Working children and solidarity economy

Solidarity economy initiatives represent an alternative to exploitation and open up new opportunities for working children to engage in self-determined and collective employment. Some products of such cooperatives have already found their way onto the international market.

What does solidarity economy mean?

Under the impression of growing unemployment and poverty, the informalisation and deregulation of labour relations and the destruction of livelihoods, initiatives have been created and revived in many parts of the world in recent decades which counter the unleashed capitalist economy with alternative approaches to economic and social action. They primarily serve the purpose of self-help in emergency situations and attempt to ensure survival. But in their basic elements they also refer to a different, better way of living, working and economic activity, which can become effective as a practical and forward-looking alternative to the capitalist economic order.

Such alternative approaches to work and income generating activities have various names such as social economy, solidarity economy, community economy, alternative economy, local economy, third sector, etc. They appear in various organisational forms, e.g. as cooperatives, exchange trading systems, soup kitchens, municipal workshops or self-governing enterprises (sometimes as a result of occupations). Solidarity economy embodies the desire to work and live in self-determined, "non-alienated", "non-exploited" ways in social conditions where people do not fight each other but stand up for each other. The idea has accompanied the history of capitalism since its beginnings. It found an early expression in the proposals and initiatives of the "utopian socialists", later in different variants of the cooperative movement, anarcho-syndicalism and finally in various "alternative movements". Since then, a variety of proposals, initiatives and projects have developed, partly out of urgent needs, partly out of dissatisfaction with working and living conditions.

The numerous solidarity economy initiatives in different parts of the world have already helped to make life easier for many people and to give them new hope. However, one of their problems is that local orientation is still hardly linked to a comprehensive international perspective. Such a perspective is necessary, however, if we want to prevent the respective local alternatives from becoming part of the exploitation context of the global accumulation process again. It is therefore considered essential to combine the perspective of localisation with a globalisation from below and a new, open internationalism. This must also address the question of how the capitalist economic order, which is still dominant on a global scale, can be counteracted with globally networked structures of a solidarity economy.

Solidarity economy of children

Children's interest in the solidarity economy stems from the fact that vital tasks are increasingly being assigned to them without gaining recognition for them in society. In the course of globalisation, the number of children involved in economic processes is increasing. This is partly - especially but not exclusively in the Global South - because children have to contribute more often to their livelihoods, partly - especially but not exclusively in the Global North - because children see work as a way to gain a greater degree of autonomy and social participation.

For the vast majority of working children in the Global South, the question is not whether they work, but how they work. This raises the wider question of how to influence the conditions under which they work. Or more precisely: whether the conditions of their work can be improved or whether alternative forms of work should be sought. In many cases, the possibilities of improving the conditions of work are extremely limited, or they are perceived by the children as insufficient or unsatisfactory. If the children are given the opportunity - as often happens in the context of working children's and youth's movements - to consider alternatives to the work they are currently doing, they generally strive for a work in which they are largely free to decide for themselves or in which at least they are taken into consideration. This desire is often accompanied by the expectation that the work will not only be less hard, heavy and long or better paid, but that it will be more interesting, varied and communicative overall, and will also open up educational opportunities for them.

It is at this point that solidarity economy becomes interesting for working children and it is certainly no coincidence that such initiatives arise mainly in the context of groups and organisations of working children. Here the children have more opportunities than in their everyday lives to think about alternatives to their previous work and to take appropriate initiatives together with other children - perhaps also supported by adults who think in terms of solidarity.

Collective initiatives as an alternative to exploitation

Children's solidarity economy initiatives can be of very different kinds. Since their main purpose is to help make their own life situation easier, they differ according to the circumstances in which the children live. In the Global South, initiatives are usually aimed at overcoming personal or collective hardship, but they also aim - similar to comparable initiatives in the Global North - to enable an independent and more autonomous life. As economic initiatives, they always have a material core, i.e. they are linked to a specific type of work or economic activity, which is the basis for achieving the goals they aim for.

Whenever children develop more extensive organisational skills, there are also more determined and complex attempts to create forms of work which enable several people to work independently in an organised form. In the context of the movements of working children, these attempts go beyond the forms of mutual help that are otherwise possible in everyday life. They are understood as collective attempts to replace exploitative work situations with forms of work in which the ethical maxims of solidarity, respect and human dignity are guaranteed. In this way, e.g. within the framework of the movements of working children, approaches to an economy of their own (usually in the form of small cooperatives) are created which enable children to work under conditions they themselves determine and to earn a living.

Projects in Africa, Latin America and Europe

In Africa they are called self-sustaining economic projects, in Latin America they are called solidarity-based economic initiatives (iniciativas solidarias económicas). In many cases they are explicitly understood as part of a solidarity economy which goes beyond the children's sphere of action. Where they are initiated and supported by independent organisations of children and youth, they serve not only to improve the material situation and extend the autonomy of the children directly involved, but also to strengthen the organisation and make it independent. The products and services produced are mostly intended for the neighbourhood or the local market, but some products are also intended for export. In Italy - through the intermediary of the Little Hands sales cooperative - they are already part of fair trade. In Germany, world shops and church congregations are occasionally interested in them.

In the relatively prosperous countries of the Global North, comparable initiatives by children are less common. But here, too, children can be found in a wide range of activities in which they themselves set the tone and which differ from the work forms of normal school jobs. They also include cooperative work projects in the context of neighbourhood initiatives or socio-educational facilities, which give children the experience of needs- and community-oriented management and, under certain circumstances, also a self-generated income. In order not to be accused of promoting prohibited child labour, such initiatives often refer to themselves as "pocket money projects".

Updated: 14.12.2020