Child labour is always exploitative…or is it. I want to explore why sometimes it isn’t considered exploitative.
It seems obvious. If children work they miss out on a lot of things we consider to be vital; educational, physical, social and mental growth. As consumers are becoming more and more conscious about what bad business practices they are funding, calls for child labour to end have increased over the last few decades.
Most recent action against child labour was taken by Apple who discovered that their cobalt supplier Huayou employed children and suspended their operation. The Netherlands made human rights due diligence for the first time to cut child labour. They will be looking at suppliers and ensuring there is no human rights violation further down the supply chain.
Whilst it is a welcomed change that capitalist corporations are now trying to run their businesses more ethically, it does feel a little like greenwashing the situation. Greenwashing is when a company appears to be more ‘green’ but fails to truly minimise the environmental impact. In this instance it would be to understand why children have to work, rather than just cutting off their only source of income.
Child labour in the UK was reduced in 1880 with the Education Act which made education compulsory for children up to the age of 10. This age was raised to 15 in 1944, 16 in 1973 and then 17 in 2013. So the UK’s stance on education has dramatically changed only very recently. The policy that someone must be educated until 16 years of age is younger than my mum!
As the UK, a 1st world country, is still trying to understand what the best age to be educated until is, we have to consider that this is not going to be what is best for children in other countries.
We all know the history of colonisation and the whitewashing of cultures all over the world. This could be described as a way of whitewashing and greenwashing cultures that need us to understand them in order to better help, rather than forcing them to become like us, which could lead to more hardship.
In an interesting podcast the Guardian held with various people including those who work in charities, previous child workers (now adults) and government workers, child labour is explored in a different way. We see how child labour is an important role within a family. As a part of the family children must contribute to the wellbeing of the everyone. They may even work for their family business, or as described by an ex child worker, sell “jellies, I worked on mini vans opening the doors, charging the clients. Also in construction, I carried bricks, washed dishes, all kinds of work [that] I could find.” I can’t imagine that if a child’s income is vital to the family’s essential needs, they’ll have much chance of being able to afford an education. Therefore banning child labour could potentially lead to worse outcomes.
There is also line between child exploitation and child labour here. Another interviewee explains that the difference lies in the type of work for example child prostitution vs child labour in the ways mentioned before.
In 2013 Bolivia revised the code protecting the rights of children and adolescents to raise the age of children working to 14. This caused children to protest because this directly affected their livelihood and the government had to reduce to the age to 10.
This says a lot about the priorities of people in Bolivia, whether children or adults. They may agree that education is the best way forward for future generations so that they can avoid the hard work and physical toil, and increase chances of making better a better living. But this isn’t a reality that can be implemented today or even tomorrow.
In India educational policies have increased child literacy however children are increasingly dropping out of school to work for their families.
30% of people in India live below the poverty line and they have no contingency plans of what happens in cases of illness, poverty, death or other unexpected costs. As a debt adviser in East London I see the way unemployed and employed people in the UK have no contingency plans and are living day to day. I see clients who live on food bank vouchers or regularly have to borrow from friends and family. The difference is if they are capable to seek advice there is help out there in the form of debt and money advice charity services. Just living day to day becomes a job in itself.
Child exploitation is unacceptable but I am weary of trying to change a country/cultures social system by just suspended our operations. Although it is a good way to send the message to the company, the corporations should use their economic leverage for a better attempt at having a good impact. I also think we must consider and accept that how we believe is the right way to live can be completely different in a different place. In Bolivia they have their own child care act where they diagnose if a working place is suitable and necessary for a child but without funding they cannot implement this act. They cannot just put laws in place to resolve a situation.
We can think learn about this grey area between child labour and child exploitation to understand how to have a better impact on the world with our consumer power as well as any other super powers. For example; pressurising companies like Apple to do more than just suspend operations. They CAN do something about ensuring working conditions are better, like Bolivia intended to.
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I got my information from these sources: