Is all work harmful for children?

Written by Neil Howard, Roy Maconachie, Samuel Okyere.

Hundreds of millions of pounds are being invested by governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and international agencies in support of the development and roll-out of policies and project interventions to end ‘child labour’. Undoubtedly, this points to an established political and institutional consensus, reflected in the fanfare around today’s World Day Against Child Labour. Yet, the question should be are we doing more damage than good in our efforts to end child labour?

This consensus has further been brought into sharp focus by the impacts of the COVID-19 health pandemic on labour markets and livelihoods, with recent reports suggesting that children may suffer the brunt of the fallout more deeply. But a significant body of evidence suggests that there are major problems with orthodox thinking that concerns children at work. The dominant approach at the heart of this consensus involves preventing children from working in sectors deemed unacceptable and removing them from sectors where prevention has failed.

Implicit here is the concept of ‘harm’ and the idea that certain kinds of work are inherently harmful for children. Yet researchers from all continents as well as movements of working children themselves argue that this approach fails and at times even harms the young people it is supposed to be serving. So what actually is harm? This is the question at the heart of the new programme: Action on Children’s Harmful Work in African Agriculture.

Challenging the dominant narrative

The ILO defines child labour as work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally harmful to children. It views ‘hazards’ as anything with the potential to do harm and ‘risks’ as the likelihood of potential harm arising from a given hazard. But for all the extensive lists developed to identify hazards and risks, nowhere has the institution actually defined harm. The ILO’s definition of hazardous child labour as “work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” is imprecise and this subject to interpretation through different lenses.

Ultimately, as with most human rights, the boundaries of hazards and harm tend to be delineated by those in positions of institutional power and with their own particular understandings, which are often assumed to be universal. This is a problematic, exclusive, and unscientific basis on which to build policy.

By contrast, a primary focus of the anthropological and sociological literature has been on the fact that removing children from work that is difficult, dangerous, and at times even damaging, is often not in their best interests. This is because, as working children themselves have widely argued, it excludes them from access to the resources that they and their families need to get by, overrides their autonomy, and interrupts their social development.

Data from every continent show that young workers feel proud and experience heightened self-esteem when they can contribute to their families’ wellbeing through their labour. This, in turn, gives them confidence – which is vital in contexts of poverty and can only be obtained through exposure to hazards that one then learns to manage. Likewise, we know that work offers children a chance to develop their social skills and through these to accumulate social capital. Evidence of children living and working on the streets has made this point especially clear.

Whether or not work is experienced as harmful is more closely connected to its social context and the relationships in which it takes place than to the nature of the work itself. In turn, this means that cultural meaning-scapes are vital for understanding how any given experience can be understood and processed by the individual in question as harmful or beneficial.

Embedded within all of the foregoing analyses is the concept of wellbeing as the ‘true’ benchmark by which we should evaluate the pros and cons of children’s work, and, by extension, the policies that seek to limit it. On this argument, although any individual experience of harm will necessarily diminish aggregate wellbeing, the assessment as to how harm should be navigated can only be made contextually and with reference to the overall bundle of inputs contributing to a child’s wellbeing or ill-being.

What are the implications?

At the heart of this is the idea that the concept of harm is ambiguous, relative and contextual and it may be unhelpful (and even problematic) to present harm as an ‘objective’ concept that can be defined, measured and assessed with discrete criteria. What is more, in assessing harm, a variety of factors should be taken into consideration, including: a) the temporal nature of harm (e.g. the cumulative or ‘invisible’ aspects of harm); and b) the trade-offs which must be assessed to determine if potential benefits outweigh potential risks.

All of the above point to a set of key questions that must be asked and answered by those seeking to help children who work: who is assessing the relative nature of harm, and how does this sit with other perspectives? How are different perspectives on harm reconciled? Likewise, is one instance of a hazardous activity enough to describe the entire work experience as ‘harmful’? And, in the end, how does all of this relate to wellbeing, which is the implicit counterfactual state against which harm and benefit is being evaluated?

It is, above all, vital that the ILO and its allies prioritise meaningful engagement with these questions to avoid accidentally causing further harm to the vulnerable working children they seek to serve.

This blog is taken from Action on Children’s Harmful Work in African Agriculture (ACHA).

A version of this piece was also published in Open Democracy: Child workers needs rights, not policing, to weather the pandemic