What do effective measures to address children’s work look like? Reflections from Young Lives

21 September, 2017

This week, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published new Global Estimates of Child Labour. Charting a decline in child labour since 2000, the ILO notes that this decline has slowed in recent years and calls for accelerated action to meet target 8.7 of the Global Goals: 'Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms'.

The ILO report includes a welcome call for policy responses to child labour to be integrated into broader national development efforts and adapted to local circumstances. In this blog, I reflect on what children have told Young Lives about their work over the past 15 years, and what ‘effective measures’ to address children’s work might look like from their point of view.

Firstly, child-sensitive social protection arrangements are needed to tackle the drivers of children’s work – hardship, economic shocks and hunger. In the absence of adequate protection for household livelihoods, children have little choice but to work to help ensure their family’s survival.

In Vietnam, 16 year-old Long worked and lived in a leather factory to support her ill parents and disabled brother, giving most of her earnings to her family, and returning home every Sunday to visit them and help her mother on the farm.

The Global Estimates of Child Labour’s focus on building and extending social protection to support vulnerable families is important and welcome. Through studies such as this recent review of ‘cash plus’, approaches to social protection by the Centre for Social Protection, IDS and UNICEF’s Office of Research, we are learning about the best way to design programmes that benefit children in the long run as well as providing families with short-term support.

Second, education needs to be genuinely accessible, relevant and of high quality. Forthcoming Young Lives analysis shows that children in 2016 spent more time at school - and less time working - than children in 2009. However, the significant costs associated with schooling mean that many children work to pay for their own, or a sibling’s, education. At school, low-quality learning opportunities mean that many children fail to reach their potential: between the ages of 12 and 15 years, disadvantaged pupils in Ethiopia and India make little progress. Vietnam is a notable exception, with schools providing effective and equitable education. As children advance through their teens, the mismatch between what is taught in schools and the work opportunities available to them becomes more apparent, so that their educational aspirations decline and many depart school early. Children who work, who are ill, or who migrate can find school an unwelcoming place to be, with narrow learning opportunities compounded by harsh discipline.

Gemechu, a boy from Ethiopia, described how he left school because he quarrelled with his teacher: ‘When I was fishing, I was not arriving at school on time. Because of that he sent me out of the class, picking me [out] from my classmates; and he said: ‘Go back to your home’.

We agree with the assessment in the Global Estimates of Child Labour that expanding access to free, quality public education is key to addressing child labour.

Finally, the focus of global efforts should be on implementing Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour, thereby protecting children at the greatest risk of harm or exploitation. The new global estimates include all children employed under the age of 12. There is little evidence that pursuing comprehensive implementation of a blanket ban on children working under a minimum age – as required by ILO Convention 138 – will bring benefits to children who work. In Young Lives study areas (across Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam), a very large number of children undertake some work before their tweltfth birthday, typically helping out in the household and on family farms and making a much-needed contribution to family livelihoods. For many children, there is little option but to work.

‘If I didn’t have a job, I couldn’t have attended class because I would have had a financial constraint. Furthermore, our standard of living has improved since I started work’ (rural girl, Ethiopia, who started picking beans when she was age 8).

In 2016, the average ten-year-old in India, Peru and Vietnam worked for about one hour a day, whilst in Ethiopia the average working day at age 10 was longer, at four hours. At this age, school enrolment is now near-universal and Young Lives and other studies have found little evidence that light work of a few hours a day is detrimental to children’s development (educational, physical, and psychosocial), even at a relatively young age. Under the right circumstances, work can support children to learn technical and social skills, and to build self-esteem and resilience through the contributions they make to their family. Globally, minimum age regulations for child employment do not appear to substantively influence their employment.

To see more Young Lives findings on children’s work, view this short presentation or visit www.younglives.org.uk/content/childrens-work for a listing of publications. A full report by Dr Virginia Morrow drawing together Young Lives findings on children’s work will be published in November 2017.

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About the author(s)
Jo Boyden
Professor of International Development and Director, Young Lives