Urban Childhood Conference, Trondheim, 9-12 June 1997 A report on the Child Labour Section


Urban Childhood Conference,
Trondheim, 9-12 June 1997
A report on the Child Labour Section





Introduction: The perspective from Trondheim

1.The changing dynamics surrounding child labour

2.The kaleidoscopic workplace

3.The advantages and disadvantages of work to children

4.The young protagonist

5.Actors and actions

6.Towards a new perspective on child labour

Letter from the the representatives of the working children´s organisations to the participants of the Conference on Urban childhood in Trondheim


Conference programme





The Conference on Urban Childhood, organised by the Norwegian Centre for Child Research together with Childwatch International and other partners took place in Trondheim on 9-12 June 1997. The Conference offered a timely opportunity to review the situation of working children and identify the directions in which recent research and programmatic action are leading.

The section on Child Labour aroused particular interest among the 500+ Conference participants, as well as from the media. Its deliberations profited from the presence of many of the key researchers and practitioners who have been instrumental in raising the issue of working children on national and international agendas during recent years. The section also benefited from participation by representatives from organisations of working children in India, West Africa, and Peru, whose presence helped to keep the discourse grounded within the realities of young peoples working lives and aspirations.

The Child Labour section’s working sessions consisted of the presentation of papers and invited interventions around specific themes, combined with open discussion on the issues raised. The Scientific Committee which organised the section contained the following members:

  • Mark Belsey, Independent consultant, USA;
  • Jon-Kristian Johnsen, Redd Barna (Norwegian Save The Children), Kathmandu, Nepal;
  • Per Miljeteig, Childwatch International, Oslo, Norway;
  • Per Egil Mjaavatn, The Norwegian Centre for Child Research, Trondheim, Norway;
  • Brian Raftopoulos, Institute of Development Studies, University of Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe;
  • Nandana Reddy, The Concerned for Working Children, Bangalore, India; also Chairperson of the International Working Group on Child Labour, Amsterdam.
  • Ben White, Institute of Social Studies, the Hague, Netherlands;
  • Chris Williams, International Unit, School of Education, University of Birmingham.

This report was prepared by Maggie Black, the section rapporteur, in close collaboration with the Scientific Committee. It provides a synthesis of the main lines of presentation and discussion during the working sessions, with a view to their implications for further research, programming and advocacy relating to child labour issues.

As part of the process of international discussion surrounding child labour, and to promote the elimination of harmful and exploitative child work generally, the Government of Norway is organising an International Conference on Child Labour to be held in Oslo in October 1997.

At the same time, the International Labour Office (ILO) is actively considering the drafting of a new Convention relating to child work, to supplement the existing ILO Convention No. 138 (1973) on the minimum age of employment. The proposed new Convention would identify the most intolerable forms of child labour with a view to outlawing and eradicating types of employment or work practices which amount to abuse, neglect, exploitation, or other forms of gross rights violation.

The organisers of the Urban Childhood Conference regard this summary of discussions and conclusions of the Child Labour section as an up-to-date synthesis of professional, academic and child worker expertise in the subject area. They hope that it will serve as a useful backdrop for the deliberations at Oslo and decisions stemming from them, as well as for follow-up action to the Oslo Conference world wide.

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Introduction: The perspective from Trondheim

Child labour is a subject whose connotations and imagery are inextricably associated with the 19th century industrial revolution. Viewed until recently as a phenomenon consigned to history, child labour — notably in the developing countries — has lately re-emerged as an issue of widespread concern. This stems partly from awareness generated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; it is also a product of the increasing political attention being given to children and young people generally, and to issues of neglect, abuse or exploitation amounting to gross violations of their rights.

Estimates of the numbers of children and young people world wide who are in some form of regular employment, who perform marketing or service functions to earn money for themselves or their families, or who undertake some form of work, paid or unpaid, as a traded commodity, are usually in the hundreds of millions. The phenomenon is undoubtedly linked to the rapid process of urbanisation currently being experienced in many parts of the developing world, and thus any wide-ranging discussion of the changing dynamics of urban childhood would be incomplete without its inclusion. However, specialists in the subject believe that, overall, more rural than urban children can be described as “working”; it is important to note that child labour is therefore not only an “urban childhood” issue even if this was the framework for discussions in Trondheim. It is as important to note that socio-cultural and historical variables are as important as economic and demographic trends in contributing to the phenomenon. Child work, if not “child labour”, has been an intrinsic feature of human society since it began.

The considerable upsurge of public and political interest in child labour in recent years, and the activist campaigning which has promoted and fed this state of heightened concern, has not been without its internal controversies. While abuse, neglect and exploitation of children under all circumstances are universally deplored, there is considerable debate as to whether the practice of “child labour” can be definitively classified in all cases and settings as a gross violation of children’s rights. Commentators have pointed to the value of work as an integral part of a child’s and young person’s learning and psycho-social development process — a value acknowledged freely in industrialised world settings.

Equally, there have been strong differences of view about strategies to respond to the phenomenon of child labour. In particular, the imposition of compulsory universal education, whatever its independent value for boys and girls of school-going age, is not accepted by all schools of thought as a panacea for the elimination of child employment. There is an associated recognition that primary education is often of very poor quality in many countries where child employment is commonplace, and the provision of appropriate, good quality universal primary schooling in these settings — while it should be an important priority for a variety of reasons — cannot be accomplished overnight.

Both these issues — work as a positive value in upbringing, and strategies to eliminate child labour including the role of education — were among the recurrent themes throughout the conference and were thoroughly explored during working sessions.

Where issues of gross abuse and exploitation are concerned, debates surrounding children have a tendency to be informed as much by emotion as by science, especially where solid information is lacking. In the case of child labour, this has led to an unfortunate polarisation of views leading to artificial dichotomies both about the practice itself and about strategies for its reduction. Within the research and practitioner community, it is well-recognised that insufficient data is available concerning the implications of work and employment of different kinds and in different circumstances for the children and young people involved. Not only does this lack of data impair programmatic action relating to child workers and their families; it has had the effect of impoverishing the debate, and of allowing assumptions deriving from 19th century norms to inform strongly-held positions without sufficient re-examination in contemporary settings.

Bearing in mind existing knowledge gaps and the pressures the debate has recently experienced, the Child Labour section was structured in such a way as to address key dialectical issues, and to examine the interactions between existing programmatic work and potential research activity. The Conference programme was designed to build on existing practitioner knowledge, the outcomes of contemporary research studies, and the perspectives of child workers themselves, in order to explore the following themes:

  • Child labour: a problem that needs to be addressed at national as well as global levels;
  • When does work become exploitation? How to understand labour and
  • its harmful effects from the working childs perspective;Childrens work in the informal sector, particularly domestic and home based work;
  • How do we get to know what we need to know about child labour? Methods for further research;
  • How do we deal with child labour in practical terms? How can programming profit from the contributionsof research and how can research take its guidance from programming?
  • Where do we go from here? Critical questions and implications for policies, programming and research.

During the course of the Urban Childhood Conference, strands of a new perspective on child labour gradually emerged. The degree of unanimity surrounding this new perspective was in marked contrast to the divergence of views which has so often characterised discussions concerning child labour. This in itself is an important indicator that the debate has turned a corner. In the light of better information and sober reflection, and an expansion — albeit modest — in scientific interest and data collection, researchers, activists and policy advisors concerning child labour are beginning to occupy common ground.

