She is thirteen years-old. Her name is Rina. She has a pair of
worn-out flip-flops on her feet. On her head she wears a large straw
hat with the traditional Khmer headscarf. Under a leaden sky, she
sorts through rubbish in a huge, stinking tip on the outskirts of
Phnom Penh. In a haze of acrid smoke, a swarm of flies buzzes noisily
over the garbage. Around this teenage girl, a group of other
children, some no more than five years old, is also sorting through
the piles of plastic, glass, lead and bones. They strip out anything
that can be recovered and sold to the scrap dealers operating nearby.
Rina's income from her day's work will be no more than thirty pence,
but this will be enough for her and her sick mother to live on.
This kind of work, which is traditional in many third world
countries (for instance India and the Philippines), is relatively new
to Cambodia. The massive growth of its capital accounts for the huge
size of this tip, and the extreme poverty of its new "citizens"
accounts for the presence of these hundreds of children.
The facts about the world's child labourers are only now beginning
to be understood for the international scandal and the economic folly
that they are. A scandal, because it deprives millions of them of
their childhood; and a folly, because it denies them any hope of
education, and thus seriously undermines these countries' hopes of
The new awareness of this problem first emerged several years ago
in Latin America, and more particularly in Asia, where local
non-governmental organisations patiently set about constructing a
network of resistance to the exploitation of children. This has now
led, especially in India, to commando operations led by a handful of
determined activists working to free child labourers from the
factories, workshops and brothels where they are enslaved. They went
on from this to organise a Children's March. This began at separate
locations in Asia, Latin America and Africa, and converged on Geneva,
where a meeting of the International Labour Organisation voted
through a convention on the abolition of the least acceptable forms
of exploitation of children.
How many working children are there in the world today? Experts
from the International Labour Bureau and Unicef have suggested a
total figure of 250 million exploited children, an alarming figure
which indicates a serious worsening over the past twenty years - and
a growth which cannot be explained simply by population growth. What
we have here is the effect of deregulation and the erosion of the
judicial and cultural systems that were once set in place for the
protection of children.
The vast majority of exploited children live in the third world,
and half of them in Asia. India alone has more than 50 million.
Africa has even more, in relative terms, because it has one in three
children working, as against an average of one in four in Asia, and
one in five in Latin America. However the phenomenon also has a long
history in the industrialised countries, and here too we have seen a
resurgence in recent years. First, throughout Central and Eastern
Europe, where the effects of growing poverty combine with those of a
general disorganisation of the economy.
But it is also happening in countries that would theoretically see
themselves as protectors of the weak, such as Britain, Italy and
other countries of Western Europe. In Britain, this growth has been
one effect of the years of unbridled conservatism and systematic
deregulation, which have led to the erosion of legal protection:
children, largely from the immigrant communities, are to be found
working in hairdressing salons, restaurants, laundries, cleaning
companies etc. (1). How many are they? A few dozen or hundreds of
thousands? It is hard even to estimate, since in Britain as in the
rest of Europe child labour is not open to the public gaze.
It is equally widespread in Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain, the
United States. In France, for instance, several thousand children do
not attend school at all (2), and a large number of these are
exploited as workers. To these, we might add the children who are
brought directly into the adult world of production under the guise
of apprenticeships. Again, the figures are hard to find because they
are covered by a veil of silence.
In the third world, where the exploitation of child labour is
massively widespread, the employment of child labour is not
restricted to marginal activities. They are part and parcel of the
whole system of production, be it in agriculture, industry, artisan
activity, the rag trade, repairing things, or the thousand and one
street trades. The list is endless and adults have great powers of
imagination when it comes to reducing whole populations of children
to conditions of semi-slavery.
Children are camel jockeys in the Gulf states, yearly contract
labourers in carpet factories and factories making explosives,
fireworks, matches and cigarettes in India, miners in Colombia,
Bolivia and Peru, polishers of precious stones (again in India),
diamond miners in ex-Zaire. They clean out the hulls of oil tankers
in Pakistan, manufacture cotton goods in India, Pakistan and
Bangladesh, pick jasmine by night in Egypt, make bricks from the age
of five upwards (India and Pakistan), sew footballs (Pakistan), dive
for pearls in Malaysia and Burma, and pack frozen fish and prawns in
Morocco and the Philippines.
In short, children do every kind of work - including work in the
major growth sector which is the forced provision of sexual services.
Here, they are often the victims of appalling violence, beatings,
burning with cigarettes and, for good measure, sexually-transmitted
diseases which may prove fatal.
The other part of the picture is that, in Southern Asia, tens of
millions of people live their lives under the yoke of debt bondage, a
system whereby people are enslaved to money-lenders in order to pay
off moneys lent to some distant member of their family. The
money-lender or his descendants thus gain the right of life or death
over whole families who are chained to debts that can never be paid
Poverty is obviously at the root of the child labour problem - the
poverty of governments, combined with the destitution of individual
families. But economic factors are not in themselves sufficient to
explain the massive extent of the phenomenon. There is, for instance,
the powerful factor that the provision of schooling is often
inadequate: it may be too expensive, or too far away, with badly paid
and unmotivated teachers facing classes of eighty to a hundred
children, where the language used is often incomprehensible and where
the content of the teaching seems to bear no relationship to the
everyday life of the children's families. In a situation like that,
why would parents want to deprive themselves of the small amounts of
income that a child can bring? Why, in particular, would they send
girls to school - those second-class citizens who are so useful in
fetching firewood and water and looking after the younger children
(3)? And in India, why should the children of Untouchables be sent to
school when their natural destiny is to go into service?
This combination of factors goes alongside the tremendous
constraints to which their parents are subject. They reasonably ask
how they can afford not to send their children out to work. They are
at the mercy of violent social relations and a violent economic
system over which they have no control and which appears to many of
them as incapable of change.
Our objective must be to loosen these constraints and help to
lighten the burden. Here, we need to listen to the voices of the
child labourers themselves. And what we hear from them is not
necessarily straightforward, as is shown in Michel Bonnet's
remarkable book on the subject (4). Bonnet writes that "a single
question haunts these children day and night: why? Why do I have to
work so hard? Why can't we go to work for some of the time, and to
school for the rest? Why are employers so cruel? Why am I paid so
little? Why is life so unfair to poor people?" And the author himself
provides the answer: "What these children fear even more than their
dangerous working conditions and beatings from their employers is to
be 'thrown out' - to be excluded from employment in the same way that
they are excluded from schools, hospitals, playgrounds - in short,
they fear being excluded from life."
These children are not so much asking that child labour be
abolished, but that it is humanised and made less harsh; that it
brings in a real income; and that the violence against them is
stopped. It is hard to fault their "reformist" approach when any
other approach would be suicidal for them. Nevertheless, we are duty
bound to examine the child labour phenomenon closely, in all its
ramifications. The debate about strategies which might lead to the
elimination of child labour is only just beginning. Perhaps the first
thing that is needed is simply to look at the intolerable conditions
in which these young slaves live and work. As Michel Bonnet writes,
"just looking is a revolutionary act".
This "looking", this analysis, shows that 90% of the products of
child labour are destined for local markets, not for export. So while
boycotting the products of child labour in the countries of the North
may be useful in a political sense as consciousness-raising, it goes
nowhere near the heart of the problem. The solutions have to be more
complex and more global. As far as the children are concerned, the
key issue is the provision of schooling - including the provision of
education actually at the children's places of work, as is beginning
to happen in Pakistan, India and Morocco. Furthermore, nothing will
ever happen unless there is a total transformation in the attitudes
of those politicians, national and otherwise, who see child labour as
a kind of difficult, but necessary step on the road to more
acceptable forms of industrialisation, or a necessary stage through
which pre-industrial societies have to pass before achieving a degree
of economic development.
This convenient stereotypical notion has to be fought, because
there is clearly no way in which one can allow the development of a
society to be founded on the servitude of whole populations of
children. In recent years, huge progress has been made on this front.
But given the immensity of the problem in hand, the work is only just
*Information director for the French committee of the UN
Children's Fund (UNICEF). Author of Un Monde qui dévore ses
enfants, Editions Liana Lévi, Paris, 1997.
(1) See Martin Monestier, Les Enfants
esclaves, Editions du Cherche-Midi, Paris, 1998.
(2) L'Etat de l'enfance en France, a
collection of contributions edited by Gabriel Langouët,
Hachette, Paris, 1997.
(3) Of the 140 million children in the world who
do not attend school, two thirds are girls. The difference between
this figure and that of the 250 million child labourers is due to the
fact that some children in work attend part-time
(4) Regards sur les enfants travailleurs,
Editions Page Deux, Cahiers Libres collection, Lausanne, 1998. Michel
Bonnet has also been involved in the preparation of a collection of
articles on this topic: L'Enfant exploité, oppression, mise
au travail, prolétarisation, ed. Bernard Schlemmer,
Karthala, Paris, 1996.