Child labour in Germany

Even in Germany, many children work or would like to earn money and gain new experiences. However, children's work is hardly noticed or only classified as a social problem and underestimated in its many forms and meanings. There is a lack of studies that pay attention to the views, experiences and wishes of children.

Are working children taken notice of??

Children work in our society, in many places and at many times: paid, but often unpaid; prohibited or in exceptional cases allowed; because it is expected of them or on their own initiative and under their own direction. Sometimes their work is visible, but mostly it is invisible and goes unnoticed. In addition to school, these children thus make a large contribution to themselves, to others, to the family, to society. And not only that: they want to work, take their work very seriously and enjoy working when the conditions are "right".

However, the work of children is hardly noticed in Germany (as it is in Europe in general). It is considered to have been largely abolished. The Prussian regulations on the employment of young workers in factories of 1839, the Child Protection Act which came into force in 1904 and, at the latest, ILO Convention 138 of 1973 have assigned children their place in society: within the institution of school. When children's work is discussed nowadays, it is usually as a deviation, exploitation or as an indication of increasing poverty.

This is supported by studies carried out in some federal states over the last 20 years on behalf of ministries. The intention of these studies was usually to determine the legal status or the "causes and effects of child labour". The main focus was on the question of the extent to which existing laws are violated by the work of children or the extent to which children suffer harm as a result of their work. An attempt was thus made to determine the extent of prohibited child labour and to devise suitable measures to curb it. As a rule, these studies were based on an understanding of child labour that it is perceived exclusively as a legal, social or economic problem, but not as an open field characterised by very different forms and conditions, which entails a wide range of experiences for the children.

"Child labour" is a problematic term

An often underestimated problem lies in the terms used. Terms are indispensable in everyday communication as well as in scientific research, as they help us to order and understand social reality. But since they are abstractions, there is always a tension between the assumed social reality and what we express with our terms. This is particularly obvious with the concept of child labour. As a rule, it triggers negative associations and thus already shapes to a large extent the perception of the social reality which we want to describe and understand with this term. We cannot eradicate this problem, but if we are aware of it, we can try to use terms which are as open as possible, less restrictive and charged with evaluations. We should deal with the existing terms in a more (self-) critical way.

In sociology, work is regarded as a key category through which status and social position, i.e. power and positions of domination, are distributed in today's societies. This is especially true for paid work. Private everyday work, i.e. housework, child-rearing and care work as unpaid, yet indispensable social work, is much less valued and refers those carrying out such work to a social status that cannot be clearly determined. Instead, the status is usually determined by the gainful employment of the (main‑) wage earner in the family. This also applies to any other work that is not carried out in paid "normal employment relationships" (e.g. voluntary work or internships).

Just as for women, a field of work for children that has so far received little attention is domestic work. While feminist gender studies has now taken up this topic extensively under the heading of "gender-differentiated division of labour", the "generational division of labour" has so far received little research attention. The work that children do in the family is often not regarded as work by either adults or children. However, other, remunerated activities are often not recognised as work if they are carried out by children either, because they do not usually represent a vital contribution to family income.

Many children work, even in Germany

The results of the above-mentioned studies show that "child labour" not only exists in Germany, but can even be described as a mass phenomenon. For example, up to 50% of young people aged 12-16 years stated that they had already worked alongside school. They delivered newspapers, looked after children or animals, mowed lawns or went shopping for friends. These and other activities are usually not described as work and are therefore accepted by society. Nevertheless, Germany has a strict Youth Employment Protection Act (JArbSchG) which - with very few exceptions - prohibits children and youth under 15 from working.

In addition to the number of children already working, the study results indicate that there is a high level of interest among children and youth to take up work. In a survey in the federal state of Thuringia, for example, 90% of 14-15 year-olds stated that they would like to work. North Rhine-Westphalia reported a "child labour rate" of 42%, Hessen almost 52%.

It can therefore be stated that children and youth also in Germany work or want to work. They enjoy taking responsibility or receiving recognition for their actions, which does not always have to be monetary. It is not seen in competition with school, but as an additional opportunity to gain new experiences and to expand their own scope of action. For children in Germany, work is therefore a possible, and then also an important part of their lives, but unlike children in the Global South, they do not identify themselves through it. To our knowledge, organisations or movements in which children join together to fight for social recognition of their work do not yet exist either in Germany or in other European countries.

Updated: 14.12.2020