Child labour?

The teens and their vege patches

The question of when child labour is a traditional form of community self-help has come up a couple of times for me recently.

The example nearer home came from a friend of ours working on the border in a village that runs dormitories and a school for teens and kids who otherwise would miss out (falling between two countries systems, an ongoing war and just plain remoteness). She writes(with a few identifying details changed)  of a new project at the village, a vege garden:

As I have watched the transformation of scrubland into well ordered farm, a conundrum has arisen in my mind. My Western Social Work self asks if this is a form of abuse and exploitation of a captive youth labour force compelled to do whatever their elders “ask” of them. As one new 18 year old student assertively told the Principal, “I have never had to get out of bed at 5.30 a.m. and have never had to work like this in all my life. I came here to study  so I can go to university”. Then my K’nyaw wah (white Karen) self sees one boy playing guitar and singing alongside of other boys who are splitting bamboo stakes 1, and I see the bwadawar (community) at work and it all seems perfectly normal – a  community that sows together, reaps together, producing nutritious food,  developing new skills and combating the passive donor aid mentality that so permeates the border – just one of many casualties of this 62 year old war.

Please share with me your thoughts – I would appreciate some dialogue on this.

My “take” is simple:

  • if the labour is for the children’s benefit, as in this case since they will eat the results instead of eating a more minimal diet
  • if no one but the children is profiting from the work, as in this case since the food is grown as food not for sale
  • if the children learn and grow themselves – as in this case for growing (even a little of) your own food is rewarding and builds a sense of one’s own worth as well as practicing skills of collaboration and dependability

then it is not child labour but community development.

The first example came up in a discussion on Fair Trade chocolate and the accusations of slavery in the Ivory Coast. David Ker pointed me to a post by a friend of his (a link which I have somehow lost 😦 The friend had spent time working in Ivory Coast and argued that (at least) many of the cases of supposed child labour there were the common African phenomenon of children being sent to live with relatives for their schooling, and while there helping out the family with family work.

On the whole the case he described, which fits with what we knew in Zaire/Congo, is similar to the case above, with the added benefit that the adults involved are relatives, but the complication that it is a cash crop being grown.

(On the general case of Ivory Coast I am not convinced, there are what seem to be well-documented reports from reputable organisations, e.g. the US State Department, that claim regular trafficking of children for work in cocoa plantations.)

What do you think? How would you answer my friend?

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One response to “Child labour?

  1. shirleyworland

    Dear Tim
    As the writer of the first part, I just want to clarify that no children are working on the farm – only high school and Post 10 – so youngest would be 15 and oldest 21 – legal working age. So I am not referring to child labor as such but rather the question of whether the labor is exploitative in that it is expected and there is no financial recompense.

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