RETHINKING CHILD LABOUR: Abolishing child labour leads to slavery

Children working - rethinking child labour

“The belief that one’s own view of reality is the only reality is the most dangerous of all delusions” — Paul Watzlawick

Every time I see the words “CNN is Against Child Labour” or watch some celebrity on TV waving the physical or vocal “Abolish Child Labour” flag, I want to get up and smash something—probably the screen.

And sometimes aloud I will ask the empty room, “And then what?” Has anybody thought further than that? What happens to the children then? What happens to the families then?

Before we speak or take any action, we should consider the severe ramifications of abolishing a source of both income and labour that is not only prevalent, but has been part of the third world culture since time immemorial. Does anyone realize the importance of differentiating between “child slavery” and “child labour?” That the former is, in the majority of cases, a probable result of no access to the latter?

During my years in both Africa and Asia, I spent a lot of time in villages talking to the village chiefs. I also spent time visiting factories where children were working, speaking not only to the owners, but also to the families of the children and the children themselves.

I worked in the so-called “child care” industry for a number of years and have been part of not only the rescue, but also the caring and education operation—not in a detached way—in a hands on daily living way.

In Asia I have stood on street corners with prostitutes waiting for another family member to bring me their child or sibling—made quite an interesting sight, the falang (foreign) woman standing next to the local lady of the night; after a phone call from the village chief, I travelled hundreds of kilometres on the back of a motorbike to try and rescue two children from their aunt and uncle; I have stopped beggars in the middle of the road using drugged children as a lure to empty pockets and tried to convince them to let me take the children; I have visited brick-making factories where children worked next to their parents; I have searched for children stolen from the grounds of a temple the night before I was to take them to a place of care—by a relative to be sold (they were found a month later and are now in good care); I have been hit by drugged up little children begging from cars stopped at traffic lights, their mother sitting on a nearby corner watching carefully.

Yes, I have done these things and I can tell you a very different story—the one that ends with the immediate family and the child starving when the child is removed from the labour force. Or there’s the one that ends with a close relative stealing the child to take him or her to work in the next village or sold; or there is also the one with the family, now destitute, selling the child into sex trafficking or to factory owners or labour traffickers or, if young enough, to village witchdoctors for the making of medicine.

A lot of noise—the same noise that’s been going on for more than 10 years—is currently being made about the children trafficked to work in the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast and the instant “quick-fix” is to stop buying Nestlé chocolate, or any other chocolate or cocoa product for that matter. And yes, some of these children—not all—have been trafficked. The cocoa industry—and the worldwide trade in sweets and chocolates that it supplies—has long had to contend with a growing reputation for child exploitation. In the Ivory Coast, which accounts for 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa production, the U.S. state department estimates that more than 100,000 children work in the cocoa industry, and many are victims of human trafficking and slavery.

The 2010 documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate alleges that Nestlé purchases cocoa beans from Ivory Coast plantations that use child slave labour. The children are usually 12 to 15 years old, and some are trafficked from nearby countries—“some” not all.

But let us look closely at the definition of human trafficking according to UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime):

What is human trafficking?

Article 3, paragraph (a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons defines Trafficking in Persons as:

the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.

And “at a minimum” is translated in The ILO—International Labour Organization—in one of their charter documents Effective Abolition of Child Labour Supplemented: R190 Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation, 1999 as:

12. Members should provide that the following worst forms of child labour are criminal offences:

(a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

(b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances; and

(c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties, or for activities which involve the unlawful carrying or use of firearms or other weapons.

Victims of human trafficking are not permitted to leave upon arrival at their destination. They are held against their will through acts of coercion and forced to work or provide services to the trafficker or others. The work or services may include anything from bonded or forced labour to commercialized sexual exploitation. The arrangement may be structured as a work contract, but with no or low payment or on terms which are highly exploitative. Sometimes the arrangement is structured as debt bondage, with the victim not being permitted or able to pay off the debt.

However, remember, the majority of the children trafficked have been sold by a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” In worlds where the attitude is, it’s the next, or the next few meals that count, or the debt collector has to be appeased, selling children into slavery is the easy way out.

Now let us look at child labour

According to the UN Convention On The Rights Of The Child—Protection Rights: Keeping Safe from Harm Article 32 (Child labour):

The government should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or their education. While the Convention protects children from harmful and exploitative work, there is nothing in it that prohibits parents from expecting their children to help out at home in ways that are safe and appropriate to their age. If children help out in a family farm or business, the tasks they do be safe and suited to their level of development and comply with national labour laws. Children’s work should not jeopardize any of their other rights, including the right to education, or the right to relaxation and play.

The ILO—International Labour Organization—in one of their charter documents Effective Abolition of Child Labour states:

The principle of the effective abolition of child labour means ensuring that every girl and boy has the opportunity to develop physically and mentally to her or his full potential. Its aim is to stop all work by children that jeopardizes their education and development. This does not mean stopping all work performed by children. International labour standards allow the distinction to be made between what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable forms of work for children at different ages and stages of development… The general minimum age for admission to employment should not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and never be less than 15 years. But developing countries may make certain exceptions to this, and a minimum age of 14 years may be applied where the economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed. Sometimes, light work may be performed by children two years younger than the general minimum age.

Almost every section of both the above statements could be torn apart. Child labour accounts for 22 per cent of the workforce in Asia, 32 per cent in Africa and 17 per cent in Latin America. In third world countries where the teachers are themselves not being paid and have to extract money from the children before even giving them their exam results, who is going to pay for this education that the child has a right to and, while the child is being educated, who is going to help feed the starving family?

“The completion of compulsory schooling” is laughable. Go speak to the parents, find out what this “compulsory schooling” costs—especially at supposedly “free” government schools.

