Globalisation and the work of children

Globalisation has a contradictory face. On the one hand, it increases the risks for working children to be exploited and marginalised. On the other hand, it opens up and provokes new opportunities for resistance. By organising themselves internationally, the working children challenge the neo-liberal globalisation with a globalisation from below.

Contradictory globalisation

So far, the possible connections between globalisation and the situation of working children have been sparsely discussed. Even in the movements critical of globalisation, the topic is hardly mentioned at all. And when it is, the discussion follows well-worn patterns: work is generally considered harmful to children and is condemned across the board, "school" is idealised across the board as an alternative. In "fair trade", only products that are "free of (illegal) child labour" are considered clean. Since children are only considered as victims, it goes hardly noticed that working children in Latin America, Africa and Asia have been organising their own movements for years now, which oppose neo-liberal policies, fight against impoverishment and exploitation and stand up for a humane life and work.

With regard to political strategies, it is not enough to see globalisation as just some kind of doom that is falling upon people. Instead, it is important to demythologise the concept of globalisation, which has been forged into substance, by assuring oneself of its completely contradictory layers of reality. We understand globalisation in its current neo-liberal form as a form of material and ideological violence which is used by privileged economic and political classes in order to gain advantages over the majority society in the Global South. Former colonial relations of dependence and exploitation are thus reproduced and affirmed in altered forms. However, these processes are associated with unintended side effects which appear as contradictions and which can be taken up and used by the people affected. It is important to consider the cultural and social aspects of globalisation processes in addition to the economic aspects.

Globalisation as material violence

The globalisation taking place under neo-liberal auspices is leading to growing social inequality in the world between a) regions, b) people (also within regions). It widens the gap between those who are dependent, indebted and poor and those who benefit from the growing dependence, indebtedness and poverty of others. It threatens and destroys forms of economic activity that are geared to people's needs and based on local markets. It thus endangers and destroys the livelihoods of the rural population of the Global South in particular.

Globalisation in this sense reduces people to their function as carriers of labour and thus endangers and destroys the meaning and dignity of work. At the same time, it reduces the opportunities to find a job whose wage enables a life in dignity. It turns a growing number of people from exploited to fully excluded from economic and social life and makes them appear completely superfluous.

As a result of these processes, more and more people a) have to leave their traditional places and emigrate to regions where they can still find paid work; b) have to make do with work carried out under degrading conditions and for meagre pay; c) have to find sources of income for themselves in the "informal" niches of the official economy and on the margins of legality. In addition, the educational and social systems are being restricted, "informalised" and "economised" and thus tend to remain accessible only to those who have material resources.

For many working children, this means that forms of work in which they were previously respected and in which their physical and psychological needs were taken into account tend to be transformed into forms of work in which children are only counted as (cheap) labour and exploited to the maximum. With growing poverty, the pressure is increasing for children and their families to rely on the children's labour under all circumstances to ensure their livelihood. The children's opportunities to find a job that suits them are considerably reduced.

Children have to leave their ancestral homes with their families and sometimes even without them, and are forced to work as seasonal workers on export plantations, as "all-rounders" in the informal economy or as servants of the wealthy (urban) population under (mostly) degrading conditions.

Under the pressure of material hardship, stress, conflict and violence in the families increase and promote ruthlessness towards their own children. Often, the only options left to the children are to leave their families and take their lives into their own hands on the streets or in faraway places. For the same reason, patriarchal structures strengthen. Girls bear a far greater responsibility for the livelihood of their families than boys; they work at home and away from home more, longer and usually less well paid than boys, and if the family's resources are not sufficient, they are more likely to be prevented from planning their own lives and excluded from social life.

Globalisation as ideological violence

Neo-liberal globalisation threatens local cultures and devalues the group relationships and mutual solidarity practised in them. It seeks to replace them with a competitive, individualistic way of life which emphasises one's own advantage, even if it is at the expense of others. Work, which was understood and practised as part of community life and the socialisation process of future generations, is replaced by an instrumental attitude to work, which only allows individual performance and effectiveness to count for the cheapest possible use of labour.

With globalisation, children, where they have played an active role in community life (especially in non-Western cultures) and have learned to act, are degraded to objects of educational measures and banished to formal institutions, which at best serve the development of usable human capital. Childhood is privatised and passivised worldwide.

