14 June 2011

Child Labor's Complexity

A report by Al Jazeera examines the changes in child labor in the period since the global financial crisis. At the heart of the discussion is a recently published report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which says that there are 215 million child laborers around the world. Of that number, 115 million are doing what ILO deems to be 'hazardous work.' The report's author, Susan Gunn, is joined by LSE Economics professor Marco Manacorda and ecologist and activist Vandana Shiva.

To get at some definitions, to ILO a child is considered to be under 18 (can do light work at 13, ordinary work by 15 and hazardous by 18) and hazardous work is:
  • work that exposes children to physical, emotional or sexual abuse;
  • work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces;
  • work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or that involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads;
  • work in an unhealthy environment, which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging to their health;
  • work under particularly difficult conditions such as work for long hours or during the night or work that does not allow for the possibility of returning home each day.

An discussion on twitter around the topic took place after @paxfelicitas tweeted the link to the report to myself and a few others asking for opinions. I responded quickly saying that there is 'unequivocally no' instance where child labor was acceptable. Fortunately, Matt Richmond jumped in to say that making such a statement comes from a place of privileged; which I immediately conceded to be correct. He argued that understanding it from an outsider is nearly impossible because we are not aware of the conditions which my drive parents to put their children to work. For example, it might be necessary to do so in order to put food on the table.

A conversation ensued, but I was struck by the opposing forces that are my heard and my mind. My gut feeling was to make a sweeping statement in response to the question that it is all bad. When my mind caught up to me, it examined the issue from the perspective of survival, necessity and external forces. Is child labor always bad? No. Is it desirable? No. Should it be eradicated? Yes. Although it is a matter of how.

Hazardous work presents a separate discussion. Based on the definitions set forth by ILO, I can feel pretty comfortable in agreeing that children should not be engaging in hazardous work. However, I worry that the discussion around the report can lose the complexity of the issue presented. In the discussion the matter was child labor itself which leads to many different definitions of what that means. You could define doing household chores such as washing the dishes as child labor as can the prostitution of a young girl. Both are very different circumstances which need to be parsed out.

All of this gets back to the original idea of how we frame discussions and the language we use. Being picky is quite tiresome, but it is important. When presented with the question of it child labor is ever OK, I thought only of the situation of a girl forces into prostitution or the small hands of a boy being used to fix machinery in a factory. What I did not initially consider were the kids who provide support to the family farm or shop in order to support the family's source of income. Even that is far too simple of a picture, but it gets at the importance of being as specific as possible.

The ILO report does an excellent job of attaining this level of specificity and hopefully advocates who put it to use will do so as well. It is worth noting that one of the most encouraging aspects of the report is that it states that the issue of child labor starts with the underlying conditions of poverty. In the video, Ms Gunn points out that laws exist but are not followed. That is not evidence that legislated efforts have no bearing on the decline of child labor, but goes to show that they are not going to solve the problem either. At the root is a situation where a family needs to bring in more income and, acting in the short run, determine that children can provide the necessary support to help out the family.