The most important new characteristic of the discourse is that it has moved beyond the polemics of “for or against” — both in connection with whether young people should be allowed to work, and in connection with specific strategies for the elimination of “child labour”. A consensus has emerged around a much broader vision, at the centre of which is the notion that the aim of any action to assist actual or potential working children should be to provide support and protection for childhood development, taking into account the best interests of the children or young people concerned, and their perceptions of those best interests.

Adopting a “childhood development” lens as the way in which to view occupations, workplaces and employment practices does not preclude holding definitive views about inappropriate and grossly exploitative types of child employment; nor does it preclude respecting the value of work as an essential part of growing up. But it does suggest that applying judgements based on minimum age standards for occupations and workplaces which do not fall neatly into either category is not necessarily the most appropriate means of child labour regulation.

One of the most striking findings of the meeting was that healthy psycho-social development is by no means inconsistent with a working life in childhood or during adolescence. Young workers themselves attested to the way in which work experience gave them a sense of self-worth; at the same time, evidence suggested that in settings where schooling was poor, healthy psycho-social development could not be guaranteed in the classroom. Increasingly, research is suggesting that work and school are not the mutually exclusive alternatives so frequently portrayed. Work and full-time education can be dovetailed, as happens in industrialised world settings with both adult and young worker approval.



 Among other key ingredients of the new perspective on child labour were the following:

  • the need to avoid pathologising language concerning child work and child workers, and to reduce the level of sensationalism surrounding the subject; also reduce the misunderstandings that result from the fact that the word “child” can denote children and young people up to 18 years;
  • recognition that research is needed to compensate for the lack of scientific information concerning child labour; and the need for appropriate tools and methodologies to fill knowledge gaps;
  • respect for the voices of children and young people and their own perceptions of their needs, and the development of mechanisms to allow their voices to be heard in the debate;
  • careful differentiation between the usefulness of international instruments articulating universal principles; and the need for flexible and relativist programmatic approaches
  • recognition that regulation via the law is only one instrument among many for dealing with the needs and rights of working children;
  • recognition that prevalence figures concerning the numbers of children and young people involved in the workplace cannot be taken as a quantification of the problem of child labour; terminology should be found to distinguish between working children and those suffering from different kinds and degrees of exploitation in the workplace;
  • a commitment to improvement in the quality of schooling and education in all environments where there is evidence that children and families find it irrelevant to their needs and where teachers routinely behave abusively towards pupils.

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1. The changing dynamics surrounding child labour

The two sets of contemporary dynamics concerning child labour to which the Urban Childhood Conference participants gave priority attention were current trends affecting employment and family incomes in developing countries; and changing dynamics surrounding the debate itself.

Macro-economic and social trends and child labour in developing countries

As was pointed out by Vasanthi Raman of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in India, the phenomenon of working children is far from new; it is, and always has been, a normal characteristic of daily life among the poor that children should contribute to the household economy with work of some kind or another. The significant historical shift is that accomplished in industrialised societies, where working life and the workplace have been formalised and decreed an adults-only area, while at the same time childhood has assumed a special character as a period of growth, learning and socialisation under adult guidance and protection. It is therefore unsurprising that the overwhelming majority of child workers contributing to the household economy are to be found in developing countries, among the poorer sections of the population both rural and urban.

Although the practice of giving children economically significant tasks to perform has deep historical and cultural roots, there is a major change in today’s world. Many countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and in eastern Europe, are in a state of rapid and turbulent economic transition with serious implications for their poorest members. Structural adjustment programmes imposed by international lending institutions as a condition of concessionary financing typically involve the dismantling of state interventionist systems in favour of market-driven development models. This has led to increased unemployment and sharp cuts in social safety-nets and welfare provisions. As a result, what are known as ‘the new poor’ — those marginalised by the process of economic restructuring — have come into existence. It is within their ranks that many child workers are found.

Thus, according to Raman and others, the widespread employment of children is a product of entrenched structural poverty exacerbated by the forces favouring global economic integration, as well as a residue of traditional socio-cultural norms. In many settings, the phenomenon of working children cannot be distinguished from a more generalised picture of families in poverty obliged to rely — as is traditional — on their womenfolk and children to make an economic contribution to the household; nor can it be addressed separately from issues of family well-being. In a keynote speech to the Conference, Nandana Reddy of the Concerned for Working Children in South India and Chairperson of the International Working Group on Child Labour observed that the basic causes of child work have yet to be successfully tackled by global and national interventions, and cannot be tackled without reference to the wider problem of poverty and social injustice.

This analysis was echoed by the presentation of Nagaraj Kolkeri, President of Namma Sabha, an organisation of adolescent workers in Karnataka, India, whose personal account of his family, community and life-story set out to explain the human impacts of macro economic policy at the micro level. It was substantiated by other case study presentations. Nelly Kulitova of the Institute of Culture in Kazakstan described the significant increase in women’s and children’s involvement in street commerce, especially in the sale of contraband cigarettes, alcohol and illegal drugs, stemming from the transition to a market economy and dramatic reductions in welfare and social expenditures. According to Kulitova, the need to earn has driven teenaged nurses, waiters, and maids into the labour market, where they are readily snapped up since they can be paid three times less than adults.

In Zambia, similarly, economic stress and structural adjustment have propelled women and young people into the informal job market as a survival strategy, as shown by a study among child domestic servants undertaken by Irene Maimbolwa-Sinyangwe of the University of Lusaka. A pattern of increasing child engagement in the wider informal economy as hawkers, maids, bus-boys, and workshop apprentices was also described by Grace Abidoye of the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council. All these examples, and others from Turkey and Philippines, portrayed the working child populations they had studied as obliged by poverty and circumstances beyond their control to take a considerable step beyond the traditional home-based working role, into forms of employment outside the home where they were — at least potentially — vulnerable, exploitable, far from parental protection and at risk from immoral and criminal elements.

Although the trend chiefly responsible for the growing scale and changing nature of children’s engagement with the workplace is global in character, participants were anxious to underline that its manifestations in different settings are very diverse. Not only have researchers, practitioners and activists recognised the need to address the issue at a national as well as an international level, but the emphasis was overwhelmingly placed on the need to understand the phenomenon locally and nationally and act accordingly, reserving a carefully proscribed standard-setting and advocacy role for international activity. The inefficacy of international action based on universalist (largely Western) norms as a means of dealing with the ground-level intricacies of such a complex issue was reiterated by a number of speakers. An ill-judged intervention on behalf of child workers, however “correct” according to accepted international viewpoints, may actually worsen their predicament — notably by depriving them of their present means of survival. The right of children to survival is fundamental, according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The majority of presenters on trends affecting the engagement of children in the workplace depicted child employment as a logical and legitimate response to family and personal circumstances. There is, now, a widespread willingness to accept the reality that children do work, and where this is the case, that they should be granted respect as child workers and enjoy the right to carry out their working obligations in conditions of human dignity. Even those who support the total elimination of all child labour no longer support a strategy confined to its outright abolition and criminalisation. Most presenters were in favour of a more nuanced approach, which gave greater emphasis to the regulation of working conditions and implicitly accorded certain rights to child workers in their working roles, combined with a step-by-step elimination strategy starting with the gravest cases of exploitative and hazardous conditions.