The traditional involvement of children in community-organised work processes is made more difficult and, where it continues to take place, discriminated against as outmoded and anti-children. Children's work loses its social recognition and is only tolerated as a stopgap measure in extreme material situations. The children's work experience is devalued as socially irrelevant.

The work of children comes into conflict with the requirements of the formal education system. It no longer serves to impart important social experiences and acquire vital knowledge, but becomes a hindrance to successful participation in the school system. At the same time, the children's labour force is being used, either out of necessity or in order to use it as a source of profit. Thus the experience and educational content of the work is lost and it becomes a means of physical and psychological destruction of the children and their future.

Change in form and meaning of children's work

In order to analyse the implications of globalisation for working children, a distinction must be made between the structural aspects and the changing meanings of work for children. It must be taken into account that these are contradictory processes in which economic, social and cultural dimensions intertwine. What are the new forms and relationships that characterise children's work and what are their new meanings for working children?

Globalisation is increasing - compared to the previous stage of capitalism - the number of children who take economic and social responsibility for their families and for themselves. In other words, more and more children have work experience and play an important role in the production and reproduction processes of different societies. The meanings for children can be very different. They depend on the conditions under which they work and their individual and collective resources for interpreting and dealing with their experiences. To a certain extent, these resources arise from the social and cultural environment in which the children live and locate themselves. The cultures of work play just as important a role here as the existence of social movements of working children and of projects and initiatives which work for working children and their rights.

Most of the child labour that globalisation promotes is located in the "informal" economy. These are forms of work that are poorly regulated, in urban centres as well as in rural areas. They are not necessarily wage labour type relationships, but children are mainly seen as a labour force or have to see themselves as such in order to compete in the labour market. Informalisation increases insecurity and risks in the lives of children and their parents. In this sense, the largest and growing part of children's work differs from the "informality" of the work of an economy geared to the needs of the people, as we know it from the indigenous cultures of South and Central America, for example.

At the same time, the modern informality that comes with globalisation has a double face: in it, forms of extreme exploitation intersect with forms of a solidarity-based economy. The informalisation of work does not necessarily mean that children are reduced to mere objects, it can also open up new social spaces for their own lives. This in turn depends on the working conditions and the social and cultural environment in which the children find themselves and - last but not least - on their possibilities and their ability to organise themselves.

Globalisation provokes the resistance of working children

First and foremost, globalisation under neo-liberal auspices is a violent process, both materially and ideologically. It plunges many people into abysmal poverty and endangers their physical existence and personal dignity. It forces them to leave their original places of living and to expose themselves to a life of insecurity and inhumane conditions on an unprecedented scale. At the same time, it also creates new opportunities for people to assert their right to a dignified life without poverty and to publicly express this right. The suffering experienced is increasingly seldom understood as God's will or as an inevitable fate, but rather as the consequence of a particular policy (in this case neoliberal), and can become a provocation for action.

Today, when children are exposed to new forms of employment (especially exploitative), they are more able than before to perceive this state of affairs as a violation of their rights and an abuse of their person, and to insist that they be allowed to work and live in dignity. The excess of work and the multiple exploitation which weigh on the girls can be more easily recognised by them as a violation of their equality and are more often publicly questioned. When a child is used as part of the family labour force, this no longer appears to be a quasi natural process, but the child is more likely to want to dispose of the wages of his or her work itself. When children perform work, they more often do so not only to meet an emergency situation, but also to satisfy personal needs and achieve more autonomy.

There is no doubt that globalisation is threatening traditional ways of life and cultures. Nevertheless, it also creates new opportunities to get to know other ways of life and cultures, to expand one's own information horizon and to communicate with people in other parts of the world. The movements of working children and youth, for example, represent an international network that confidently uses new communication technologies.

With globalisation and the use of new technologies, the organisation of work is becoming "unbounded" and there are new mixes of work and life, of work and "leisure". They are linked to a "resubjectification" of society, which places more responsibility on individuals for their reproduction and life planning. Both processes can increase the pressure on people to keep and make themselves permanently available for the utilisation of their labour ("labour entrepreneurs"), but they may also increase people's scope for action in order to shape their lives according to their own ideas.

For and on the part of children, new forms and areas of activity are emerging in which they see themselves as active subjects and in which the boundaries between work and fun, learning or social activities are no longer as clearly defined as they used to be. Although this certainly increases the risk of children being instrumentalised and exploited, it also opens up more opportunities for children to shape their lives on their own responsibility.

Updated: 14.12.2020