GAP is screamed at for using factories that employ child labour; Nike was accused of using child labour in Pakistan to manufacture its soccer balls; Levi Strauss & Co. are accused of using cotton from Uzbekistan harvested by enforced child labour. And again, the uninformed scream “Stop buying these products!”

Then what? What happens to the children then? Now there is NO work and I can assure you, manufacturing soccer balls, making bricks, sitting behind sewing machines, working in the fields and picking cotton are preferable to some of the alternatives. At least these children get the chance to go home and be with their families.

We in the western world created this monster and now we cannot live with the consequences of our actions. Maybe it is time to think of the effect our so-called “developed world” has on the—again so-called—“developing world” before we want more of what we don’t need.

No, we should not stop buying the products from companies that knowingly or unwittingly make use of child labour to manufacture either a portion of or the completed article we purchase.

What we should be doing is telling them to pay the labour a proper living wage and monitor the factory to ensure that this is actually being done. This is still a pittance in countries where families are expected to survive on $30 per month.

We should be telling the companies who use child labour to downsize their profit margins—let go of some greed. Money earned by the workers for the manufacture of a soccer ball in Pakistan? In the region of $0.50 per ball and what do Nike soccer balls cost? Go figure.

We should not stop buying cocoa or chocolate products. As Nestlé chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe recently told the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, removing child labour from the African cocoa harvest is “almost impossible,” citing the difficulty faced by small-time farmers in rural areas managing a harvest without the help of their children. He announced that, rather than eliminating child labour, his company instead wanted to invest in education for those children who worked in the cocoa fields—a concept he referred to as “creating shared value.” “If they have the access to good schooling, then the child labour as such is helping the fathers in the field and helping with the harvesting, I don’t think this is a problem,” he said. “The problem is when you use the children only for that and don’t allow them to go to school.”

What we should be doing is agitating for the companies who supply us our addictions via the trafficking route to go one step further; go look for the traffickers, go find the children and buy them back, allow them access to their families, give them education opportunities.

We should be going to the factories and negotiating for space somewhere on the premises to teach the child when it is not working—I did this at brick making factories and was given space and permission on only one condition, that I teach the adults too!

We should be telling those organizations and activists who believe it is better to remove the child from the workplace to go ahead, but then pay the family the money the child would have earned AND pay to educate this child. And be fully aware of the consequences of any action they take.

Yes, children are precious and we must protect them. But we must be extremely careful how we do this in third world countries where children are commodities used to feed those who can no longer feed themselves, and the only way to truly protect them is to ensure that the rest of the family is cared for too. Abolishing child labour will lead to them being trafficked—that is a fact.

To slightly adapt the words of a Roger Waters song “What God Wants God gets, God help us all”—what developed man wants, developed man gets, developed man help us all. And think carefully—exactly how far are you prepared to go to undo what you have done and are still doing? Are you prepared to buy a life to save a life?

by Jane Olivier

image: CIFOR (Creative Commons BY-NC)
Posted by × February 7, 2012 at 12:30 PM

12 Comments

  1. I think it’s so important, as activists, to examine the actual ramifications of what we are advocating for.

    On the surface, child labour brings up negative feelings for most people – but you raise a very good point about the potential alternatives. I have often thought along similar lines but I lack the personal experience or in-depth knowledge of the situation.

    Perhaps it isn’t about abolishing child labour itself, if it means families will be losing their livelihood. But we can certainly begin to shift our efforts toward advocating for better practices, access to education, and fair pay. We may actually get some tangible results this way.

    • Yes. And it is extremely important to understand the culture of the countries. I cannot emphasize this enough. Before we activate, learn, so we know what we are doing. We can do far more harm than we have already done.

      Dragon-slayers need to recognize and understand dragons before we go around slaying the relatively harmless ones.

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. It’s so easy to just hear something like “abolish child labour” then automatically think “of course!”

    There are so many sides to this, and every, issue. Before getting active we have to be mindful of all of these sides otherwise we may not be helping out, or like in this case, we may actually be causing harm.

  3. This is a good read. Thank-you for putting it together. I am new to the twitter world, but I tweeted it ~ do you have a twitter? I’d love to connect over there. I’m passionate about ending sex slavery and child slavery and changing the conversation about prostitution, so that when “johns” are busted with a “prostitute” they will be actually charged with possession of a “sex slaves” which carries a much bigger stigma in society and may help change the way society tends to be lackadaisical on recognizing the reality of the horrors of much the world’s prostitution rings.

  4. Lise Andersen says:

    Great article. I agree with every single think you said.
    I’m at the very beginning stages of writing my Master’s Thesis on child labour and how we should not eliminate it and not boycot firms that have children working there, for the exact reasons that you mentioned. Instead, child labour should be allowed to a certain extent (eliminating the worst forms of child labour such as mining, and other hazard work places). I think child labour should be allowed, controlled and it should be combined with an education.

  5. This article is very informative. Too often I do hear people trying convince others not to buy a certain product because of “child labour” but that is all you hear. What is missing is what this article just explained. There are two sides to every story and this article “is the other side of the story”. I

  6. A good article shedding light on a perspective we “couch activists” do not stop to consider deeply. The reality is, that children are a source of income for their family around the world. Instead of righteously telling their parents not to sell their children into the working class at such a young age, it’s better we work within the systems in place and acknowledge the vast needs and circumstances of the child and their family. Perhaps you could provide some examples of how we could advocate for the child worker, with links to petitions or campaigns or something, because the concept of how to act is a daunting one.

  7. Who is the author?

  8. The byline is posted at the bottom: by Jane Olivier

Leave a Reply