How to combat child exploitation? Improving economic growth of a country versus ameliorating children’s working conditions

Globally, nearly 250 million children between five and 15 years work every day (see Meier, 2006: p.172). Putting a focus on the African continent, it indicates that the survival of one in three children depends on work in the region south of the Sahara (see Bass, 2004: p.4ff). Still, it remains difficult to estimate the proper number of working children, as many countries keep – if at all – partial statistics concerning this issue; approximations might therefore be false and underestimated (see Lavalette & Cunningham 2001: p. 3).

In his book “Child employment in the capitalist labour market” (1994) Lavalette states that child labour is often seen as “help” for the family and sometimes does not appear in statistics (p. 9). At the same time, based on her researches and data-analyses, Boyd even argues that children constitute about 18% of Brazil’s workforce (see Boyd 1994: p. 155). Numbers like those make one aware of the enormous impact child labour takes concerning the economy of a single country.

Recently, we seem to be far away from being able to solve this large-scale problem; in contrary, Lavalette even proclaims a global increase of child labour while on the other hand attempts of combating child labour exploitation have already reached international dimensions (see Lavalette & Cunningham 2001: p. 7).

While concentrating mainly on Lavalette’s and Cunningham’s essay on “Globalisation and Child Labour: protecting, liberation or anti- capitalism?” (2001), I differentiate here between different contemporary ways and aspects of dealing with and combating child labour. It mainly focuses on two approaches: The developmentalists’ one (regarding child labour exploitation as a feature of economic and social backwardness) and the ‘new sociology’ of childhood as an aim to promote children’s agency while taking ‘cultural relativism’ and recent manners of NGO’s into account. As equal the intentions to gradually abolish child labour internationally from both sides are, as different are the ideologies and mission statements underlying these aims. Following questions shall therefore be investigated: Does the development of economic growth of a country implement the key- feature of a successful eradication of child labour exploitation? Can child labour be seen as a pre-capitalist problem or is it just important to change the manner in dealing with working children? Is capitalism the one and only way out towards a world where no child works under inhuman conditions? This report tries to find some answers.


2 Developmentalist’ approach: “child labour as part of development process”

For some writers the essential problem of child labour lead to the roots of pre-capitalist social relations. From their point of view, the industrialised countries (also called “minority countries”) describe and demonstrate models on how to decline child employment to be followed by poorer states (also called “majority countries”) (see Lavalette & Cunningham 2001: p. 2). In this regard the richer countries would be the role models, as they have already gone through “tough times” and indicate - thanks to the democratisation and industrialisation - which path the “developing countries” should take.

As Lavalette and Cunningham describe in their essay, the developmentalists base their arguments on historical examples and relate the economic and social backwardness of ‘underprivileged countries’ to precedent causes (see Lavalette & Cunningham 2001:p. 5f). In a common way, the more or less complete abolition of child labour in western countries is seen as a result of capitalist improvements; it is argued that they have led to a more child-oriented perception. Thus advocacies state, that child labour could only be overcome, if improvements of protecting the children from harmful work would be guaranteed (see Pedraza-Gómez 2007: p. 26). Hence, one could suggest that the future leads to be better world: If only the economic growth of countries continues to increase, no child in the world would have to pursue a work.

In this context, Lavalette and Cunningham point towards aspects of Europe’s and especially Britain’s history as a key example: In the second half of the 19th century one could remark a decline of child labour exploitation. That was at the same time when the industrialisation and, in combination with it, the economic expansion of western countries took place (see Lavalette & Cunningham 2001:p. 5f). Supporter of this suggestion notice a direct link between economic increase and the abolition of child labour. Before those economical changes took place, almost 90% of the German population lived on the countryside, where children were integrated in the daily fieldwork (see Johansen 1980: p.10ff). Johansen even claims, that their weak economical situation was the starting point for the highly spread child labour in western countries. During the Industrial Revolution, children were more and more forced to gain their living and those of their families in various factories. The younger were drawn out of their homes and from that moment on their oppressive work became visible for the society. In favour of protecting children from exploitive work, people were now able to put pressure on decision-makers, politicians and human right activists. Hence, the democratising processes and the development of modern capitalism led towards a more sensible regard of children’s workforce and further to a process of protecting children (see Lavalette & Cunningham 2001: p. 5f). Thus allies of this approach affirm that the gradual stopping of child labour lies in the preferences of the capitalism. Improvements of economic growth will therefore provide not only enhanced working standards for children, but also better protection. Those suggestions implement, that families who have an insufficient income and a lack of options given are inevitably forced to let their children go to work. The only solution seems therefore to be the world-wide enforcement of capitalism and the improvement of the economic force. Thus, Lavalette and Cunningham describe developmentalistic positions concerning child labour as a developmental process:

“Economic ‘liberals’ opposed to the imposition of international labour regulations claim that child labour is an unfortunate, yet inevitable and necessary part of the development process” (Lavalette & Cunningham 2001: p. 6).

Nonetheless, these neo-liberalistic explanations might not provide enough justifications for the elimination of child labour in western societies, since many countries perceive even more child workers during and after times of economic progress.