However, a somewhat different note was struck by Bjorne Grimsrud of the Institute of Applied Social Science in Norway. Grimsrud presented the view that child labour, by depressing wages and reducing adult participation in the workforce was a contributor to, rather than a product of, poverty. He believed that regulation in the child and teenager workplace was unrealistic and laws designed to achieve this would be ineffective in settings such as India. Grimsrud was therefore one of the few participants who favoured — or at least did not reject – the historical route of abolition plus compulsory education as the preferred response. In certain circumstances, in his view and that of some others, compulsory education might be instrumentally effective in reducing the presence of children in the workplace.

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Changing perceptions of child labour

Since the issue of child labour first began to re-capture international attention approximately a decade ago, new perspectives have come to light as the range of information available on its contemporary forms – primarily provided by activists and practitioners, but increasingly by researchers as well — has expanded. However, the entrenched imagery concerning child labour and the received popular wisdom concerning its means of abolition in Western countries continues to pervade the debate. Those entering the discussion arrive with a polemic whose static assumptions have not been adequately critiqued in the light of today’s quite different developing — or semi-industrialised — socio economic settings in regions other than those regarded as fully industrialised.

Much of the internal controversy which has overtaken the issue stems from the fact that the primary locus of concern about child workplace exploitation is the industrialised world; whereas the primary locus of the practice itself is the developing world. Inadequate knowledge about conditions in developing countries, as well as a lack of specific and solid data on child labour practices combined with sensational media reporting, have reinforced existing pre-conceptions within an aroused public consciousness. Repairing misperceptions about the nature and impacts of child labour in different settings by undertaking rigorous research and publishing the results is, in the circumstances, an uphill task. The difficulties are compounded by the fact that the presentation of certain findings can be misconstrued as a form of “co-operation” with those who perpetrate child exploitation, and can also be misinterpreted as justifying abuse, neglect and other forms of gross violation of children’s rights.

One of the most persistent misperceptions concerning child employment is that it is a phenomenon almost exclusively confined to the developing world. Jim McKechnie of the University of Paisley, UK, demonstrated incontrovertibly that in Britain this is far from being the case. McKechnie identified three common assumptions about child employment in Britain: (1) that while it occurs, it is confined to a very few children; (2) those children that do work only undertake light tasks acceptable for children, such as newspaper deliveries; (3) legislation exists to control, monitor and protect children who do decide to work and is implemented. These assumptions, he maintained, had produced “idealised” notions of children’s work in Britain — notions which were shared in other European and North American countries.
Studies undertaken by the University of Paisley over the past several years had produced findings which challenged these three basic assumptions concerning child work, according to McKechnie. First, the numbers of children involved in the workplace were far from few; up to 84% of children had experienced paid employment outside the family by the time they hadreached the school-leaving age of 16. Between 1 and 1.7 million children out of 3.5 million between the ages of 11 and 15 in Britain are working at any time, and between 2.2 and 2.6 million will have worked by age 16. It is normal for these children to mix employment with full-time education.

Second, the types of work in which they engage are not invariably the “light children’s tasks” of popular myth. Slightly over one-quarter were engaged in deliveries, including newspapers and milk; but more than 34% were engaged in occupations thought of as “adult”: hotel and catering work, waiting on table, and shop assistance. The data also showed a wide diversity of occupations, including garage worker, builder’s mate, cleaner and packer, and relatively low rates of pay. Third, the assumption that legislation protects children who work also proved faulty. Few children had a permit to work as legislation specifies they should have; thus they were an “invisible” workforce. And few provisions concerning working hours, start and finish times, and occupational restrictions were enforced.

Interestingly, the contradiction between the approval of child work in Europe, and its condemnation in developing countries, was graphically illustrated by newspaper coverage of the Trondheim Conference on the first full day of deliberations. Two stories about child workers appeared in the local newspaper. One was an interview with Indian activist Nandana Reddy about the problem of child labour in the developing world; the other was a headline story deploring behind the-scenes influence exerted by some Norwegian officials to procure highly-prized summer jobs for their teenage children. The two stories were printed on the front page of the newspaper without any sense of a thematic connection, illustrating the confusion of values which pervades the child labour debate.

Complacency about — even approval of — teenage work in industrialised countries, and the assumption that its impacts are beneficial, thus presents a striking contrast with the opposite viewpoint adopted by the same people about child and teenage work in the developing countries. When it comes to the children themselves, there is a striking similarity of view: both groups of workers, in developing and industrialised countries alike, believe that they should have the right to work if they want to. Not only do many children and adolescents feel they should be allowed to work, but they often argue that they enjoy working because of the positive sense of self-esteem, the self-reliance and the skills they feel work and earning gives them.

Although it appears that the motivation for children to work in industrialised countries such as UK is less to do with poverty than in developing countries — most industrialised country child workers dispose of their own earnings, whereas most children in developing countries are actively contributing to the household economy — this does not diminish the importance of McKechnie’s findings. The central point is that, contrary to widespread belief, children and young people in Europe and North America have by no means left the workplace, in spite of the thorough institution of the two key strategies advocated by the abolitionist school of thought: universal education and implementable legislative provision against child labour.

William Myers, a UNICEF and ILO policy advisor who addressed the changing dynamics of the debate on child labour as his main theme, reiterated the need to move away from the experience of industrial child employment in 19th century Europe as a reference point for understanding the contemporary phenomenon. Myers’ length of experience with the child labour issue has equipped him to identify the ways in which the resurgence of interest in the issue has affected the terms in which it is discussed.

Although heat about child labour was originally generated in the North, it is now becoming a hotter issue in the South as well, partly because of the attempts by some Western countries to ban imports of goods in whose manufacture children have played a part. Myers pointed to the irony of the fact that export manufacturing industries actually employ only a tiny percentage of the total child workforce (5% according to the best estimates), and that these young people are universally regarded as privileged among child workers as a whole. The upshot of such bans or boycotts of export goods has tended to work against the interests of the child workers concerned, who find themselves summarily dismissed from the workplace without alternative prospects. However, the attention they have attracted, whatever negative outcomes it has produced for their own lives, has also paved the way for the emergence of helpful information and perspectives relating to child labour generally.

The key change that has taken place in thinking about “child labour” is a product of expanded discussions about child rights stemming from the passage of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. An underpinning principle expressed in the Convention is that paramount importance must be placed in all actions relating to children on the best interests of the child. In addition, the Convention asserts the right of children to be consulted in matters affecting them, and their view of their own best interests should also therefore be taken into account.

These two principles represent a very important change in the way programmes and protections relating to children should be conceived; when designing and implementing such programmes, the well-being of the child should be upheld as a priority, and should always be considered alongside the well-being of parents, adults, teachers, and institutional expressions of society. Thus, questions relating to whether a child should work, what kind of work is appropriate and in what circumstances, should first refer to his or her best interests. Determination of those best interests can best be judged by reference to a model of child development — a model understood to include physical, mental, intellectual, psychological, social, and emotional development — not to systems of labour market regulation.

