Children and work

It is not work that is the problem for the children, but the often exploitative conditions under which it is carried out. The idea of "critical appreciation" points to this difference and points to the need to recognise working children as social and economic subjects.

Working children instead of "child labour"

Wide areas of the debate on "child labour" suffer from too little reflection on the associated concepts of childhood and work. The term "child labour" is a judgmental and emotionally charged "social construction" which makes it difficult to deal with the subject matter appropriately. Since its emergence in the era of European early capitalism, it has been used to pursue certain political and ideological intentions and to convey assumptions about children and their relationship to work. Accordingly, childhood and work are two different boots that do not fit together.

This notion has become so deeply embedded in everyday understanding (and in legal regulations) that talking about child labour today automatically leads to a perception of children's work exclusively under negative ("harmful") aspects. The associations it triggers do not allow the various possible meanings and aspects of children's work to come to the fore. In the case of children, it is excluded from the outset to perceive work as an activity that serves to sustain life and allows to see oneself as an active subject contributing to the maintenance and development of human society. The term "child labour" is also used to conceal the fact that work can always be performed under different conditions. Whereas in the case of adults the specific conditions of work are used to assess the quality of work, in the case of children the mere reference to their age is sufficient to disqualify their work.

We therefore insist on taking a differentiated view of the children's work and taking the self-perception and judgements of working children seriously. Instead of child labour, we should talk about working children. The work of children should not, as the term "child labour" suggests, be measured against ideological goals, but should be understood as an experience of the children themselves, which can take on completely different meanings depending on the type and conditions of work and the children's life situation. Instead of outlawing the work of children, we demand respect for working children. Instead of forbidding children to work, they should have the freedom to decide for themselves whether, how and from what age they want to work. In this sense they should have a right to work. This corresponds to the demands that working children, especially in the Global South, repeatedly formulate when they join together in their own social movements and articulate themselves as political actors.

Working children and critical appreciation of their work

It is strange that it is still so difficult to free oneself from the idea of the working child exclusively as a victim. The child is mentioned in all reports on human development, but it is hardly noticed, let alone appreciated, that millions of children contribute to maintaining social systems through their work. Those who do so, however, are confronted with accusations, especially in official documents of international organisations, that they are trying to justify the exploitation of children.

On the other hand, it should be noted: If we do not make a clear distinction between the fight against exploitation at work and the fight against work itself, or if we continue to use language that does not clearly emphasise this difference, we will not do justice to the social reality of working children in our analyses, nor in practice. In this way we even indirectly contribute to the violence against these boys and girls, or at least to their harsh and distrustful treatment by society.

Work is important for self-esteem

When we speak of "critical appreciation" of the children's work, we pay attention to both: the problematic form and conditions of the work, which hinder the physical and mental development, but also the opportunities which arise for children from the work experience. The question arises as to whether work can be more than just guaranteeing physical survival, or whether it can also play a positive role in the formation of children's identity and in the development of their self-esteem.

The usual definitions that surround children's work are conceptual cages that limit our perception and thoughts: poor children, street children, children at risk, marginalised children, criminal children, children in particularly difficult situations, raped children, rejected children, deported children, slave and pariah children, "children without childhood". A universe of negativity, lacking and emptiness.

It cannot be denied that there are concrete and terrible roots from which these categorisations spring. But the question posed by those who take the standpoint of critical appreciation is this: What kind of identity can the working child develop when he or she hears how his or her experiences, reality, life and "childhood" are spoken about? What kind of life, participation, education and emancipation project can we share with and offer him or her?

Listening to working children

Maybe we should listen better to working children. Once we accompanied a group of working children to an upper middle class school. One of the children summarised his impressions by saying that the other children were "lazy". Here the stigma was reversed: the fact of being a worker becomes a means of psychological emancipation and is perhaps the only element of self-identification that gives strength to the working children when they face the other children, so different, so clean and so privileged.

For the same reason, the working children of the Nigerian city of Lagos, for example, call the children of the higher classes "butter eaters". Or the young shoeshine boys from Asunción in Paraguay are vigorously resisting being called "street children". "We", they proudly say, "are working children". And what do Brazilian working children refer to when they talk about "making money"? Precisely to the awareness of their economic role, to the importance of their contribution. "Work helps me to be human," a delegate of MANTHOC in Peru wrote on a paper, and this sentence summarises better than any analysis the meaning of what we mean by "critical appreciation".

In his reflections on the "economy of the barefoot", the Chilean economist and ecologist Max Neef teaches us to see in "neediness" not only an element of lacking, absence and emptiness, but also a dynamic element that can be activated to overcome neediness. In this sense, the idea of critically valuing the work of children starts from a dialectical principle, recognising their problems and facing the never completely overcome tension between the two opposite poles: on the one hand, coercion, violence and exploitation and, on the other hand, the individual and collective reaction to poverty and exclusion.

Working children are critical actors

Here the idea of critical appreciation finds its most important theoretical and practical tools. The emphasis on the identity of the working child, transforming it into an element of self-esteem, personal and collective recognition and appreciation, social integration, education and finally an element of social subjectivity, organisation, change and political power. All this opens up new horizons which enable us to break with the paralysing schemes of rescue aid, authoritarian solidarity and ethical pietism.

Critical appreciation of the work of children is therefore anything but an appreciation of exploitation and exploiters. It is first and foremost an appreciation of working children and their capacity as potential critical actors against the mechanisms of injustice, as a historical phenomenon with the right to be recognised as a social group and not just as a collection of individual emergencies.

Updated: 14.12.2020