Le Monde diplomatique

June 1998



Giant corporations, dwarf states *

Indonesia, master card in Washington's hand *

Between the finance markets and the army *

Russia and America at odds in the Gulf  *

The Iran factor *

Elections offer brief respite from crisis *

Bolt from the blue in Denmark *

The Lomé Convention under threat *

India in the hands of the Hindu nationalists *

Very political crimes in Bombay *

Transport and geostrategy in southern Russia *

When immigration turns to slavery *

Organising against child labour *

The Beirut slave trade *



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(*) Star-marked articles are free. See subscription information.


Organising against child labour

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 their countries' hopes of economic lift-off.
by Claire Brisset

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 economic lift-off.

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 off.

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 beginning.

 *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 schooling.

(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.


Translated by Ed Emery




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