The new child-centred thinking now informing policy-making generally has therefore had the effect, according to Myers, of re casting “child labour” as those forms of work that are detrimental to the children involved. Commitment to the elimination of “child labour” becomes, within the new framework, a commitment to removing children from those kinds of work or workplaces which are harmful to themselves or to their childhood prospects. This demands a far more subtle and variable response to child work in different settings than does a simple blanket prohibition against child employment under a certain age. It will as much demand actions to support the physical and psycho-social development of child workers, as require actions to prevent children entering the workplace or expelling them from it. It will certainly require actions to ensure that children forced to abandon work or employment do not end up in a worse situation — which has been a common experience of the current regulatory and penalising approach. The need for laws and international standards will not vanish — on the contrary; but their role will have to be re-thought.

In common with many other participants in the debate, Myers called for a healing of the divisions with which it has been marked and a concerted effort towards consensus-building. An expansion of the knowledge-base, to which serious academic study should contribute, is urgently needed. One of the most important gaps at present is a lack of comparative information over time about the impacts of different types of workplaces and occupations on child workers and their life-chances. Without proper evidence that a given kind of occupation or workplace — other than those deemed “intolerable” — is impairing or beneficial, argument about what constitutes the best interests of the child worker will continue to be inadequately informed.

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2. The kaleidoscopic workplace

An important characteristic of the evolving debate is a new appreciation of the diversity of occupations undertaken by children, and of the variety of workplaces and settings in which child workers are found. The situation is far from static: new occupations and types of work in which children engage are constantly emerging.

The occupations conjured by the term “child labour” are associated with the sweat-shop, the mine, and the factory — all of which are formalised work environments. But most occupations in which young workers engage are informal or semi-formalised at best. These include open-air occupations such as vending, shoe-shining, helping collect fares on communal vehicles, catering to tourists as guides, running errands in the market; and types of employment such as waiting on table and domestic work which are likely to be unregistered and invisible in employment statistics. Even in the industrialised world setting, most child employment takes place in marginal and casual occupations. The degree to which such work is hazardous, harmful or exploitative for the child workers involved varies according to the circumstances and conditions of employment. These circumstances include whether the setting is urban or rural: most occupations other than those in agricultural production occur in rural as well as in urban settings but are more often noticed in the latter.

Child labour specialists now make a distinction between “labour”, which implies the trading of work as a commodity in a formalised workplace; “child work”, which implies any task undertaken as a contribution to the household economy or the functioning of the household; and “child employment”, which implies a contractual arrangement with an employer for the fulfilment of tasks in return for pay. However, these terms — which are not always easy to translate into other languages than English — are still used somewhat imprecisely and interchangeably. The generic term, “child work”, can be used to cover all situations.

Clare Feinstein of the International Working Group on Child Labour (IWGCL) described to the Conference a conceptual approach which places child worker situations along a continuum ranging from those that are intolerable under any circumstances, to those that are largely accepted as beneficial for the child. At one extreme are to be found working situations which constitute gross violations of child rights such as prostitution; at the other, tasks such as child-minding, helping with domestic chores, or assisting a parent at a market stall. Most “child labour” situations would tend towards one end of the continuum; much “child employment” and “child work” would tend towards the other; but there is no generic position on the continuum on which the vast majority of working child situations automatically fall. A similar conceptual approach had been adopted in a study of child labour undertaken in Turkey described by Bulent Piyal of the Ministry of Labour. Here, occupational sectors had been classified according to the risks to which a child worker was exposed, and had been designated: “not appropriate”, “appropriate only under certain conditions” and “appropriate”.

Feinstein emphasised that, in applying the continuum approach, not only the occupation and the working conditions need to be considered, but also the characteristics of the child workers themselves, including developmental status, gender, age, education and ability. The process of evaluation enables a policy-maker or practitioner to determine whether the nature of the occupation is a problem, in which case removal from the workplace will be indicated; or whether the terms and conditions operating in a specific workplace constitute a problem, in which case their improvement may be more suited to the child’s best interests. The child worker’s own perspective on the workplace and the terms and conditions of work will also be pertinent to the choice of response.

If the child is not working out of choice but of necessity, any response will have to take into account his or her need for, and right to, some or other means of survival. Where removal from the workplace is definitively indicated — as in the case of child prostitution — the question of the children’s placement and rehabilitation must be considered before action is taken. This was graphically illustrated by presentations from India and Nepal by, respectively, I.S. Gilada of the Indian Health Organisation, Bombay, and Gauri Pradhan of Child Workers in Nepal (CWIN), Kathmandu. Precipitate Indian police action was taken in February 1996 to remove Nepali girl prostitutes from brothels in Bombay; this had led to protracted post-facto difficulties in repatriating and reintegrating the girls with their families or finding them suitable alternative living arrangements.

It follows that, as well as evaluating the working situation of children, there is also a need to evaluate their general life circumstances. The deprivations suffered by working children as a consequence of working for pay usually represent a small part of the deprivations they and their families are enduring. The wider environment in which they grow up may not only be economically disadvantaged; they may not have access to health, education, and social services; they may suffer from discrimination on gender or ethnic minority grounds. All these aspects of their lives need to be simultaneously tackled. Work may form a part of the strategy for overcoming some of these other deprivations. Here Feinstein touched a theme which emerged frequently in discussions: the need to balance the micro with the macro picture, localised analysis with the application of universal criteria, in order to develop appropriate responses.

Only one type of workplace and occupation was singled out for specific examination by the Conference participants: domestic employment. This was partly because, among informal occupations and workplace settings, the attention child domestic work has recently begun to attract has led to research interest. The scale of child domestic employment, and the fact that it mainly involves girls, has helped attract this attention. In contrast to the relatively low numbers of child workers employed on the factory floor or in other industrial settings, several millions of child workers around the world, most of whom are girls and many of whom are in their very early teens or younger, are employed in people’s houses to cook, clean, run errands and mind children.

In countries where the practice is common, it is regarded as so normal that nobody thinks twice about it, as was underlined by Jonathan Blagbrough of Anti-Slavery International. Both the child’s parents and the employer tend to see the placement as beneficial: the child learns domestic skills in return for keep in a comfortable and protected environment. However, she may be on duty all hours of day and night, suffer discrimination in the household, have no freedom, holidays or breaks, and generally sacrifice her own childhood for the well-being of the employer’s family. Isolation and vulnerability are often acute, and violence and sexual abuse against child domestic workers by no means uncommon. A research study from Calcutta among 180 servant girls, presented by Sibnath Deb of MODE Research, India, found that the majority suffered from physical and psychological harassment.

This particular occupation illustrates many of the dilemmas faced by researchers and practitioners trying to address workplace exploitation of children. The workplace is informal and hard to reach; the “work” statistically invisible. The occupation itself is not hazardous; and in spite of the servitude implicit in the mistress servant relationship, it can be nurturing. The girl may emerge an accomplished housekeeper with a devoted patroness. Yet in terms of depriving a child of parental love, education, play, and psycho-social development, domestic employment can be harmful, even abusive and “intolerable”. This dramatically illustrates the point that, as with other occupations, there can be no generic position on a continuum of “good” and “bad” working situations on which to place child domestic work. Regulation of the workplace is extremely difficult, and a legislative ban on child domestic work would serve no purpose at all. Fostering a change in attitudes towards recognition by employers of their child domestics’ human rights may be a better way to eliminate, or reduce the harmful impacts of, the practice. A gradualist approach of this kind is espoused by Anti-Slavery International.

