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Child labor

Marcus Lütticke / db June 25, 2014

In many countries young children are forced to work to help ensure their families' survival. Experts say child labor should not be banned in general because it always depends on the circumstances.

children and women carrying sacks
Image: imago/GranAngular

Recently, German newspaper headlines read: "Politicians demand 35 hour work week for children and youths". Students shouldn't work more hours than adults, Martin Patzelt and other Christian Democratic politicians warned.

His comments came in the wake of a debate on the fact that children and youtng people today often spend as much time with school-related work as adults in full-time jobs. A 2012 opinion poll conducted by Germany's Children's Aid Organization and Unicef found that students spent about 38.5 hours per week with school-related issues, a figure that rose to 45 hours in grades 9 to 13.

The German debate may seem odd in many countries worldwide, where children work to make a living and not to further their education.

According to the UN's International Labor Organization (ILO), 168 million boys and girls worldwide work on a regular basis. 85 million children are employed in "hazardous work" toiling in dangerous places, such as quarries or commercial plantations, and they often work long hours, at night, or are treated like slaves.

Good child labor, bad child labor

Child labor is particularly widespread in Asia, Africa and Latin America – wherever great poverty prevails. Aid organizations, like Terre des Hommes, are committed to child and family welfare, but surprisingly enough, they say banning child labor altogether is not helpful. They argue that it is important with child labor to differentiate between exploitation and non-exploitation.

children folding towels
Millions of children work in IndiaImage: imago/imagebroker

"We try to strengthen and support children who work under non-exploitative conditions so they can improve their own marketing and make more money more quickly, which in turn gives them more time for school or leisure," says Barbara Küppers, head of the children's rights department at Terre des Hommes.

Küppers points out that there are regions all over the world where children don't suffer from helping provide for their families, for instance in rural areas. In that case, work means slowly learning how to pitch in, learning how plants grow, how to harvest them and how to achieve a goal in cooperation with others, she says. "Those are very positive aspects of work," she says adding, however, that such work must be accompanied by a school education all the same.

Young farm hands

Manfred Liebel, a political scientist at Berlin's Technical University and adviser to the Union of Boy and Girl Workers of Bolivia (UNATSBO), has a ready example. "Indio traditions play a large role in Bolivia and includes making children participate in work at a young age," the expert explains, adding that harvesting and fishing play a significant role.

Barbara Küppers
In rural areas, children are not neccessarily exploited, Küppers saysImage: terre des hommes/C. Kovermann

In Germany, too, children routinely help out during harvest time. The fall break in the school calendar is actually called "potato break" in many regions because students had to help their families harvest the potatoes.

However, Barbara Küppers warns of romanticizing child labor. You can't condone exploitation because of how things were always done in certain cultures, she says. "You must speak to the children and find out what you can do with and for them."

Modern slavery

In India, the so-called sumangali system is a modern form of slavery deeply entrenched in society. Young girls – usually members of the lowest caste – are employed as apprentices with a contract over several years in spinning mills and manufacturing shops. The contracts are often not signed with the actual textile company but with intermediaries who recruit the girls from the surrounding villages. The parents receive a sum of money they put aside for their daughters' future dowry, which they owe the groom's family. The girls work for a pittance in the factories, and without any contact to the outside world.

Exploitation and modern forms of slavery don't only affect children, however. They can be found wherever a need forces people to accept even the worst forms of employment. The negative aspects of child labor can only be prevented effectively if exploitative work in general is challenged, Barbara Küppers says.

Consumers should consider

"Many things offered for sale in Germany were produced by exploiting people - adults and children alike," Küppers says, adding that consumers bear part of the responsibility. "Obviously consumers can pay attention to buying fair trade products wherever possible."

Consumers have a choiceImage: DW

Both the three-euro T-shirt and the trendy but expensive smart phone are usually the result of work under degrading conditions. "Many people are surprised to learn that there is a massive amount of slave labor in the cell phone industry," Küppers says.

But there are positive developments, too. According to the ILO, child labor has declined by one third since 2000, and the trend continues.

The next steps are no secret, saysILO Director-General Guy Ryder.

"Social protection, along with universal compulsory, formal, quality education up to at least the minimum age for work, decent work for adults and youth of working age, effective laws and strong social dialogue - all this together provides the right response to child labor."