Child labour: a shock absorber for economic precarity
The only way to reduce child labour in low-income countries is to make it easier for households to survive without it
Common solutions to the ‘problem’ of child labour pursue narrow, punitive policies. They either boycott products made by children, or remove children from work that is considered exploitative or that interferes with schooling. The International Labour Organisation, even though it once supported efforts to regulate children’s work, now encourages these sorts of strategies. It is firmly in favour of the complete abolition of child work and is currently spearheading a global initiative to eliminate all forms of child labour by 2025.
Yet abolition policy, which is based on an idealised conception of childhood as exclusively a time of play and learning, misses out on societal contexts and the structural reasons why children work. It is wilfully blind to how work can improve children’s lives, and thus struggles to resonate in the local contexts where child labour-related interventions usually take place.
I would argue that, rather than seeking to impose an ideal by force on far from ideal circumstances, international efforts to improve working children’s lives should instead focus on the political-economic forces and structural inequalities that produce childhood poverty. I give some strategies on how to do this below. Decision makers would stand a chance of enhancing working children’s wellbeing if they chose to follow them, but if they insist on continuing their present course they are likely to accomplish little more than punishing the people they’re claiming to protect.
My life as a ‘child labourer’
I grew up in Ethiopia as a ‘child labourer’, if that is the correct term for the millions of children who contribute to familial livelihoods across the world. Every day I fetched water from a river, and every weekend I carried firewood home from distant places. When I wasn’t attending shift school I sold home-cooked food in daily markets and worked as a manual labourer in local construction sites to generate income. I did numerous household chores. I took cereals to flour mills, ran errands, cooked, washed clothes, cared for my siblings, and collaborated with them to find paid work outside the home.
I do not romanticise poverty or my labour. But I do not doubt the utility of work for overcoming life’s everyday problems, such as buying food or paying for stationery materials. Millions of working children sustain themselves by generating income that supplements family livelihoods. They assist with their households’ chores, farming, and trading so that the adults have enough time and space to perform the specialised activities that only they can do. These circumstances of life – obtaining life-sustaining resources and diversifying livelihood strategies in order to ensure collective existence – are far too often ignored whenever the conversation turns to improving the wellbeing of working children.
As poverty deepens household responsibilities get reallocated, leading to a phenomenon where children act as shock absorbers.
My experience on what it means to be a working child resonates with studies that show how children's contributions are valued by and valuable for families and communities. Involvement in work from an early age is a central feature of parenting in low-income societies. Far from being neglectful or abusive, this mode of childrearing deliberately seeks to integrate children into society and prepare them for the responsibilities of life. Work therefore not only has an educational value, but also makes children more resilient to adversity both now and later on in adulthood.
At the crossroads of work, poverty and culture
I have researched children found on the margins of Ethiopian society – those working in the coffee economy, street beggars, migrant traders, hawkers, carers, domestic servants, etc. – for over 15 years now. With many of them I have had the opportunity to follow their livelihood strategies as they have changed over time. I have studied why they work as well as the broader systems that they must navigate to make ends meet. And, above all else, the two issues that characterise these children’s lives are the intersection of work and poverty, and the familial and cultural context that shapes their work. However, these aspects of political economy are usually underestimated or neglected by policymakers and practitioners when they seek to address child labour.
An example of how political economy affects child poverty is documented in my research on the coffee sector in Ethiopia. The coffee economy accounts for 60% of Ethiopia’s foreign revenue, employing over 20 million people. However, coffee revenues are unstable due to the volatile global market and climate change. In particular, the income of coffee growers has declined considerably over the past decade. The cause for this has been, first of all, the liberalisation of the coffee market. Following the collapse of the International Coffee Association in 1989, coffee roasting companies – not coffee producers or consumers – began to dictate the price of coffee in the world market. In addition to this, coffee growers cannot add value to their products to increase their share of the profit. They can only sell only raw coffee at a low price.
This is the "coffee paradox" in the value chain, whereby there is a big difference in price between raw coffee sold as a commodity and roasted coffee sold as a final product to consumers. These trade problems – combined with the ever-increasing costs of production inputs like labour, fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides, etc. – mean that farmers achieve only meagre incomes from their produce. This not only makes coffee-producing families poorer, but also negatively affects the income earned by children employed in picking berries. Income reduction at the household and national levels means there are fewer resources available for feeding children or paying for their education and healthcare. This is the reality, and it has been created largely by global economic processes rather than local factors.
