculture where children are exposed to toxic chemicals. On the other hand, non-hazardous and non-exploitative forms of work can be beneficial to children educationally and socially, through enabling them to develop problem-solving skills and by helping them to develop self-confidence and respect in their families and communities. Such work may constitute part of children’s participation in their own cultural and social development and that of their communities. In some cases, earning in­come can also enable children to eat better or to pay school-related expenses


Working children know their own immedi­ate situations best. Policy, planning and ac­tion on child work issues must involve the participation of working children and that of their families. This will help ensure that ac­tion is based on the reality of children’s lives and enhance the likelihood of its success. It will also help reduce the possibility of inter­ventions having unforeseen negative conse­quences. Promoting the participation of working children and their families in solv­ing their own problems may involve, among other activities, supporting the development of working children’s organisations.


Because of the complexity of child work is­sues, actions need to be chosen carefully, of­ten combining different kinds of activities and working at a number of levels. Wherever possible, interventions should address the root causes of child work. When planning ac­tivities, it is critical to think ahead to possible unintended outcomes and to consult working children, in order not to inadvertently make working children’s lives more difficult. For example, if children are prevented from working and no safe alternative income sources for themselves and their families are available, they may engage in less visible, more dangerous and exploitative work.

Legislation can be an important tool for ad­dressing problems related to child work -when enforced. However, the enforcement of certain laws may not be in the best interests of working children. For example, enforcing laws criminalising Street vending can push children into more dangerous activities. The focus should be on legislation which protects rather than punishes working children. It is essential to accompany this by sensitising en­forcement personnel to the reasons why chil­dren work and to working children’s needs. Where working conditions are extremely ex­ploitative or hazardous and attempts to insti­gate alternatives have failed, boycotts may be justified. However, the focus on traded prod­ucts can result in such sanctions targeting sec­tors where working conditions are less hazard­ous and exploitative than in non-export sectors and non-industrial employment. In the ab­sence of alternatives, trade sanctions can there­fore push children into worse working condi­tions. To avoid this, it is critical to plan such programmes in consultation with working children. Codes of conduct and schemes certi­fying that products are made without chil­dren’s labour need to form part of programmes which facilitate families’ access to other sourc­es of income, and children’s access to educa­tion. Because much production for export is carried out at home or in small informal sector units, monitoring mechanisms are often partic­ularly difficult to establish. However, monitor­ing systems which both ensure suppliers’ com­pliance with such programmes, and examine the impact on children are essential. Any trade-related measures should be part of a wider strategy, seeking to eliminate hazardous and exploitative employment in all sectors.


Universal primary education is necessary but insufficient as a sole strategy to eliminate un­acceptable forms of child work. Improve­ments in the quality and relevance of educa­tion, increased provision in remote areas and reductions in the costs to families of sending children to school are likely also to have sig­nificant impact in extending children’s access to education, and reducing the time they spend working. Sensitive scheduling of school timetables and calendars to coincide with hours of part-time or seasonal work can enable many working children to attend school and reduce the likelihood of their en­gaging full-time in hazardous or exploitative occupations. Special programmes may be needed to increase girls’ access to education. Research is needed in order to better under­stand the place of work in children’s lives, in particular contexts, and to develop sound cri­teria for assessing the risks and hazards chil­dren face in different kinds of work. Eradicat­ing all forms of hazardous and exploitative child work should be the focus of interven­tion strategies. To achieve this, co-ordinated action on child work issues at international, regional, national and local levels is essential. Good quality universal primary education is the right of every child. However, it will not alone eliminate child labour. Unless the root causes of child labour — poverty, social ine­quality and attitudes towards children and childhood — are addressed, children will continue to work.

Diana Sutton works for the International Save the Children Alliance European office. Save the Children works for children everywhere in the world. Its work is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Save the Children members work in over 100 countries world wide in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East and South East Asia, Latin America and Europe. Go to International Save the Children website