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3. The advantages and disadvantages of work to children

Both the idea of a child-centred analysis, and that of a continuum of working situations, make it possible to move away from the notion that work is definitively either “good” or “bad” for children. Instead of being gauged against laws and regulations, the implications of a given working situation have to be measured against a model of child development. This model will need to vary according to cultural norms in a given social environment; but certain universal precepts can be applied. Such an approach suggests an assessment of the ways in which different kinds of work will benefit or harm the passage through childhood, at different ages and stages of development.

One of the most common assumptions concerning the working child is that the working life precludes and supplants education: a working child is thought to be a non-schoolgoing child. Apart from the implications of work for physical growth and healthy well-being, the gravest disadvantages of employment are normally associated with the loss of schooling. However, recent studies are beginning to indicate that this perception is simplistic, or even faulty. Jim McKechnie’s presentation from the UK demonstrated that educational life and working life were compatible, even in a society where the school day is relatively long and homework demanding. Furthermore, the research studies he was drawing upon showed that those children who worked for five hours a week had better school attendance and better examination grades that those who had never worked; although those working for 10 hours a week did not fare so well. Similar findings had been registered in the US.

That there is a strong co-relation between universal access to primary education and the reduction of child participation in the labour force there can be no doubt; it has been frequently pointed out — as Bjorne Grimsrud noted in his presentation — that no country has managed to “solve the problem” of child labour without offering a system of general education to all its citizens. However, the nature of the relationship between work and schooling is far more complex than is often appreciated. The notion that they constitute a straightforward “either, or” is not borne out by new evidence coming forward from developing as well as industrialised countries.

It is frequently argued in developing countries, as was noted by Arif Hassan of ActionAid (India), that children are kept out of school by poor parents in order that they should support the family directly or indirectly by economically useful activity. However, studies in India showed that in the age-group 11-13, twice as many boys living in urban areas who were not going to school were not working than were working (15% compared to 7%). Poor quality of education and school facilities, and examination failure, were the principal reasons for drop-out; 30% of non-enrolled children expressed a lack of interest in education. The entry into work was thus, in India at least, as likely to be a consequence of opting out of education and looking for an alternative, than it was an involuntary action imposed by parents who had removed their children from school for the purpose. This finding was borne out by the personal witness of Nagaraj Kolkeri of the Child Workers organisation in Kundapur. Until educational systems were improved and became more relevant to real-life prospects, many children and families would ignore them. A similar picture was reported from other locations, including Morocco, Turkey and Kazakstan.

One of the most important findings to emerge from the discussion on the advantages and disadvantages of work was that the implications for a child’s psycho-social development were as, or even more, important than the implications for educational attainment. In conventional understanding, the school is the place other than the home where healthy psycho-social development of the child and adolescent can be achieved. However, where educational quality is poor, and where the instructional climate is oppressive or even abusive, particularly to children from poor families or ethnic minorities, the prospects of healthy psycho-social development in an alternative environment — the workplace — may actually be higher. In this context, the presentations to the Conference by child workers themselves were very persuasive. Rosmery Portilla of the National Movement of Working Children in Peru stated that, for her, “work is dignity”; this was a way of saying that, given the life circumstances which she and her family are obliged to endure, her own achievement of a sense of identity and self-esteem were inextricable from her experience as a worker.

Martin Woodhead, co-ordinator of a study being undertaken for Radda Barnen into children’s perceptions of their working lives, made a presentation on its initial findings which was very illuminating vis a vis comparative attitudes towards schooling and employment. Of the 36 groups of child workers in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Guatemala and Philippines participating in the study, the vast majority identified “earning money” and “helping the family” as good things about work; a significant proportion also identified “gaining pride and self-respect” and “strengthening and training”. Among the bad things about school, “punishment or humiliation by teacher” was cited by half the groups; and a significant proportion mentioned “humiliation and bad influence of peers”. Thus a picture emerges in which it is by no means possible to assume that personal growth, social skills, and sense of self-esteem are automatically derived from the classroom; and non-supportive, abusive and damaging experiences derived exclusively from the workplace. When asked: Which is best, work or school? 72% of children gave them equal weight; the proportions that preferred, respectively, work and school were the same (14%).

A presentation from Russia by Olga Konovalova of the Child Environmental Team, or “Bemby”, provided further insights into values accorded to work both by children and by adults on their behalf. Bemby believes in the “labour training” of children between the ages of 6 and 16; Bemby students carry out socially useful work for pay under adult supervision as an important ingredient of their psychological and social upbringing. Up to 600 children each year take part in work schemes, helping to conserve and manage 100 hectares of green recreation zones. Schools are invited to become team members; teams of child workers, sometimes from the same class, work for 2-3 hours a day, 2-3 times a week, and receive an hourly rate of pay which is differential but at least equivalent to the national minimum wage.

Bemby, which is unique in Russia, is gaining a following in many parts of the country. It prepares youth for a world in which free provision of services cannot be taken for granted and life chances will depend on work and earnings. The rationale behind it is that the historical process of industrialisation in Russia deprived children of the opportunity of becoming working members of the community at the side of their parents. Today, Konovalova stated, society releases a child from the world of consuming material wealth to the world of its production, demanding that he or she behave like an adult without having prepared him or her to do so.

The traditional view in Russia is that children should not be paid for work, but should perform it as a duty; paying children is thought to spoil them. Bemby believes that receiving pay is a vital part of labour training. It confronts the child with choices, and gives him or her a freedom to grow socially and psychologically. Children who earn, especially children who would otherwise probably be in trouble, gain self-respect and a code of conduct. However, since child employment under 14 is illegal in Russia, Bemby is breaking the law. The alternative, according to Konovalova, is that children will break the law. Many youngsters from poor homes are driven to begging and petty crime. Bemby instils values while allowing them to earn and be part of the consumer life of the city. Thus, Bemby is strongly in favour of child work, as long as it is of a suitable kind and is carried out in a carefully regulated way.

Aside from the direct advantages and disadvantages of work to children, the question of what the advantages and disadvantages to them will be if removed from the workplace also has to be addressed when determining an appropriate response. Self-evidently, they lose such benefits as their earnings and the opportunity to help their families. If they are able to go to school, this can be counted an advantage. But studies in such countries as Bangladesh have shown that children expelled from the workplace as a result of international pressures related to export manufacturing are most unlikely to end up in school. The only option open to most of them is to engage in other work, often work which — because it is less likely to attract international attention — is in manufacture for the domestic or tourist market or in marginal or invisible service occupations. The work is therefore less well-paid and its conditions are less well-regulated and inferior to those of their previous job; it may even be illegal.

Fatima Badri Zalami of Morocco presented to the conference a case study concerning girls under 15 dismissed from a major export manufacturing garment factory as a result of a British television documentary exposing their employment. The factory was subcontracted to manufacture goods by a supplier to Marks & Spencer, the multinational retailer. When filmed evidence of under-age workers on the factory floor was shown to the suppliers and retailers, all girls in the factory under age 15 were dismissed by the manufacturer. This “clean-up” operation took place in spite of the fact that Moroccan legislation places the minimum working age at 12. From the perspective of the manufacturers, suppliers and retailers, and of the tv producers, the whole affair exclusively concerned the companies’ reputation — which was duly and acrimoniously tarnished. No consideration by any of these parties was given to the well-being of the girl workers who had lost their jobs or to that of their families.

Zalami’s study was based on interviews with 12 of these girls. Their descriptions of their working conditions in the garment factory revealed that they had been systematically exploited, and workplace regulations routinely flouted. However, they had important reasons for working and its positive rewards — apart from their earnings — more than compensated for its negative aspects. The opportunity to enter the formal employment sector via an apprenticeship was seen as a route to a secure job which education no longer guaranteed. For some girls, the factory was perceived as a means of emancipation and autonomy from a constricting family environment. For the families, the textile industry was viewed as an attractive workplace because it was predominantly female, secure, and protective of their girls’ morality.

School had previously taught the girls little of relevance, and once dismissed from the factory — as in Bangladesh — no serious likelihood existed of their return to it. The standard reaction was to seek another job, preferably in the export sector, as soon as possible. However, since such opportunities are few and were further constrained by the publicity surrounding their dismissal, many were obliged to enter domestic service or marry at the first opportunity; one had gone into prostitution. Some of their families had been unable to make good the loss of inco mes from the girls, and were in debt or economic difficulty. Meanwhile, the Moroccan government was contemplating raising the minimum working age to 14-15 to withstand the threat of boycotts against other goods manufactured for export.

Zalami had examined other possible responses by the parties to the situation. In her view, Marks & Spencer could have obtained the implementation of standard conditions in apprenticeship contracts, insisted on the introduction of a system of vocational training, and required as a condition of business deals other workplace reforms which would have improved the girls’ life chances. The television company, by failing to examine the complexities of youthful participation in the workforce, had assisted in portraying to British consumers a simplistic view of the nature and reasons for child and teenage labour in other countries. Zalami pointed to the need for an improvement in the quality, spread and relevance of education, and the need to favour development strategies with a less damaging impact on women and girls. She also called for the establishment of mechanisms to monitor child labour interventions so that impact assessment — such as the one she had herself carried out — was not left to chance.

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4. The young protagonist

As well as its insistence on the best interests of the child as an over riding principle, the Convention on the Rights of the Child also asserts on behalf of children their right to be consulted and to express their views in matters affecting them. The Convention therefore acknowledges children as subjects of their lives and experience, not merely as objects of adult care, protection and admonition. There is an obvious likelihood of tension between the mature knowledge and judgement of adults on children’s behalf, and the views of children concerning their best interests which cannot, by definition, be as widely and thoroughly informed. However, the views of children about their own situation are, at the very least, a valuable source of information which programmatic activity needs to take into account. They should also be canvassed as a matter of right.

In the context of child labour, there are special reasons why the voices of child workers need to be heard in the debate. A child worker who has not been forced or trafficked into a working situation but has entered it through his or her own volition has taken on a role which carries certain responsibilities. It is reasonable to assume that he or she has acquired the maturity to make certain judgements concerning that role and those responsibilities. All child workers, however they came to take on their working roles, carry responsibilities and have the right to be protagonists on their own behalf. Child labour activists and practitioners have a strong conviction that child workers have both the maturity and the right to express their views about their working lives and have them taken into account; some have helped such children form their own representative organisations.

Predictably, since work is an intrinsic part of their lives and identities, and a responsibility they have taken on to help their families survive in very difficult circumstances, child workers belonging to such organisations claim the right to work in conditions which respect their human dignity. While the debate on “child labour” is still dogged by polarisation for and against its eradication, the views of representatives of such organisations are bound to be perceived by those unilaterally opposed to all child employment as biased, even as invalidated by working children’s unnatural experience of childhood. Furthermore, soliciting such views in a public forum can be interpreted as an attempt to manipulate discussion. Thus, the discussion of how, where, and when the voices of children should be heard in the debate has become another strand of the debate itself.

It was decided that the Urban Childhood Conference, although primarily an event at which researchers, policy-makers and seasoned practitioners would examine knowledge, knowledge gaps and analytical tools, would seek the participation of children from child workers’ organisations. The authenticity of their voice in the debate was felt to be a compelling argument in favour of their potential contribution. Unquestionably, the decision contained an element of risk: the youth, lack of formal schooling, language problems and inhibitions of teenage participants far removed from the culture of international discourse could have yielded a synthetic experience both for the children and for other Conference participants. In fact, the three youthful spokespersons on child labour were well-prepared, highly articulate, and took their participation in the event very seriously. Apart from enriching the Conference with their own personal stories and viewpoints, their presence had an effect on the dynamics of discussion and helped to keep it grounded in the realities of children’s lives. The experiment, which had been carefully and thoroughly planned, can be described as successful.

In their individual presentations, Nagaraj Kolkeri from India, Dibou Faye from Senegal representing the movement for domestic workers in West Africa, and Rosmery Portilla from Peru, unanimously called for their need and right to work to be respected, and for their dignity as human beings to be appreciated. To them, calls for the elimination and eradication of child work sound like calls for the elimination and eradication of child workers. Within their reality, the two are the same since they feel that to work represents a life and death struggle. Case histories of child workers earlier presented by Nandana Reddy in her keynote speech echoed this theme. Nonetheless, the child workers were anxious to improve their situations, both by advocacy towards employers, trades unions and the general public, and by their own efforts. The workers’ organisations to which they belonged had helped them to gain more respect, had reduced police action against them, had given them access to literacy, training and health care programmes, and were a positive force in their search for self improvement.

These presentations reinforced the consensus emerging from the deliberations that the successful accomplishment of childhood as a preparation for adult life requires above all that the child develops a fully-rounded personality, a sense of personal and social identity, and the confidence and competence to live life according to an effective set of values. At present, in many socio-economic settings, these may have to be developed alongside a working life and can be developed within it. Formal education can also make an important contribution; but the quality of this contribution cannot be guaranteed and schooling should not at present be automatically upheld as the exclusive pathway to a successfully accomplished childhood passage.

Some consideration was given by the Conference to the expansion of mechanisms to allow for children’s participation in research studies and programmes developed on their behalf. There are real problems in this area, given that such participation should be appropriate to children’s ages, abilities, and levels of development. In many instances, their participation in conferences or other types of events has been ill thought-out and amounts to tokenism, decoration, even to a novel form of adult exploitation where they function as surrogate political actors. However, new modalities and experiments are breaking new ground, as exemplified by the four-country Radda Barnen research study into children’s perceptions of their working lives, cited above.

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5. Actors and actions

The main actors with which the Conference participants were concerned were researchers, particularly the academic community whose involvement in the debate has up to now been marginal and unsystematic; international intergovernmental organisations, particularly ILO and UNICEF; trades unions, including child workers’ organisations; government at national and local levels; NGO activists and practitioners; professionals and specialists involved with children including educators, physicians and psychologists; and the media. In a three-day Conference, it was not possible to explore the actual and potential contributions to data collection, policy-making, activism and programmatic work of all these actors, but some important insights were gained.

