On a small cocoa farm in Guiglo, Ivory Coast, 15-year-old Abou is swinging his rusty machete under the scorching hot sun alongside other boys his age. He is hungry and his back hurts, he tells the Washington Post. But, he can’t stop; this is his only means of survival. At the end of a long and tiring workday, Abou is handed a measly 85 cents for his effort. This grim picture is the reality of so many children across the world; particularly in Asia and Africa, which account for over 90% of total child employment. Today, around 152 million children are still in child labour.
Child labour is not a novel phenomenon; it has been around for a very long time. The concept of “child labour” can be broadly defined as any activity that denies young people their childhood, their potential and their dignity. It is any form of work that deprives them of an education, health or physical and mental development. More precisely, “child labour includes employment below the minimum age as established in national legislation (excluding permissible light work) and the worst forms of child labour, including hazardous unpaid household services”.
Poverty, the Main Driver
The primary cause of child labour is financial hardship. Just like the issue of child marriage, most parents are complicit in the practice. They see their children as financial instruments and a means to augment their family income.
But the irony is, child labour actually perpetuates poverty. When children are forced to work, they are denied the opportunity to go to school. So, they grow up lacking the basic skills required to get a good job in the near future. For girls, they end up getting married early and having children of their own. Their family size increases, disposable incomes are still low and the cycle of poverty persists.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the employers, who are active participants in this despicable practice. Many employers prey on the vulnerability of these young children. They are aware that they desperately need the money and they cannot legally form trade unions to clamour for better pay and better work conditions. So, they capitalise on this, making underaged children work tirelessly in an extremely dangerous and hazardous environment, that could lead to severe injuries or death.
Consumers, the Beneficiaries
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), child labour is heavily concentrated in the agricultural sector (71%), this consists of forestry, livestock herding and fishing; 17% in the Service sector; and 12% in the Industrial sector.
Businesses love to cut costs and maximise profits, so it is no surprise to learn that child labour is the backbone of several key industries today. The food we eat, the cosmetics we use, the chocolate we indulge in and the clothes we wear; a child was probably involved in the process. They withstand extremely dangerous working conditions, wield dangerous tools, they are exposed to life-threatening chemicals, work long hours and often endure physical and sexual abuse from their employers.
Combating the Problem
The first and perhaps the most important remedy to the practice is a massive reduction in poverty and inequality, which would consequently lead to improved wellbeing and higher incomes. Inclusive growth is one way of achieving this. Governments should ensure key drivers of economic growth are inclusive of all social groups; particularly the vulnerable members of society. By doing this, they are tackling the issue of child labour at the grass-root level and preventing it from occurring in the first place.
The role of education is unrivalled in solving a range of developmental ills. Governments need to take responsibility and ensure that quality education for children between a certain age is compulsory and free. The school should be the best place for a child to work.
Laws and regulations should also be put in place to punish offenders and perpetrators of the crime. Most importantly, these laws must be strongly enforced by the government and relevant legislative bodies.
There is also a need for an attitudinal shift; especially in areas where parents are not well informed about the consequences of child labour. This can be achieved through civil society engagement and awareness campaigns, that educate the public about the detrimental effects of the practice on the overall health and development of a child.
Finally, businesses should be held accountable for their unethical actions. Consumers need to start asking tough questions about where their goods come from and who made them. They have the right and power to demand transparency and accountability about their supply chain practices.
Child labour is a societal, cultural and human rights problem. Parents, employers, businesses, governments, and society as a whole have a moral responsibility to provide a conducive environment to ensure that children do not have to work in such harmful conditions. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
Today is the World Day Against Child Labour and the theme for this year is – children shouldn’t work in fields, but on dreams –
Thank you for reading,