Child Labour: a Link in the Cycle of Poverty
In the UK, the closest we come to child labour is our historical image of Dickensian orphans slaving away in the textile mills of Victorian London. We can be at ease with this picture, for we can, rightly, condemn it, whilst all the time maintaining our comfortable distance from it. This image, however, is a far cry from today’s reality. Child labour is not a thing of the past. It is one of the greatest challenges faced by many developing nations today.
It is estimated by Unicef that 150 million children worldwide are engaged in child labour: work that is mentally, physically, socially, morally or educationally damaging to a child’s health. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are 59 million children in work (International Labour Organization). These children are as young as four, and work in all kinds of (usually manual) labour. Sex slavery and prostitution are also counted in these figures, atrocities that are particularly prevalent in war-torn nations such as Sudan. It is hard to imagine a childhood spent unprotected in dangerous labour, in our world of schools and playgrounds and social services. But that is the reality for children across the world.
Child labour is damaging to a child in a multitude of ways, including physically. A quarter of children working in the world’s poorest countries are working in highly dangerous tasks (Unicef). In Somalia, children work in quarries or with dangerous farm equipment. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, they work in mines. In Burundi, they work in the sex industry. In the UK, workers of any age are required to have proper training, qualifications and safety equipment before working with potentially unsafe equipment or in potentially unsafe areas. Additionally, the use of children in any sort of sexual acts or sexual work is abhorred as a national atrocity. In many countries around the world however it is rife, resulting in rape, abuse and child pregnancies, and all the– often fatal– medical, mental and societal side-effects.
Irrespective of the dangers involved in child labour, it is an institution that unfailingly deprives children of their childhoods. They are forced to exist in an adult world at the age of four or five or six. In Myanmar, for example, many of the worst-treated children commit suicide (Business Insider)
. This devastating fact is proof in itself that child labour exposes children to an inappropriately adult world. The most obvious and appalling examples of this are when children are forced to become prostitutes or soldiers, but even conditions working in clothing factories, fields, and rubbish heaps are atrocious, and all deprive children of childhood and education. The activist site No Child For Sale publishes true stories of children at work. One of these is the story of an Albanian boy called Klodi. Though only 10 years old, Klodi is not allowed to go to school. He spends his days hunting for metal scraps in order to supplement the family income and keep his family alive. Heartbreakingly, Klodi dreams of being a doctor. In this cycle of poverty, his dream will most probably never be realised.
Despite child labour endangering the lives and childhoods of children, it is the fact that it deprives them of an education, perhaps more than anything else, that leads to child labour continuing the cycle of poverty. Without a proper education, the children who are forced to work will likely have no choice but to continue that work, or similar, all their lives, with little rise in fortune. As a result, their own children will be carrying out the very same tasks. In order to avoid yet another generation of children being trapped in poverty, it is imperative that we do something about it.
Try as one might, it is difficult to regulate child labour. The UN website for child labour says “only one in five child labourers are in paid employment. The overwhelming majority are unpaid family workers.” It is hard to keep track of such unauthorized work, and thus to establish the scale of the problem. Additionally, families are unlikely to be willing to change age-old practices of using their children as labour, especially in rural areas where these ideas are widespread and children are considered a boon for this reason. Children employed in non-family work are at equal risk, for their job is often doubly illegal, both in its nature (soldier, sex slave) and in the age of the workers. As a consequence, the adults who have recruited them to these tasks will go to great lengths to ensure their activity is hidden from the public.
The first action taken ought to be to put pressure on governments to strictly enforce child protection laws, or to create them in countries where there are none. Secondly, the illegal activities in which children are employed, such as sex slavery, need to be investigated and shut down. But perhaps the biggest thing that needs to happen to revert this awful trend is to change attitudes. Received notions about children being an economic benefit to a family, and the necessity for getting food on the table in the here-and-now, can cloud the long-term vision of families and change their image of what childhood is and ought to be. Awareness needs to be raised worldwide about the effects of child labour, in both the long and short term.
Child labour may be comfortably out of sight and out of mind in the UK. But for much of the world, it is still a very real threat. Regardless of questions of ethics of involvement with other cultures, everyone ought to be provided their basic human rights– of which compulsory primary education is one. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that a child has a right to an education, a right to take part in leisure activities and play, and also, in Article 32, that “governments must protect children from economic exploitation and work that is dangerous or might harm their health, development or education. Governments must set a minimum age for children to work and ensure that work conditions are safe and appropriate.” It is time we start to enforce this, before more children become victims of this system.