The International Campaign and Research project “It’s Time to Talk! – Children’s Views on Children’s Work”
Over 218 million children worldwide are engaged in some form of work, accounting for almost 17 % of the whole child population. About 73 million, i.e. almost one third, are engaged in hazardous work, endangering their health, safety and moral development. The root causes are complex. Poverty, inequality, high unemployment rates amongst adults and limited access to quality education are just some of the factors that lead to the exploitation of child work. Manifold efforts have been undertaken to end hazardous child labour. In 2010, the Roadmap for Achieving the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour by 2016 was adopted in The Hague. At the Third Global Conference on Child Labour in Brazil in 2013, government representatives and representatives from the employers’ and workers’ organizations reaffirmed their commitment to strengthening their efforts to achieve this goal by 2016. During the Fourth Global Conference on Child Labour in Argentina in 2017 governments committed to eradicate exploitative child labour by 2025 and end slavery by 2030.
While we support and encourage all stakeholders to continue their efforts towards the elimination of the worst forms of child labour and the exploitation of children, we are forced to acknowledge that programs intended to protect children sometimes fail to actually improve the lives of the children reached, especially of those most in need – maybe even leaving them worse off than they were before. The challenge remains: How do we ensure that the children really benefit from all our interventions?
The experience of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community organizations on the ground has shown that in order to be efficient, any intervention needs to address the complexity of the issue. Children can – and do – work to support themselves and their families whereby this work may have positive or negative effects. Children may work in dignified situations that are neither harmful nor exploitative, where they are able to learn technical, business and life skills, earn an income and realize their citizenship as active members of their community. On the other hand, children may find themselves working in an unsafe and unhealthy environment, with little or no pay, where they are unable to pursue their education and other rights. Additionally, children are a very diverse group, with varying socio-economic backgrounds and identities as a result of class, race, gender, age, culture and religion. The type of work carried out by children, the hazards involved and the way in which these hazards can be mitigated all vary depending on the above factors – particularly when it comes to gender. Key to understanding this complexity and ensuring accountability for our interventions is the participation of the children themselves.
Children have expressed that as long as their families are poor and in need of their support, they are expected to contribute to increasing the household’s income. At the same time, they insist on their right to education, protection and health. In Latin America and Africa some children even claim their right to work – uniting in trade unions.
These developments show that we have to create a framework that allows for individual solutions that focus on the rights, well-being and best interest of every single child in every single context. A blanket ban on all forms of child work is not the right approach. Individual assessments, careful monitoring, effective participation of the children, adequate understanding of the local realities and available alternatives are critical in order to protect children from the worst forms of child labour and hazardous exploitative work. Intervention may include improving the working conditions, creating income opportunities for adults or ensuring access to education after/before work.
The most important step in setting the path for this framework is to listen to working children. According to Article 12 of the United Nations Child Rights Convention (CRC), children have the right to be heard in decision-making processes relevant to their own lives. Additionally, Article 13 protects their right to expression, and Article 15 their right to association. Not only do we have to ensure that children can participate in decisions that affect their lives because they have a right to do so, but also because children are experts in understanding their own lives and living conditions and can thus contribute substantially to the solution-finding process. In the last three global actions on child labour, in The Hague, Brasilia and Buenos Aires these rights were not given due consideration. Despite efforts from the organizers to open an Online Dialog Platform or to have 18+ year old youth representatives with non-child-worker backgrounds participating, the voice of the group targeted by these campaigns – i.e. the working children’s – was disregarded.
 Global estimates of child labour: Results and trends, 2012-2016. International Labour Office (ILO), Geneva, 2017 https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/publication/wcms_575499.pdf
 Buenos Aires Declaration on Child Labour, Forced Labour and Youth Employment, Buenos Aires, 2017 https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—ipec/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_597667.pdf or alternatively in child-friendly language: In simple words! The results of the 4th Global Conference on the Sustained Eradication of Child Labour. Buenos Aires – 16th November 2017. “It’s Time to Talk! – Children’s Views on Children’s Work. Osnabrück. 2018 https://www.time-to-talk.info/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/181010_knh-t2t_Abschlussbericht_EN_210x280_DIGITAL.pdf