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The research community

Ben White of the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands, gave a reflective presentation on the research agenda: “What do we need to know?”, and the debate on this topic also touched on “How do we get to know it?” — research methods. The important feature of White’s presentation was that he framed the question about what should be on the research agenda within the universalist/relativist problematique. As has already been noted on several occasions in this Report, the international debate on child labour is deeply affected by the fact that the ultimate purpose of international discourse on any issue is to establish and uphold universal standards and norms, or to develop common policy approaches; whereas the immense diversity of working children’s socio-economic and cultural settings, not to mention their occupations and workplace experiences, requires an adjustable or relativist approach.

White believed that, in the light of current efforts to obtain a new ILO Convention on “intolerable forms of child labour” and the spate of conferences and discussions on child labour which this prospect was engendering, the research community confronted a special challenge. Action at the international level (as well as action on the ground in the form of interventions related to child workers) was bound to move ahead, but instead of being informed by “scientific” information coming forward from the research and practitioner community, it was largely being based on a process of political negotiation. The challenge to researchers in the immediate term was, therefore, how to improve the quality, relevance and child-centredness of these negotiations?

Any new set of international standards about child labour based on a universalist (largely Western) model of childhood might well, according to White, be as insensitive and therefore ineffective as previous international instruments; at the same time, it was important not to allow the defence of cultural rights and demands for relativist approaches to be used as a mask for the justification of practices against women and children which deserved condemnation under all circumstances. The pursuit of knowledge about diversity needed to be seen as a practical tool of learning, in the context of child labour as in others, not as a backstairs route to the legitimisation of exploitative and abusive practice.

White pointed out that many of the terms used in the debate are relative in nature and cannot be assigned set values according to technical, scientific and objective criteria. Words such as “exploitation”, “intolerable”, “hazardous” and “best interests” mean different things to different people in different contexts. How such terms are interpreted should, in the view of White and other established commentators (notably William Myers and Asefa Bequele in a recent ILO publication) be resolved by agreement rather than by formula, reflecting realities and cultural values and therefore differing from place to place. The implications for the research agenda are that studies other than the purely fact-finding are needed; standard models and concepts of childhood and child labour also need to be re-examined, as does the history and language of the discourse itself. A further implication is that it may be difficult to establish universal indicators for data collection on child labour; local adjustments may be needed. (A presentation from Zimbabwe explored the complications of developing indicators associated with child labour in the local setting.)

Other areas where information is lacking include the implications of globalisation and the money economy for children’s work; the relationship between work and education and their relative implications for children; children’s capacities for self-organisation; children’s role in the production of knowledge; and child work in sectors such as domestic service which have previously been neglected or have recently emerged. White underlined the need to derive research from practical experience, for example from examining systematically the impacts of projects supported by the International Programme to Eliminate Child Labour (IPEC) of the ILO. Usha Nayar of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bombay, added some other knowledge gaps to this research agenda: how to change adult attitudes towards the practice; the need for impact assessment of a working life, and of programme interventions, on child development.

Finally, attention was drawn to some examples of projects where children and young people have been actively involved in participatory research, in some instances, notably in West Africa, themselves playing a part in designing the research study. However, according to Nayar, the participation of children in research is a recent phenomenon in countries such as India, and still bears the character of an effort to build awareness of child labour with children being used as informants, rather than involving children in a genuine partnership as active researchers. There were doubts in some participants’ minds about the degree to which this was practicable.

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International intergovernmental organisations and NGOs

In his presentation, William Myers commented on the recent rise in interest and activity concerning child labour among the UN organisations, notably ILO and UNICEF. These two organisations have now assumed a leadership role that had been the province of national and international NGOs. UNICEF’s realignment of its whole range of activities to take account of the child rights framework was a contributing factor; the international attention given to all forms of childhood exploitation including in the workplace was another.

The proposed new ILO Convention meant that ILO was now occupying a central role in the debate; its historical and contemporary role in both standard-setting and technical assistance was the subject of a presentation by Satoru Tabusa, a senior ILO representative. In particular, the IPEC programme of technical assistance to projects designed to eliminate child work or alleviate its conditions had given ILO a new, more pragmatic perspective than its statutory abolitionist position suggested.

However, as Myers pointed out, the magnetic attraction of the large organisations and their funding capacity tends to overshadow NGOs and haul them along in their wake. With the exception of the IWGCL, the position of the NGOs in the debate currently seems surprisingly weak and passive. There has been a trend towards the development of NGO coalitions, but many exist only as a nominal force and do not exert much influence on governments or international organisations. In Myers’ opinion, the ascendancy of the large intergovernmental organisations may be having a distorting effect on the child labour debate. In particular, it has tended to focus attention and resources onto action at international level; and given all the caveats expressed about universalist and formula responses to child labour, this may not be the most appropriate level at which to exert the lion’s share of effort.

Most NGOs involved in child labour are active at the national, or more commonly city, level. Unless there is a particular reason to do so — as for example in the case of the repatriation of Nepali girls seized from brothels by the Bombay police — there is no real motivation for joint action with other NGOs outside their own locus of attention. Even within the same locus of attention, co-ordination between NGOs can be weak. However, the rise of child worker organisations with support from the NGO community has led to more interaction and joint lobbying activity.

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Trades unions

The traditional outlook of trades unions and their international networks has been to espouse as a fundamental principle the abolition of child labour. Key expressions of trades union commitment to this principle, notably that part of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which set up the ILO, cite social justice and the elimination of poverty as the underpinning rationale. However, trades unions are also historically opposed to child labour because where children can manage to do a given job, they will be taken on in preference to adult workers because they are cheaper to hire, occupy less space in the workplace, and are more malleable as a workforce. Trades unions have therefore tended to take what is today regarded as a highly conservative stance on child labour, namely out-and-out abolition, and find themselves in a position strongly opposed by most NGOs and all child workers’ organisations.

Geir Myrstad, a trades unionist official now in the Bureau for Workers’ Activities within ILO, somewhat recast the contemporary trades union position. He suggested that while abolition of child labour remained the long-term goal of the trades unions and ILO, their concept of “child labour” did not include all forms of child work. Excluded from it were “work as part of childhood socialisation”, and “work as part of family duties”: work within the family was not exploitative by definition in this view. Exploitative work consisted of that work which was performed by a child for the benefit of an adult who was manipulating the child to earn money for his or her, rather than the child’s, enrichment; it also might consist of work whose contractual arrangements allow it to be hidden, so that — for example — the factory or plantation owner has only the names of parent workers on his books but not the names of the children they bring with them and who work alongside them.

Myrstad gave examples of intervention in connection with child work undertaken by trades unions. Activities included investigation, as in the case of the child labour survey in South Africa in which the trades unions had participated; collective bargaining with employers on behalf of children, for example, in Brazil where farmers with more than a certain number of workers must provide schooling for their children; and monitoring the presence of children in the workplace. The main obstacle to the involvement of trades unions in these kinds of activities is that, where trades unions are strong, invariably child workers are few, and vice versa. However, opportunities were being sought, especially in the context of prevention and improvement of education and training. At local level, useful partnerships were often developed with NGOs even if at international level they were on different sides of the debate. This appeal to seek common ground echoed the “dream” earlier cited by Nandana Reddy from the opposing side, that NGOs and Trades Unions might one day find common cause concerning child labour.

