United Nations Children's Fund
"Dust from the chemical powders and strong vapors in both the storeroom and the boiler room were obvious... We found 250 children, mostly below 10 years of age, working in a long hall filling in a slotted frame with sticks. Row upon row of children, some barely five years old, were involved in the work."1
The description could come from an observer appalled at the working conditions endured by children in the 19th century in British mills and factories.
The world, you feel, must surely have banished such obscenities to the distant past. But the quote is from a report on the matchstick-making industry of modern-day Sivakasi, in India.
The world should, indeed, have outgrown the many forms of abuse laboring children endure. But it hasn't, although not for lack of effort. Child labor was one of the first and most important issues addressed by the international community, resulting in the International Labor Organization's (ILO) 1919 Minimum Age Convention.
Early efforts were hobbled, in part, because campaigners struggling to end child labor appealed to morality and ethics, values easily sidelined by the drive for profit and the hard realities of commercial life. Child laborers were objects of charity or humanitarian concern but they had no legal rights.
Today's world is different at least in this respect. Children have rights established in international laws, not least in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has now been ratified by all but a few countries. Ratification specifically obligates governments-in article 32-to protect children "from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."
As we will see, child labor is often a complex issue. Powerful forces sustain it, including many employers, vested interest groups and economists proposing that the market must be free at all costs, and traditionalists believing the caste or class of certain children denudes them of rights.
The Lack of Relevant Education
Cuts in social spending have hit education-the most important single step in ending child labor-particularly hard. In all regions, spending per student for higher education fell during the 1980s, and in Africa and Latin America, spending per pupil also fell for primary education.
A pilot survey, sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UNICEF and carried out in 1994 in 14 of the world's least developed countries, reinforced concerns about the actual conditions of primary schools.
In half of these countries, classrooms for grade 1 have sitting places for only 4 in 10 pupils. Half the pupils have no textbooks and half the classrooms have no chalkboards.
Teachers commonly have to attempt to handle huge classes-an average of 67 pupils per teacher in Bangladesh and nearly 90 per teacher in Equatorial Guinea. In 10 of the 14 countries, most children are taught in a language not spoken at home. And most homes, of course, have no books or magazines in any language.2
Education is clearly underfunded, but the school system as it stands in most developing countries is blighted by more than just a lack of resources. It is too often rigid and uninspiring in approach, promoting a curriculum that is irrelevant to and remote from children's lives.
The quality of teaching is frequently abysmal and the discipline violent, as 11-year-old Sudhir from Kone in India can testify: "In school, teachers would not teach well. If we ask them to teach us alphabets, they would beat us. They would sleep in the class. If we asked them about a small doubt, they would beat us and send us out. Even if we did not understand, they would not teach us. So I dropped out of school."
Education has become part of the problem. It has to be reborn as part of the solution.
"Nearly all our girls work as sweepers," says a mother from India, herself a sweeper or latrine-cleaner. "Why should I waste my time and money on sending my daughter to school where she will learn nothing of use?"3
According to ILO, 56 per cent of the 10- to 14-year-olds currently estimated to be working in the developing world are boys. Yet, if we were able to measure the numbers of girls doing unregistered work as domestic help, or working at home to enable other family members to take up paid employment, the figures would show more female child laborers than male. Girls also work longer hours on average than boys, carrying a double workload-a job outside the home and domestic duties on their return.
All over the world, more girls than boys are denied their fundamental right to primary schooling. In some regions, including the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and especially South Asia, the gender gap is still enormous. Educational equality between the sexes is being approached in East Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, but elsewhere little progress has been recorded.
Gender bias is not simply a question of attitudes-it is enshrined in all the main institutions of society... and while the proportion of men who can read and write-37 percent-is extremely low, the 11 percent figure for female literacy is appalling.
The gender gap becomes a vicious circle for girls all over the developing world. Unable to attend school because of their low social status or their domestic responsibilities, they are denied the extra power and wider horizons that education would bring. If they seek work outside the home, their opportunities are limited to the most menial tasks. Their low status is reinforced and passed on to the next generation.
Both the individual and the society suffer. It is well established that the more schooling a girl has, the fewer children she will bear. The more children a poor family has, the more child workers there will be.4
The Power of Education
A comprehensive strategy to combat hazardous child labor must begin with its logical alternative: high quality schools and relevant educational programmes to which families will want to send their children and in which children will want to participate.
There are 140 million children between the ages of 6 and 11 not attending school-23 per cent of primary school age children in developing countries-and perhaps an equal number who drop out of school early. If all those under 18 are considered to be children, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990) stipulates, the figure out of school rises to 404 million, or 38 per cent of that age group.5 Many of these children work, many in jobs that are disabling and dangerous. Millions more are trying hard to balance the demands of work and schooling, a juggling act that poses particular problems for girls.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child insists that primary education must be universal and compulsory. If governments delivered on their legal commitment to this, the extent of exploitative child labor would be significantly reduced.
Any improvement made to education-whether by changing existing schools, by setting up creative and flexible approaches to education, or by targeting working children specifically-will have a positive impact on child labor.
