Movements of working children and youth

Working children and youth in Africa, Asia and Latin America have joined together in their own organisations to fight for their rights and to gain more influence in their own countries as well as internationally.

Who are the "NATs"?

NATs are the working children and youth in Latin America who have organised themselves in their own social movements. NATs is an abbreviation of the Spanish term "Niños, Niñas y Adolescentes Trabajadores". In countries where English or French is spoken, other abbreviations like WCY (Working Children and Youth) or EJT (Enfants et Jeunes Travailleurs) have become established.

According to estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there are about 265 million children aged 5 to 17 working worldwide. Most of them work in agriculture (e.g. subsistence-oriented family economy, export plantations) and in the so-called informal sector of large cities (e.g. on the streets, in garages and workshops, in households of wealthy families and in other services). These children work to earn money for themselves and their families, but often use their earnings to finance schooling. Most of them live and work in conditions that violate their human dignity and endanger their personal development.

Some spontaneous, some long-term groups

In the late 1970s, children working in Latin America joined together for the first time to form social movements. Since the 1990s, associations of working children have also emerged in Africa and parts of Asia. Together they want to fight for better working conditions, respect and participation.

In practice, there are two different forms of children's movements, which differ in the way they emerge. On the one hand, there are spontaneous forms of self-organisation of working children, which mainly arise in the places where they live and work in cities or regions. Due to e.g. experiences or conflicts with sceptical to hostile adult groups, these are usually initiated by the children themselves.

On the other hand, forms of organisation have developed, some of which have nationwide structures. Their members are mostly between 6 and 18 years old. In this second form of children's movement, the initiative often comes from adults or young people who are committed to the rights and concerns of children. Nevertheless, the participation of adults does not stand in the way of the children's movements' claim to autonomy, either in this form or in the former. Due to the marginal status of children and their lower social recognition as subjects capable of acting and organising, the support of adults or young people is usually unavoidable. It is often desired by the children themselves. It should be emphasised, however, that adults do not perform managerial but rather advisory functions, i.e. they respect and support children in every respect in the independent articulation and organisation of their interests and rights.

The children's movements are financed through various channels. For example, they work together with non-governmental organisations and other institutions that are well-disposed towards them, which also support them financially. Furthermore, most children's movements have membership fees, which are collected in various ways. Some organisations produce membership cards, the purchase price of which is counted as a membership fee, or the fee is paid directly from each member's salary. Events (e.g. theatre performances, football matches) and work projects (e.g. production of handicrafts) are also organised by the movements in order to use their income for activities of the children's movement. Some children's movements have created a solidarity fund to cover the vital expenses of individual children who cannot otherwise cope with their plight. They ask for money for the fund from businessmen, doctors and other people who have resources, or they pay part of their own earnings.

For all their diversity, there are common demands

Despite all the differences in the forms of organisation, origin and cultural context of the children who organise themselves in all continents, some commonalities can be identified. The working children

  • create their own goals and self-determined standards systems and structures through joint effort and responsibility.
  • refer to the universally binding nature of human rights, in particular the rights laid down in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
  • demand not only respect and recognition for their work but also participation in all matters concerning them.

Above all, working children and youth oppose the prohibition and abolition of their work because this would force them into illegality and criminalise them. Instead, they demand to target poverty and exploitation and to support children in achieving better working and living conditions. They want to be able to work in dignity and by free choice, not endanger their health and have time to play and go to school. The children - whether in Asia, Latin America or Africa - want to continue to support their families and play an acknowledged, active role in their society. In some cases, the initiatives of children's movements have already helped to improve their living situation.

The organisations of working children demand better educational opportunities and free access to school as well as to health services. They insist on being able to use public spaces such as streets and squares to earn a living and to draw attention to their situation. In order to make the rights granted to them in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child a reality, children consider it essential that their organisations are socially and legally recognised and given the opportunity to have a say in all matters that affect them. They call on governments and international organisations to combat the enormous social inequality in their countries and between North and South.

In addition to the increased influence that working children are trying to gain in society, they also see their organisation as a means to bring about a better life. For example, the movement is perceived as a protection against exploitation, bad treatment and the contempt of society. Within their organisation the children feel that they are dignified, capable and fully-fledged persons and feel pride in their work. There they can also educate themselves, find space for solidarity and for the development of proposals and alternatives to the existing system of poverty and violence, which is unacceptable for them.

What have the children's movements achieved?

The demands of the children's movements provoke great resistance worldwide. One reason for this is certainly that the ideas and demands of the movements of working children and youth often do not coincide with what governments and international organisations like the ILO consider to be right. A no less important reason is the fundamentally different paradigms of childhood that clash. Children insist on being recognised as working children. However, this contradicts the common (especially in the industrialised countries) idea of both a "protected childhood", for whose welfare adults are responsible, and the idea that childhood and work are mutually exclusive. As a result, the actions of both sides vary: one side wants above all to achieve equality and a stronger position in society - the other is limited to protective measures.

In some countries of the Global South, the organisations are recognised as the legitimate representation of working children. In some cities - such as Dakar (Senegal), La Paz (Bolivia) or Lima (Peru) - city councils and governments have reached agreements with children's organisations on better work and training opportunities, protection against police assaults or free medical care for working children. There are also a few trade unions that accept working children's organisations as partners or admit them as members.

Mostly, however, the organisations of working children are not welcome, ignored or even suspected and discriminated against as subversive forces. The fact that children make political demands is considered disreputable and not appropriate for children. In contrast, working children point out that they have to take on responsibility and assert themselves in life at an early age and thus also have the right to have a say in society and politics. They no longer want to be excluded from social life and at the mercy of the goodwill of adults.

Elected delegates of the NATs movements meet every one or two years at national and international meetings to exchange their experiences, to study the living situation of working children in other parts of their country or in other countries of their continent, to formulate common demands and proposals and to discuss actions and strategies. Often the children's meetings are accompanied by meetings of adult supporters. In Africa and Latin America there is a continental coordination office each, in Asia an organisational structure spanning several countries is emerging. The first meeting at world level took place in December 1996 in Kundapur (India) (see the "10 Points of Kundapur", which are still leading the way for the NATs movements today). The second world meeting took place in April 2004 in Berlin, the third in October 2006 in Siena (Italy). In La Paz (Bolivia) an "International Forum: Public Policy with Working Children: Experiences and Perspectives from the Global South" with children, young people and adults took place in 2017. Today, the Internet is used above all for the worldwide exchange of experiences and mutual support.

Updated: 14.12.2020