Monday, November 17, 2008

When is child labour wrong? The UN explains

CHILD LABOUR - The United Nations tries to help...

Would you like to carry rocks all day in the hot sun, with no chance to go to school or to hang out with your friends?

All over the world there are children who work for long hard hours, every day. We call these children child labourers. There are 246 million children around the world, most of whom are between the ages of 5 and 14, who labour every day, without the chance to go to school or play with other kids.

Over 40% of child labourers work in Asia, and 20% more work in Africa, but there are child labourers in most every country in the world.

Child work vs. child labour

Like in other countries, in Canada, there are children who have to leave school and get jobs to help their families buy things like food and clothing. They may work in stores or with their families in fields, picking berries. Children and teens in every country work in stores, sell newspapers, babysit, do chores and help their parents. But is this child labour?

There is a big difference between working in a store after school and selling newspapers all day on the street in a busy intersection. There’s a big difference, also, between watching your younger brothers or sisters after school, and taking care of them all day – every day – instead of going to school.

Some kinds of work done by children can teach them important skills, or let them help their families. Other kinds of work can make them sick, keep them out of school, take advantage of them or put them in danger.

Child work becomes child labour when it:

Harms children’s health
Leaves no time or energy for school
Leaves no time for rest and play
Is full time, at too early an age
Gives too much responsibility
Doesn’t pay fairly
Takes away children’s dignity or self-esteem

Child labour specifically refers to all children under 12 who work to make money, those aged 12 to 14 years who do dangerous work, and all children engaged in the worst forms of child labour. The worst forms of child labour include children being enslaved, forcibly recruited, prostituted, trafficked from one country to another, forced into illegal activities and exposed to hazardous work. Of the estimated 246 million child labourers, almost three-quarters work in hazardous conditions, such as working in mines, working with chemicals and pesticides in agriculture or working with dangerous machinery.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says every child under 18 – including you – has the right to education, play, rest, and protection from child labour.

The work that you do at your job, cleaning your room, raking leaves, or shoveling driveways, does not get in the way of your right to be healthy, to go to school and to play. But for some children around the world, the work they do does get in the way of these rights.

Child Labourers do many kinds of work. You may have heard about children who work in factories, making soccer balls, clothing or rugs. These child labourers work for long hours, often in darks spaces without much fresh air.

While there are children who work in factories that make goods for export, most children work in houses doing domestic chores all day, on farms, or in the streets of cities. We call this kind of work ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible’ labour because it takes place out of the sight of government. It is especially hard for governments to enforce laws to stop this kind of child labour.

Some of the worst forms of child labour include, child soldiers, child prostitution, slavery and bonded labour (when a child’s labour is demanded as a means of repayment for a loan). These children experience high levels of exploitation and abuse.

So, why would some parents allow their children to work in these conditions?

Some parents have trouble finding work or they earn very small salaries. Sometimes these parents feel that their children will be able to bring in extra money to augment the family income by working.

Also, some businesses prefer to hire children rather than adults. Many children don’t know their rights, and so employers feel they can take advantage of them by paying them less money, making them work longer hours and making them work in unsafe conditions. There are also myths which exist about children. For example, many people believe that children are better at doing work that requires fine movement such as weaving carpets or rolling cigarettes.

Girls, in particular, often work as domestic servants, which means they do housework all day long for their families or for strangers. Although it is not true, some people believe that girls are better at cooking, cleaning and looking after children than boys. If a family can’t afford to send all their children to school, they will often keep the girls home to help make money for the family or to look after the home while the parents are out working. The girls work long hard hours cooking, cleaning, and looking after their younger brothers and sisters. They are the first to wake up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night, and they often don’t have the chance to go to school or play.


Alezeta is 13 years old and lives in a country called Burkina Faso in West Africa. Every morning at 5:30 am, she wakes up in her mud-brick home and begins her long and tiring day of work. Her day starts by collecting firewood, piling it up on one side of the house, then building a fire to heat water. Alezeta gets out the cooking pots that she’s cleaned the night before and begins to prepare a basic morning meal for her parents, brothers and sisters. Next, she helps to bathe her four younger siblings using a bucket of water.