Improving Basic Education
The 1990 World Conference on Education for All, held in Jomtien (Thailand), proclaimed the need for diverse, flexible approaches within a unified national system of primary education. To achieve the goal of quality primary education for all, education systems must:
Teach useful skills. If schools are to attract and retain children, their courses have to be seen as relevant by both parents and children. One prerequisite of a successful state education program is that it links the lessons taught to community life. In places where most children work, it defies logic to continue teaching as if they do not. Children must be taught which kinds of work are particularly hazardous and be advised on how to recognize the tactics of exploitative employers.
Children also need to be taught general life skills and about their own rights, so that they understand child labor laws and what they mean in practice.
Be More Flexible. Schools have to adapt to children's circumstances. The annual calendar and daily timetable of a school can be adjusted according to the seasonal farming calendar in the area. This has been one of the strategies adopted by the Indian state of Kerala, where very low school drop-out rates are matched by low incidence of child labor.
Schools also have to move towards children, particularly in rural areas. Small multigrade classes can bring education within easy walking distance. Most important, rigid traditional teaching methods must give way to child-centred approaches. The Escuela Nueva programme in Colombia exemplifies many of these flexible approaches.
Get Girls Into School. Two thirds of out-of-school children are girls, and ensuring their equal participation requires particular sensitivity to social, economic and cultural barriers. As we have seen, this is one of the most critical areas and one where rapid improvement would produce benefits that flow down, generation to generation.
Raise the Quality and Status of Teachers. Partly because of the crisis in education funding in many developing countries, the wages and status of teachers have diminished, especially at the all-important primary level. Thus, the quality of teachers entering school systems has also declined.
Teachers with negative and stereotypical ideas need to be retrained or replaced. Poor, low-caste or working children often are ill treated and physically abused. One response, successfully adopted by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) in its schools, is to recruit teachers from the same community as their pupils, and to sensitize them to the children's circumstances. 6
Cut the Family's School Bill. Survey after survey mentions the costs of schooling as a major problem for poor families. Even when there are no tuition fees, there can be myriad other costs: for books and supplies; uniforms and shoes; transportation and lunch; not to mention the loss of the child's income.
The chronic underfunding of basic education in developing countries needs to be overcome and is a matter of global concern and responsibility, particularly because of the heavy debt burdens so many developing countries carry.
We say again, this is a question not of scant resources but of political choice. It would cost an estimated $6 billion a year, on top of what is already spent, to put every child in school by the year 2000. That may seem an enormous sum. Yet it is less than 1 per cent of what the world spends every year on weapons.7
Escuela Nueva: Alternative Learning for Rural Children
Colombia's Escuela Nueva (EN) school programme is proof that flexible, non-conventional education can get rural children into school and keep them there.
If conventional schooling has failed in rural areas, it is because of its inability to captivate students. Classrooms, books and supplies don't make a school-willing pupils and motivated teachers do. Too often, schooling tends to be authoritarian, inflexible, irrelevant and even hostile to children, particularly girls. Add to that the pressure children feel from families-who, especially in rural areas, may be skeptical about the value of education and open about wishing that their children were wage-earners.
As recently as 10 years ago, half of Colombia's rural schools did not offer complete primary education. Fifty-five per cent of children between the ages of 7 and 9 and one quarter of all 10- to 14-year olds in the countryside had never attended school. One third of all first-graders dropped out.
The dismal figures sparked a government push for universal rural primary education and rapid growth in Escuela Nueva. From 2,000 schools in 1982, the number sky-rocketed to almost 18,000 in 1989, reaching 800,000 rural children. Today, the country has over 10,000 EN schools.
Their impact has been significant. When compared with students in regular schools, EN students have scored higher on achievement tests and have shown improved self-esteem, creativity and civic behavior.
Escuela Nueva's success is the result of a number of innovations, including multigrade teaching, detailed teachers' guides and lesson plans, continuing teacher training and supervision, and involvement of the community. There is one instructor and one classroom for children at all five levels of primary education. Multigrade classes make it possible to have a complete primary school close to children's homes in sparsely populated rural areas. They also change the intimidating teacher-pupil relationship.
Promotion is flexible, not automatic: students advance from one grade to the next only when they achieve set educational objectives. This means that the school fits the timetable of the children, benefiting the slow learners and children who must leave school during busy agricultural seasons.
The atmosphere also encourages learning. More than just a collection of classrooms, the schools are vibrant centers of activity that include kitchens,
dining rooms and washrooms, teacher housing, vegetable gardens, sports grounds and community facilities. Each has a small library and study corners, which are arranged by subject and display posters, minerals, artifacts, student-made crafts and other topic-related objects.
Through a strong student government programme-in which elected student council members decide on school activities-EN schools introduce children to the ideas of democracy and foster attitudes of cooperation. And by blurring the boundary between school and community, EN relieves some of the either/or pressure children feel when faced with both school and work.
An Agreement in Bangladesh
An important initiative to protect child workers is unfolding in Bangladesh. The country's powerful garment industry is committing itself to some dramatic new measures by an agreement signed in 1995.
