The development community wants to help child workers during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, but unless it rethinks its programming it could cause harm itself.
Today is the World Day Against Child Labour. It is the most visible point of a largely unseen political and institutional consensus, one which pushes governments, NGOs, and international agencies to invest hundreds of millions of pounds annually in support of policies and projects to end ‘child labour’. We contend that this money often does more harm than good.
The drive to ‘do something’ about child labour has only increased in urgency with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and with the release of reports suggesting that children may suffer the brunt of the fallout more deeply. We agree with the ILO that coronavirus will undoubtedly impact child workers. But in order to ensure that its negative effects are mitigated rather than exacerbated by policy, we feel compelled to highlight the significant body of evidence showing that there are major problems with orthodox thinking around children’s work.
The dominant approach involves preventing children from working in sectors deemed unacceptable and removing them from sectors where prevention has failed. Implicit here is the concept of ‘harm’ and the idea that certain kinds of work are inherently harmful for children. Yet researchers from all continents as well as movements of working children themselves argue that this approach fails. At times it even harms the young people it is supposed to be serving.
What do they mean by this? What actually is harm?
Challenging the dominant narrative on child labour and ‘harm’
The International Labour Organisation defines child labour as work that is mentally, physically, socially, or morally harmful to children. It views ‘hazards’ as anything with the potential to do harm and ‘risks’ as the likelihood of potential harm arising from a given hazard. But for all the extensive lists developed to identify hazards and risks, nowhere has the institution actually defined harm. The ILO’s definition of hazardous child labour as “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” is imprecise and subject to interpretation through different lenses.
Ultimately, as with most human rights, the boundaries of hazards and harm tend to be delineated by those in positions of institutional power. Their understanding of these terms is particular to themselves, yet they assume their understanding is universal. This is a problematic, exclusive, and unscientific basis on which to build policy.
By contrast, anthropological and sociological research into child work has repeatedly found that removing children from work that is difficult, dangerous and at times even damaging is often not in their best interests. This is because, as working children themselves argue, it prevents them from accessing the resources they and their families need to get by. It also overrides their autonomy and interrupts their social development.
Working children in Vietnam. Phu Tam/ILO/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-nd)
“Whether or not work is experienced as harmful is more closely connected to its social context and the relationships in which it takes place than to the nature of the work itself.”
Data from every continent show that young workers feel proud and experience heightened self-esteem when they can contribute to their families’ wellbeing through their labour. This, in turn, gives them confidence – which is vital in contexts of poverty and can only be obtained through exposure to hazards that one then learns to manage. Likewise, we know that work offers children a chance to develop their social skills and through these to accumulate social capital. Evidence of children living and working on the streets has made this point especially clear.
Whether or not work is experienced as harmful is more closely connected to its social context and the relationships in which it takes place than to the nature of the work itself. In turn, this means that cultural contexts are vital for understanding whether any given experience will be understood and processed by the individual in question as harmful or beneficial.
Embedded within all of the foregoing analyses is the concept of wellbeing as the ‘true’ benchmark by which we should evaluate the pros and cons of children’s work. And, by extension, the benchmark for evaluating policies which seek to intervene in children’s lives. On this argument, although any individual experience of harm will necessarily diminish aggregate wellbeing, decisions regarding how harm should be navigated should only be made contextually and with reference to the overall bundle of inputs contributing to a child’s wellbeing or ill-being.
What are the implications for research and policy?
At the heart of this is the idea that the concept of harm is ambiguous, relative and contextual. It may be unhelpful (and even problematic) to present harm as an ‘objective’ concept that can be defined, measured and assessed with discrete criteria. What is more, in assessing harm, a variety of factors should be taken into consideration. These must include the cumulative or ‘invisible’ aspects of harm, and the trade-off between potential benefits and potential risks inherent in any intervention.
This all points to a set of key questions that must be asked and answered by anyone seeking to help children who work: who is assessing the relative nature of harm, and how does this sit with other perspectives? How are different perspectives on harm reconciled? Likewise, is one instance of a hazardous activity enough to describe the entire work experience as ‘harmful’? And how does any intervention affect wellbeing, the implicit metric against which harm and benefit is being evaluated?
It is, above all, vital that the international development community and especially the ILO prioritise meaningful engagement with these questions to avoid accidentally causing further harm to the vulnerable working children they seek to serve during and beyond this pandemic.