3 Opposing develomentalists: “Child labour increases in industrialised countries”

Recently, liberal supporters of the developmentalistic argumentation regard the only possible solution to combating child labour in the advancement of a more unregulated capitalism. Those suggestions, as Lavalette and Cunningham state, are proven to be false, as the problems have to be lightened in a more complex construction. Yet, they even assert that child labour not only still exists in industrialised countries, but also that it seems to be increasing within recent times (see Lavalette & Cunningham 2001: p. 6). Claims like this issue being more or less absent from the advanced industrial centres are problematic, stresses Lavalette. As an example he points out the difficult situation Brazil faces: Its industry is recommended as being highly advanced, whereas extreme poverty and peasant farming remain a marker of the country. A simple division of the world in two parts is therefore not possible (see Lavalette 1994: p. 34f). Another example is stressed out in Lavalette’s book in observing child labour in the United States, where many children are employed in the service sector and on family farms. Studies declare that their working conditions are often exploitative. He describes that in 1970 a quarter of the farm workers in the USA were minors and it is therefore estimated that about 800.000 children work on farms today – in a country, which declares to be most industrially advanced in the world (see Lavalette 1994: p. 25f).

Similar results are found in the British context, where school holidays for children got extended in order to “help” on family farms – the same time of the year when the highest concentration of child death occurs (ibidem: p. 28).

In a similar manner, White underlines explicitly the aspect of globalisation, which leads many children in rich and poor countries to work, in order to upgrade their lifestyles (see White 1997: p. 12f). Hunger or the survival of the family is admittedly not the moving spirit for those minors to work. Instead, it is commonly the attractiveness items of luxury, which come from abroad (e.g. the States), often have. Many children in economically better-placed countries often simply decide voluntary to enter the labour market in search of cash (e.g. to improve their pocket money in order to buy the “brand new iPot”). But still: Those children work and it is not proven in every case if the employment harms children physically and psychologically or not. In his book “Kindheit und Arbeit” Liebel also comprehends that the work of children in Germany provides many differences compared to the exerting labour of their fellows in the global south. But besides these oppositions, he underlines various similarities of the impressions with regard to work between the children in third world countries and those in industrialized countries (see Liebel, 2001: p. 16f).

In this context, Ingenhorst analyzes particularly the situation of child labour in the Federal Republic of Germany (2001), one of the richest and economically highly developed countries in the world. Children in Germany mostly do not work in order to insure their survival, but instead get motivated by the money they gain, since it represents a key to the consumer world (see Ingenhorst 2001: p 141f). After numerous researches on the conditions of working children in Germany (the majority being employed in the private sector, followed by newspaper delivering, general services etc.), he describes their situation being often psychological stressful and exhaustive. In addition, nearly 90% of working children in Germany get informally paid, which means that only one in ten children possess the Steuerkarte (ibidem p 145f). Although Ingenhorst’s data give a strong standpoint on the pretty bad conditions German children often face while working, one should still make a distinction between voluntary work in Germany and the urgent need of child labour as well as the acceptance of inhuman conditions children often make in many so-called “Third World Countries” in order to survive.

However, Lavalette and Cunningham prove their argumentation with further examples, highlighting findings of UN figures in Latin America on child employment: While being at a stage of constant economic growth, in five out of seven countries child labour increased between 1975 and 1995 (see Lavalette & Cunningham 2001: p. 7). Taking this strong argumentation into account, it is therefore not proven that economic augmentation delivers lower levels of child labour. The labour children take in minority countries might just be different than those of the majority states.

Having the facts of the given examples in mind, it remains difficult to connect the eradication of child labour directly to the economic growth of a country, although there might be some relations concerning the different conditions the young workers face.

Although criticism against children’s labour comes from all directions, the methods to combat it differ a lot. In contrast to the developmentalistic view, theorists of the new sociology of childhood take the first step to abolish child labour in proclaiming their rights at work.

In general it has to be stated that some good aspects of capitalism always implement another side of the coin. The Neo-liberalism of richer countries can only survive when taking profit of the poorer countries. Capitalism grows thanks to disparity between rich and poor. A well-balanced economy is not guaranteed when the main goals of a society are money and economic wealth instead of the proclamation of a fair balance world-wide.


4 Child centred approach

4.1 “children have a right to work”

The opening quotation indicates pretty exactly what the main focus for advocacies, which advantage children’s labour is. Hence, more explanation is needed. In their essay, Lavalette and Cunningham take reference to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1989 and take this “contract” as a turning point in the sociology of childhood: One major basic principle of those treaties was the focus on provision, protection and participation of children when it comes to make decisions (see Lavalette and Cunningham 2001: p. 7). The latter is stressed to be the most progressive precept, which the Convention of 1989 incorporated:

“State Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.” (CRC Art. 12).

But why and where shall children participate and what does the treaty on the subject of participation has to do with the right to work?