The country is one of the world's major garment exporters, and the industry, which employs over a million workers, most of them women, also employed child labor. In 1992, between 50,000 and 75,000 of its workforce were children under 14, mainly girls.
The children were illegally employed according to national law, but the situation captured little attention, in Bangladesh or elsewhere, until the garment factories began to hide the children from the United States buyers or lay off the children, following the introduction of the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin. The Bill would have prohibited the importation into the U.S. of goods made using child labor. Then, when Senator Harkin reintroduced the Bill the following year, the impact was far more devastating: garment employers dismissed an estimated 50,000 children from their factories, approximately 75 per cent of all children in the industry.
The consequences for the dismissed children and their parents were not anticipated. The children may have been freed. But at the same time they were trapped in a harsh environment with no skills, little or no education, and precious few alternatives. Schools were either inaccessible, useless or costly. A series of follow-up visits by UNICEF, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) discovered that children went looking for new sources of income, and found them in work such as stone-crushing, street hustling and prostitution-all of them more hazardous and exploitative than garment production. In several cases, the mothers of dismissed children had to leave their jobs in order to look after their children.
Out of this unhappy situation, and after two years of difficult negotiations, a formal Memorandum of Understanding was signed in July 1995 by the Bangladesh Garment Manufactures and Exporters Association (BGMEA), and the UNICEF and ILO offices in Bangladesh.
Under the terms of the agreement, four key provisions were formulated:
The jury is still out on the long-term effectiveness of the Memorandum of Understanding. One key issue, for example, is whether setting up special schools for erstwhile child workers and providing a package of incentives such as monthly stipends, health care and skills development is a sustainable model that could be applied elsewhere and on a larger scale. Nevertheless, the events and insights that led up to the Memorandum must inform the approach of all those seeking to eliminate hazardous child labor.
International Landmarks in Child Protection
The following are international landmarks in child protection, beginning with the first international child labor convention in 1919, and extending to the current ILO proposal to outlaw hazardous and intolerable child labor worldwide.
1919: Minimum Age (Industry) Convention No. 5
Set 14 years as the minimum age for children to be employed in industry. Adopted at the first session of the International Labor Organization. Ratified by 72 nations.
1930: ILO Forced Labor Convention No. 29
Provides for the suppression of all forms of "forced or compulsory labor," meaning any work or service exacted involuntarily and under threat of penalty. Ratified by 139 nations as of mid September 1996.
1966: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
Article 8 states that no one should be kept in slavery or servitude or be required to perform forced or compulsory labor. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, and entered into force in 1976. Ratified by 135 nations as of mid-September 1996.
1966: International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights
Article 10 enjoins nations to protect young people from economic exploitation and employment harmful to their morals, health, or lives, or likely to hamper their normal development. Adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, and entered into force in 1976. Ratified by 135 nations as of mid-September 1996.
1973: ILO Minimum Age Convention No. 138
Sets the minimum age for work in any economic sector at not less than the age for completing compulsory education-and not less than 15 years. The minimum age for work likely to jeopardize health, safety, or morals is 18 years. Ratified by 49 nations as of mid-September 1996.
1976: ILO Minimum Age
Recommendation No. 146
Calls on nations to raise the minimum age of employment to 16 years.
1989: Convention on the Rights of the Child
Article 32 recognizes children's right to be protected from work that threatens their health, education or development, and enjoins nations to set minimum ages for employment and to regulate working conditions. Ratified by 187 nations as of mid-September 1996.
1996: ILO proposes a new convention on hazardous child labor or the elimination of the most intolerable forms of child labor.
1. Peter Lee Wright, Child Slaves (London: Earthscan, 1990), 40.
2. Manzoor Ahmed and Mary Joy Pigozzi, "The Power of Education," unpublished manuscript, July 15, 1996, 4.
3. Maria Cristina Salazar and Walter Alarcon Glasinovich, Better Schools, Less Child Work: Child Work and Education in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru, Innocenti Essays VII (Florence, Italy: UNICEF International Child Development Center, 1996).
4. Jo Boyden, The Relationship between Education and Child Work, Innocenti Occasional Papers, Child Rights Series No. 9 (Florence, Italy: UNICEF International Child Development Center, 1994), 21.
5. UNICEF data and UNESCO, Trends and Projections of Enrollment by Level of Education, by Age, and by Sex, 1960-2025, as assessed in 1993 (Paris: UNESCO, 1993).
6. Manzoor Ahmed, et al., Primary Education for All: Learning from the BRAC Experiment (Washington, DC: Academy for Educational Development, 1993), 41.
7. UNICEF, The 20/20 Initiative: Achieving Universal Access to Basic Social Services for Sustainable Human Development; and UNDP, Human Development Report 1994, 48.
This article has been adapted from The State of the World's Children 1997, a report issued by
Carol Bellamy, Executive Director, United Nations Children's Fund, and published for UNICEF by Oxford University Press. The report is available from the United States Committee for UNICEF, Attention: Public Information, 333 East 38th Street, New York, NY 10016 (212-686-5522). Any part of this report may be freely reproduced for classroom use with the appropriate acknowledgment.