Want to Stop Child Labour? Lessons From the Young Lives Study
A few weeks ago, a journalist asked me whether we should rethink the ban on children being in employment or working below a minimum age. The interviewer was eager to hear why I might disagree with such a policy when it seems obvious that keeping children out of work and putting them in school protects them from danger and exploitation.
Certainly we must find ways to protect children from harmful work. But the best way to do that is to turn our attention to identifying and bringing to an end—for all children—all work that is detrimental. Simply banning work for the youngest can have unintended adverse effects.
This position is based on direct experience and years of research. I was in Bangladesh 25 years ago when a bill prohibiting the import of manufactured and mined goods produced by children under the age of 15 was submitted to the United States Senate. The intention was not just to get children out of sweatshops but also to ensure that they would attend school. Fearful of losing their valuable export businesses, owners of garment factories in Bangladesh made around 60,000 children redundant, practically overnight. By following up on a number of the children afterwards, we discovered that none were in school, and many were in jobs that were far riskier than garment production, including prostitution, isolated and terribly vulnerable.
Certainly we must find ways to protect children from harmful work. But the best way to do that is to turn our attention to identifying and bringing to an end—for all children—all work that is detrimental.
Bringing children’s experiences and views into the discussion must therefore be a priority for policymakers. Over the past 15 years, we have been aiming to do this through Young Lives, a longitudinal study examining the experiences and circumstances of 12,000 boys and girls as they grow up in four very diverse countries: Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam. We have found that understanding the perspectives of children who need to work, as well as those of their families, is essential for interventions to succeed. Without these insights, we may fail to improve their situation and even leave them worse off. This was the case in Bangladesh, where no one considered, before the ban, what alternatives outside garment manufacture were open to children and what support they needed to be able to attend school.
From what we have heard from Young Lives children and families, three important points stand out.
Boys herding cattle in rural Ethiopia/Young Lives
First, economic necessity is undoubtedly one of the major forces driving children to work. Given this, a basic policy goal must be to ensure that all families have enough resources to send their children to school and to raise them without needing to rely on their work.
With this in mind, it is encouraging that Young Lives families were better off when last interviewed in 2016 than they were in 2001. However, over the same time period, inequalities between children became entrenched. Poorer, rural children and those from ethnic or religious minorities often had no choice but to continue working.
Indeed, we found that in many places, children’s work is exactly what enables them to go to school. Children in rural Ethiopia, for example, work as casual wage labourers, using their incomes to buy books, stationary, school uniforms and shoes. Their parents are not able to provide for these things.
Considering this, what do we do? Pro-growth macro-economic policies that deepen and entrench inequalities must urgently be re-examined, alongside providing targeted forms of child-sensitive social protection that offer safety nets for those left behind.
Young woman working in Vietnam/Young Lives
Schools that matter
Our second point concerns the assumption that school is the only way for children to learn and consequently the best way for them to spend their time. This could theoretically be true if all the world’s children had access to high-quality, free education that prepares them for the adult world of work. Yet that is simply not the case.
Young Lives decided to examine the effectiveness of schools in the four countries we study. Sadly, we found that most schools are simply not delivering, even on children’s right to learn basic skills including literacy and numeracy. In India and Peru, education is effectively entrenching inequalities between children from different social groups. In addition, corporal punishment together with a lack of safety and respect for pupils, often pushes children out of school and into the labour market.
To address this, governments, schools and communities need to support the education of those children who need to work by improving the quality and flexibility of schooling. This includes making schools safer by addressing corporal punishment and bullying and ensuring that children who work and their families are neither stigmatized nor penalized.
Girl carrying heaps of rice stems in rural Vietnam/Young Lives
Not all work is bad
Third, crucially, we found that not all work is bad for children. Some work can enable children to acquire new skills and assume certain responsibilities. Moreover, taking on paid work can be pragmatic, especially in the absence of effective education, because it offers children a foothold in the labour market, which they will need if their education fails to improve their prospects or when no better jobs are available.
Many children also feel proud of the contribution they make to their families and communities through their work. Even children who feel compelled to work are not simply helpless victims of circumstance. In all four countries, children believed it was important to support their families.
Policies should focus, therefore, on supporting children who work to do so in ways that are “light”, safe and beneficial. This would entail collaborating with children and their communities to identify and eliminate the most harmful forms of work. Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals and ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour provide a framework for this, protecting children at the greatest risk of harm while recognizing that not all work is harmful.
Above all, rather than simply imposing solutions, it is important to talk with children and families about the pressures on their lives and to assess all the potential impacts of interventions prior to implementation.
Professor Jo Boyden is the Director of Young Lives.
This article has been prepared by Professor Jo Boyden as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.