"World without child labour" - a post-colonial myth

We believe it is important to place the controversies surrounding children's work and their rights in a wider geopolitical context. In this context, the "total eradication of child labour", pursued mainly by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), is proving to be a neocolonial project. Since its failure is programmed, it can be considered a post-colonial myth.

The usefulness of post- and decolonial theories

In recent decades, currents of thought have emerged that trace the new forms of colonial dependence, oppression and exploitation and formulate decolonial alternatives from the perspective of colonial and post-colonial subjects. These currents of thought go by various names, such as Subaltern Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Liberation Philosophy, Coloniality of Power, Coloniality of Knowledge, Decoloniality-Decolonisation or Epistemologies of the South. So far, they have not looked at "child labour" and the policies aimed at its abolition on the one hand, nor at working children and their social movements on the other. But they can help to understand them better and to locate them more precisely in their historical and geopolitical contexts.

For all their differences in detail, the above-mentioned currents of thought have in common that they call into question the supposed superiority and model character of European modernity and the concepts and strategies of modernisation and development derived from it:

  • They draw attention to the fact that the supposed achievements of European modernity are the result of conquest, oppression and exploitation which went hand in hand with the racist devaluation and discrimination of people from other continents (and "skin colours"). They continue in post-colonial relations of dependency and, with mass migration today, extend as far as Europe and the USA.
  • They oppose the persistence of unequal power relations worldwide, the disregard for the knowledge and lifestyles of the people in the former colonial areas. With regard to knowledge and life practice, they point out independent and willful "transmodern" and "intercultural" alternatives based on the memories of the colonial and the experiences of the post-colonial subjects.

What does this mean for dealing with the work of children?

From a Eurocentric point of view, the working child is an insult to the "enlightened" and "educated" human being, in an intricate, intertwined and mysterious way. While the European Enlightenment produced the image of the innocent, immature child to be educated, the emerging capitalism ruthlessly wore out the "native" children of the poor in manufactories, mills and mines and, in far greater numbers, the "foreign" children in the plantations and mines of the distant colonies. Even when "child labour" became a warning sign in Europe, it was still being promoted in the colonies and ignored for a long time, even by enlightened people. Today, when a "world without child labour" is propagated from Europe, this is done to assure oneself of one's own humanity and enlightenment and to set a monument to one's own progressiveness and superiority in the former colonies. The project of a "world without child labour" is the continuation of the allegedly humanistic discourse which has already accompanied and legitimised the warlike and violent colonial practices.

The policy "against child labour" is based on a Eurocentric concept of childhood, which is propagated as the most highly developed and only possible form of childhood. It is presented as the end point of a development which started in Europe and is now to be completed in the "rest of the world". This leaves out the fact that even in "Western" societies children carry out a wide range of economically important activities, including those which fall within the scope of the "child labour" which is to be combated.

The export of this concept of childhood is linked to a (vague) concept of formal education, which is based on the European model of school, considered to be "modern" and highly developed. It is explicitly placed "against child labour" (as a caricature of the "right to education") by means of the idea of compulsory schooling, without even taking into account the fact that even in the western world there have long been educational concepts associated with work experience or economic activities. For the "rest of the world" the simplest original form is considered sufficient, which has been imposed on the colonised populations since the mission schools (together with the colonial languages). Other educational concepts linked to life, community (community education) or work (e.g. the French pedagogue Freinet) are ignored; education practised and acquired in indigenous communities is devalued and marginalised. At best, concepts of bilingual school education are tolerated in exceptional cases, but which do not allow the mother tongue as a first language, but only as a second language. The educational model put in place against "child labour" serves as a vehicle for modernisation according to a Eurocentric pattern, including the pattern of instrumental rationality on which capitalism is essentially based.

The postcolonial myth of a "world without child labour"

In the propagation of a "world without child labour" (the complete abolition of "child labour" has been postponed again and again, now until 2025, according to the ILO), it is ignored that the extensive repression and tabooing of "child labour" in the "developed" Western countries came about at the expense of the exploitation of the colonies. The relative material prosperity of the Western countries is based, among other things, on the exploitation of people and unequal trade with the now formally independent successor states of the former colonies, and even consolidates and increases their dependence and poverty.

The project of a "world without child labour" is pushed through from above (formulated at the desks of Geneva and New York) by means of international conventions and (donated by rich states and foundations; see ILO's IPEC programme) "national" action programmes, without taking into account the reality of life for working children (and their families) and the culturally rooted logics of growing up. Local perspectives and especially the views of children are disregarded and devalued and suppressed as culturally backward or "immature". Participation is limited to the formal design of implementing measures, the basic objectives and content of which are laid down in advance from outside and above.

The project of a "world without child labour" runs counter to the continued exploitation of the post-colonial countries and their populations, which perpetuates poverty and makes the work of children indispensable as a contribution to securing life. Non-capitalist forms of economic activity (e.g. "solidarity-based economy") are tolerated at best as a niche economy or "self-help" born of necessity. Even in self-administered children's cooperatives, children are prevented from doing any kind of work.

Although the project of a "world without child labour" will never become reality for the reasons mentioned above, it does serve the discursive humanisation of capitalism and as an ideological glossing over the "progressiveness" of the Western world and the supposed backwardness and lack of civilisation and civilisability of the indigenous populations. It thus serves to perpetuate the Western world's fantasies of superiority and the people's feelings of inferiority in the "rest of the world". One product is the notion of the working child as a "infantilized" subaltern being, ­perceived as pre-human ­rather than human; it brings with it (and is intended to bring with it) the danger of robbing (working) children of their self-confidence and capacity to act.

Alternatives to a "world without child labour"

The criticism of the project of a "world without child labour" corresponds to the need to question ingrained concepts and ways of thinking and to counter the monopolistic arrogance which European modernity claims for itself.

  • The recognition and awareness of diverse "other" childhoods (in the form of self-confident working children) helps to make the traditional Western childhood model appear as a temporary episode.
  • The movements of working children reveal other logics of growing up and forms of action of children, which can have political consequences beyond national borders.
  • The movements of working children can help to make people aware of and rebel against colonial wounding. They embody a perspective of liberation from below, which points beyond emancipation in generational relations.
  • Instead of "liberation from child labour", which treats working children as if they were arbitrarily available objects, it is about the (self-)liberation of working children who experience the pain of injustice first-hand. This also raises the question of the human dignity of working children.
  • In their demand for a "right to work in dignity", the movements of working children do not represent some abstract right external to them; they articulate the physical experience and suffering of those who are excluded.
  • The movements of working children embody a collectively self-determined creative and critical culture; in it, a "different" childhood becomes visible, in which children are no longer excluded from social and political life, but are co-determining and co-responsible social subjects.

Updated: 14.12.2020