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The media

A number of speakers referred to the role of the media in exposing stories of gross exploitation and abuse of children and in contributing to the debate on child labour. There is considerable ambivalence about this role. On the one hand, there is no doubt that media attention has helped to raise the profile of the issue and has led to revelations which pave the way for interventions on behalf of children enduring exploitation in the workplace. Some of the information produced, although it is anecdotal, has been extremely valuable, especially in the light of the general absence of scientific data.

On the other hand, the sensationalism of many media stories, and the repetition of stock-in-trade imagery, combine to portray an over simplistic and distorted picture of the issue as a whole. There is room for “shock, horror” tactics in activism to reduce gross violations of children’s rights. But such tactics tend to feed into an abolitionist view, and can result in actions which add to rather than detract from the problems faced by working children. The classic example of the television documentary which resulted in the dismissal of workers under 15 years of age from the garments factory in Morocco has already been discussed.

The “ruthless rhetoric” generated by the media was the subject of a presentation by Fulvia Rosemberg of the Carlos Chagas Foundation in Brazil. The language used to predict the situation of working children frequently incorporates catastrophic and unreliable diagnoses distant from reality and inadequate as signposts to action. The two categories of children whose presentation in the Brazilian media have been studied by Rosemberg are street children, and children and youth involved in prostitution. She has found that statistics concerning the children involved are highly unreliable. Many which have been accepted and widely quoted as authoritative are not based on empirical data but are “guesstimates” based on deductions and suppositions whose legitimacy is backed merely by the authority of the international organisations that cite them. The upshot is a discourse which stigmatises the poor and pathologises the children and young people involved.

Rosemberg was critical both of international organisations, who gave their backing to studies and publications whose findings were spurious; and of journalists who did not scruple to publish photographs and stories that supported the perception of widespread child enslavement to which they were pre-disposed without adequate checks as to whether the photos and stories were truly authentic. Her presentation reminded participants of the very real dilemmas faced by activists in the child labour field. A large caseload of a given problem and a clear case of gross violation of human rights open the way to national and international action to address the problem; but if the case is over-stated, the clamour aroused by a successful public information campaign may lead to inappropriate kinds of response — thereby harming the children the activists set out to help.

These kinds of distortions and inappropriate responses are likely to continue until data is improved and knowledge gaps are filled. In the meantime, every effort must be made to sensitise journalists covering child labour to the complexities of the issues involved.

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6. Towards a new perspective on child labour

During the course of the Urban Childhood Conference, the strands of a new perspective on child labour gradually emerged from the discussions that took place in the child labour section. The degree of unanimity around the elements of this new perspective took most participants by surprise: presentations brought to Trondheim from all over the world — from India, Russia, Britain, Bangladesh, Turkey, Morocco, Nigeria, Kazakstan, Peru, Senegal and elsewhere — which in many cases were expected to provoke controversy were received instead in an atmosphere of consensus.

This in itself is an important indicator that the debate concerning child labour has turned a corner. In particular, it indicates that — as far as many key researchers, activists and policy advisors are concerned — the old polarisation of positions is being abandoned, along with a one-dimensional view of what “child labour” consists of. Sufficient information has now come forward to generate a much wider appreciation of the diversity of child worker settings, occupations and experiences in different parts of the world, as well as their common characteristics.

Today, the debate has moved beyond a line-up for or against child work; for or against its eradication; and for or against legislative penalty and compulsory schooling as the key strategies for its elimination. A consensus has emerged around a much broader vision which does not assign definitive values to work, the workplace, or to the various strategies proposed to reduce child labour. At the centre of this consensus is the notion that the aim of any action to assist working children should be to provide support and protection for childhood development, taking into account “the best interests of the child” and working children’s own perceptions of those best interests.

The type of work, the nature of the workplace, the circumstances of the children and of their families, and the alternatives open to them are all factors to be taken into consideration. This does not preclude a fixed position about gross violations of children’s rights and definitive views about inappropriate types of work and workplace; nor does it preclude respecting the value of work for children as an essential part of their development, skills accumulation and socialisation. But it does suggest that applying judgements based on minimum age standards for occupations and workplaces which fall into neither category is not the most appropriate means of child labour regulation.

One of the most striking findings of the meeting — and one which was borne out by a number of different presentations and research studies — was that healthy psycho-social development is by no means inconsistent with a working life in childhood. Child workers themselves attested to the dignity of work and the way in which work experience gave them a sense of self-worth. Where educational quality was poor and schooling irrelevant and even abusive, children were inclined to reject it. In such circumstances, healthy psycho-social development could not be guaranteed in the classroom. All the evidence presented to the Conference suggested that work and school were not hard and fast alternatives. Work and full-time education could satisfactorily be dovetailed, and even in industrialised world settings, this was the preferred option of child workers.

Among other key ingredients of the new perspective on child labour were the following:

  • the need to avoid pathologising language concerning child work and child workers, and to reduce the level of sensationalism surrounding the subject;
  • recognition that research is needed to compensate for the lack of scientific information concerning child labour; and the need for appropriate tools and methodologies to fill knowledge gaps;
  • respect for the voices of children and their perceptions of their needs, and the development of mechanisms to allow their voices to be heard in the debate;
  • careful differentiation between the usefulness of international instruments articulating universal principles; and the need for flexible and relativist programmatic approaches;
  • recognition that regulation via the law is only one instrument among many for dealing with the needs and rights of working children;
  • recognition that prevalence figures concerning the numbers of children involved in the workplace cannot be taken as a quantification of “the problem” of child labour; terminology should be found to distinguish between working children and children suffering from different kinds and degrees of exploitation in the workplace.
  • a commitment to improvement in the quality of schooling and education in all environments where there is evidence that children and families find it irrelevant to their needs and where teachers routinely behave abusively towards pupils.

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Letter from the representatives of the working children’s organisations to the participants of the Conference on Urban childhood in Trondheim 

Dear Friends, 

First of all we want to thank you very much for your invitation to participate in this Conference. We have learned a lot from your interventions and we have had the opportunity to be listened to.

The youth group PRESS who has looked after us and has taken care of us these days has really facilitated our work and has made us forget that we are far away from home. Our deep thanks to them and to the people of Norway they represent.

As many of you know, in November 1996 we had our first international meeting of working children in Kundapur, India, where representatives from our organisations from Africa, Latin America and Asia gathered together. We decided there that it was very important for us to participate in all — from local to international — conferences concerning us especially because we know that ILO is preparing a new Convention on our work for next year.

Up to now, the ILO has agreed on nine Conventions on child work and the truth is that nothing much has changed. All those international laws, which have been done without our participation, have not been successful because we have not been listened to. How are our problems going to be solved if we are not listened to, being the real experts on child work? That is why we want our opinions to be included in the new Convention.

We want to work in dignity. We want to be in solidarity with all working children and all the society. That is why we have organised, because we are the protagonists of our lives, our own work and of the life of our people.

Norway is organising an international conference in October to prepare for the new ILO Convention and we want to attend it. Up to now we have not been invited. We ask you to support us by asking the Norwegian government to ensure that the Ninos Adolescentes Trabadores organisations are present at the conference on an equal basis as the rest of the participants.

We ask you to do this because we are sure that you are in favour of life and against death, like us who struggle every day for life with our work to defeat the death we would have without it.

We hope that all your researches on working children continue to help changing this world into a world with justice, peace and solidarity for all.
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