Alezeta helps her brothers and sisters get dressed for school in the clothes that she washed the day before, and she makes sure that they have their books before they leave. Alezeta doesn’t go to school with her brothers and sisters, and once they have left, she begins the rest of her chores for the day. By 9:00 at night, when Alezeta goes to bed, she has swept the courtyard with a small bundle of twigs, cleaned the house, washed the cooking pots and clothes, hung the clothes out to dry, gone to the market to buy food, collected water from the local water pump, cooked dinner and assembled her siblings’ clothes, books and lunches for their next day of school.

Why does Alezeta have to do all this work while her brothers and sisters go to school?

Alezeta’s father explains. “ I am a poor man”, he says. “I used to work as a driver but I lost my job because they said I was too old. So now, I don’t work very much but I do whatever labour I can to make money. I thought that Alezeta’s twin sister, Haoua, was much stronger than Alezeta, and because I didn’t have enough money to pay for both of them to go to school, I made the choice that only Haoua would go to school. But I really wish I had the money for both of them to go to school full-time”.

In Burkina Faso, there are many girls who don’t get to go to school because they do domestic work all day. Unlike Alezeta, most of the girls work in the homes of strangers or distant relatives as servants, and they rarely get to see their families.

Can you imagine how you would feel if you had to live away from your family and clean a stranger’s home all day?

You wouldn’t be able to go to school or hang out with your friends.



UNICEF is working to help girls like Alezeta who have to work at home or who have to work as domestic servants in the homes of relatives or strangers. Alezeta now gets to attend free classes for two hours every day. These classes are for girls who work as domestics. The girls learn reading, writing, mathematics, sewing, and proper hygiene. They also learn about children’s rights, and they have a chance to meet and play with other children. All the girls in Alezeta’s classes are lucky because their employers have allowed them to come to the classes. There are many girls whose employers think that it is a waste of time for them to go to school, but the teachers are working hard to convince the employers that all children have the right to go to school and to play.

There are also children who don’t get to go to school and who do very dangerous work. Souk is an 8-year-old boy who lives in the People’s Republic of Laos in Southeast Asia. Every night, Souk sleeps on the dusty ground between rows of parked buses. For over two years, the bus station, behind a busy market, has been home to Souk, his mother and his sisters Chane, who is 4-years-old, and Noi, who is two-and-a-half. During the day, Souk and his sisters go to the city’s main square to beg for money and food. Why is begging a dangerous job? Because there are no adults around to look after the children, and the children often work near busy streets. They are also at risk for sexual exploitation, abuse, and kidnapping.

Souk, Chane and Noi

After a day’s begging, Souk, Chane and Noi take everything back to their mother in the evening. But they don’t know how much money they have because neither Souk nor his mother can count. Souk was six when they left their home village, and he never went to school. “I would like to go to school,” says Souk, “I don’t like begging.”
There are many children like Souk and his sisters begging on the streets of Laos.

UNICEF helps to ensure that street children get to see a doctor or nurse, get to go to school and get the healthy food they need. An outreach programme in Laos is working with Souk and other street children to make sure that their rights are met. The workers are hoping that Souk and his family can return to their village where they would be better off, away from the dangerous job of begging on the streets and in a place where they could go to school.

Adults are responsible for providing children with their basic needs, and all children have the right to be protected from child labour. But in some cases, children may be left without adults to care for them. For example, in communities where many adults have died because of war or HIV/AIDS, older children may be forced to work to provide for themselves and their younger brothers and sisters. For these children, the best solution is to get rid of the most harmful aspects of their work, so they can continue to earn enough money to survive, and they can enjoy their other rights, like the right to education.

Child labour is a complex issue that is very much tied to the issues of poverty, education and other rights of children.

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