My research documents how the coffee crisis has intensified the jobs children must undertake to increase their household’s capacity to survive. As poverty has deepened household responsibilities have been reallocated, leading to a phenomenon where children act as shock absorbers. They put more hours into unpaid or low-paid activities, such as producing food or caring for their siblings, so that adult men and women can take on income-generating activities or migrate for work. The breadth of their activities has also expanded. Some have, for example, taken up doing piece work in nearby towns or working as daily labourers in the transportation terminals. Others have chosen to migrate as well in search of work. The lesson here is that these aren’t isolated incidents. Exploitation of child labour is a systemic problem, and it can only be addressed by focusing on its structural or political-economic causes.
The only way out is to challenge the social and economic structures that impoverish working children, not children’s work itself.
Child labour is also connected to intergenerational poverty and the increasing feminisation of survival. The number of rural and urban families relying primarily on female breadwinners around the world has been growing, and one consequence of this has been that child work gets deployed, once again, as a shock absorber for livelihood insecurity. Boys and girls shoulder the responsibility of domestic work to alleviate the burden on the female head of the household. And, like the coffee crisis, this is happening in large part due to factors outside of individual families’ control. Research indicates that increased care work by children, especially by girls, is inseparable from reduced government spending on health and hospital care, both of which increase women’s poverty and home-based caring tasks. It is, therefore, also necessary to understand how (gendered) familial livelihoods intersect with political economy to influence the dynamics of labour relations, including the value that child labour generates.
Acknowledge and adapt
We can neither reduce childhood poverty nor improve the situation of child labourers without attending to the question of political economy. This is the key takeaway. Political economy reveals the dynamics shaping children’s work and those pushing that work into exploitation. It explains the interplay between material practices and cultural ideas. And it exposes questions around access to and utilisation of resources. As the example from the coffee sector shows, the material contexts shaping children’s work and the economic processes creating those material conditions are inseparable. When the price of raw coffee declines, coffee-growing peasants suffer from a loss of income that increases not only household poverty but also children’s involvement in efforts to secure additional income. The only way out of this is to challenge the social and economic structures that impoverish working children, not children’s work itself.
Political economy matters now more than ever. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the income-earning possibilities of both children and adults in the informal sector. It displaced migrant and working children, making their livelihoods more precarious. The adverse consequences of social distancing measures are not just loss of livelihoods. They have completely eroded household assets in ways that will make it difficult for many children to return to regular everyday activities such as school. The inability of poor governments to provide financial support has also meant that many children must fend for themselves. Deepening poverty not only shows the hyper-precarity that Covid-19 has wrought but also begs interventions that focus on inequality and the redistribution of resources. With 25% of the world's population vaccinated and only 1% in poor countries, the pandemic not only provides new insights into how and why we need to attend to global inequalities – it also makes those inequalities starkly clear.
The working children I have spoken with for my research have repeatedly said they need social protection programmes that support their care and wellbeing. This demand is in line with Articles 19 and 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, yet in many low-resource contexts such programmes are non-existent, insufficient, or ineffective. One practical step that stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, and non-governmental organisations, could take is to focus on bolstering and improving these social protection programmes.
Children who beg on the streets or work in the informal economy are clear that their reasons for work are not limited to a lack of food or clothing. They cite other social deprivations as well, such as a lack of access to housing or disability care. They ask for decision makers to prioritise access to quality education, skills-training, and seed capital for small businesses. Many highlight the need for flexible schooling, and an important policy strategy that governments can adopt to increase working children’s school attendance is to make the school calendar more compatible with community work cycles.
Cash transfer schemes have also been found to effectively support working children and their families, and there is plenty of potential for scaling such programmes up. Governments could focus on redistributing wealth and reducing social inequalities, on regulating inflation levels for essentials like food, water, electricity, and health care, and on building social security schemes to assist households with disabled members. Child workers say they need decent and affordable housing, and housing policies should ensure access to shelter in cities where most low-income households find it increasingly hard to keep up with rent.
These solutions might sound expensive or disengaging in the short term, but they are precisely the kind of approaches that bring lasting impact and empower working children.
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