Empower and protect: rethinking bans on child labor

“Child labour isn’t going anywhere, so children’s safety in work must become the priority.”

Writing in Open Democracy, Edward Van Daalen and Mohammed Al-Rozzi argue that we should rethink bans on child labor. 2021 is the UN International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour — a goal that won’t be achieved — and child labor won’t be eliminated by 2025 as proposed in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

While bans on child labor may sound good on paper and may reduce numbers in some areas, it also pushes child workers into the shadows. As part of a larger series for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, the authors present alternatives to bans, chiefly the approach of ’empower and protect, rather than prohibit’.

As reported in Open Democracy:

Over the last three decades, international organisations like the International Labour Organization (ILO), UNICEF and the Global March Against Child Labour have carefully cultivated, mainstreamed, and transformed this one-dimensional narrative into support for the ‘total abolition’ of child labour. However, what legally and empirically lies behind the catch-all concept of ‘child labour’ is much more complex and nuanced than this narrow and sensationalist representation suggests.

One of the primary assumptions of this campaign is that work and education are mutually exclusive. Some abolitionists even go as far as to claim that a child who is not enrolled in school is de facto in child labour. However, even the ILO’s own figures on child labour refute this trope by showing that the vast majority of working children combine work and school. It is also widely acknowledged that work itself holds educational potential, and child advocates have argued repeatedly that formal enrolment in school is not a sufficient metric for capturing where, what, or how much children learn.

Another assumption is that work is intrinsically harmful to children’s health and morale. While some children certainly work under harmful conditions and steps should be taken to minimise this, the ILO’s global estimates suggest that most work done by children is not hazardous. And non-hazardous work can have beneficial effects on children’s psychological and professional development.

A third assumption is that children always work against their will. Yet working children have repeatedly told researchers that they undertake work for a variety of economic, cultural, social or emotional reasons. Moreover, these working children reject the label of being ‘slaves’ and instead say they want to be involved as active participants in research and policy-making that affect them.

With this in mind, an overarching goal of eliminating all forms of child labor is both unrealistic and not reflective of what working children want or need.

Given the evidence that child labor bans can exacerbate “precarious situations and those of their families and communities,” the authors conclude that “interventions and campaigns should be evidence-based, locally adapted, informed by working children’s own experiences, and should consider well-being holistically.”

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