Intercedes of the opening statement believe that children know their situation best and they can therefore best describe not only what they like and dislike, but furthermore which work harms them and which does not. Accordingly, minors are no more seen as “little adults” (“kleine Erwachsene”, see Ariès 1962: p. 11) who “become”, but instead human beings who “are”. At that point, the notion of “agency” gets a certain importance. That means, that every human being is an agent of his or her life, so are children, too. In order to get to know and understand their oppressions, children’s voices must be heard (see Lavalette and Cunningham 2001: p. 7). Their unique position has to be taken into account before trying to just protect them from - what adults’ think- could harm them. Political decisions and the policy or research agendas shall therefore be made for the purpose of improving the situation of children and their families. Consequently, the working child and his notion about the work shall be in the focus of all alterations. This approach, which focuses the agency of the children, is also called child centred approach (see Liebel, 2001: p. 21). Therefore children are no longer passive objects, but instead subjects who have their say. This concept of children’s agency can be seen as a direct contrast to the developmentalist’ approach presented earlier in this paper. Like many other researchers, Liebel presents a relatively new and inventive regard towards children’s work and demonstrates possible attitudes of dealing with it (see Liebel, “Kindheit und Arbeit”: 2001). Recently, many studies have been made in order to understand children’s view about their work and to draw attention to personal attitudes and goals. Quite surprisingly, Liebel states:

“Es fällt auf, dass die wenigsten Kinder ihre Arbeit als aufgezwungen oder unangenehm erleben, sondern eher als eine Gelegenheit, etwas Ernsthaftes und Nützliches zu machen, auf das sie stolz sein können, eigenes Geld zu verdienen, über das sie selbst verfügen können, auf eigenen Füßen zu stehen und etwas zu lernen, das sie gebrauchen können” (Liebel 2001: p. 17).

This approach takes a different step in relation to the work that children face: It is not necessarily just a bad, inhuman phenomenon, but instead something that brings money, is taken seriously by the children and is seen as something useful for and by the community. The positive effect of learning a trade should also not be underestimated (see Liebel 2001: p. 171). Nevertheless, one should not claim that child labour is something flawless: Researchers and scientists, who work on the child labour issue, do not support e.g. mineworkers or child-prostitution. Quite the contrary, they combat against it in trying to give children more room to express their feelings and thoughts about their daily exploitation. Instead of waiting until the trade and industry setting of the poorer countries improves, they try to enhance the immediate position of those young people. Furthermore, children sometimes really like their work and only want to have better conditions instead of the complete prohibition of their work. A good example delivers the work of the association called “ProNATs” (, which is a group of people who show not only solidarity with working children in Latin America, Africa and Asia, but who also fight for better working conditions for them. The immediate endorsement of support is one of the gists; the conviction that child work has positive affects on the personal development of children the other.

Generally speaking, this approach does not describe children’s work as something, which is deemed to be bad and has no positive effects, but as a possibility for youngers to feel respected and needed. Child labour could therefore be seen as something affirmative, if – of course - children do not suffer psychologically or physically. This ‘child liberation perspective’ gets more and more support by NGO’s, who seem to reject international attempts of trying to stop child labour (as it is a long term goal which is not possibly reachable soon) and put their emphasis on the amelioration of the problematic working conditions (see Lavalette and Cunningham 2001: p. 8).

Supporter of this approach also claim that the developmatalistic protectionism only reflects western values and have little relevance to the lives of children in the “Third World” (see Lavalette and Cunningham 2001: p. 7f). Here, the ‘cultural relativism’ argument has to be explained, since its defenders are persuaded of different cultures having different traditions and childhoods. The views on appropriate roles and activities of children might therefore differ between the numerous countries. Hence, a universal normality does not exist.


4.2 ‘cultural relativism’

At the Vienna World Conference the Vienna Declaration (1993) affirms: “the universal nature of human rights and freedoms is beyond question” (see Harris-Short, 2003: p.131). In the same way, universalists’ claim that human rights, such as children’s rights shall be globally accepted and are a duty of all states, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems.

Yet there is no necessary link between theory (treaties, conventions) and practice (the reality in different countries) as the world is far more complicated and sophisticated than one might think. It contains a wide cultural distinctiveness in which norms and values differ (“cultural diversity”) from the North to the South and from East to West. As an example, Lavalette and Cunningham state, the term ‘childhood’ is only a recent ‘western’ invention (see 2001: p. 7). Montgomery goes a step further in provoking:

“It [the Convention on the Right’s of the Child] is an important document because it demands that children be given legal and social status without denying their social and political disadvantages. Yet the ideal of childhood that it represents is based on a Western model which may not be appropriate for all societies. It implies that every child has a right to a childhood that is free from the responsibilities of work, money and sex: in other words, a Western-style childhood. But we know that children in developing countries have always worked, have always married and have always had children younger than their Western peers.” (Montgomery 2001: p. 83).

If the term childhood cannot be defined properly, how can one talk about obvious boundaries between a ‘normal’ and acceptable childhood and the adulthood? Is it the age of 18, which makes a clear difference between an adult and a child? Germans for example can get married at that age. They can take legal responsibility and go to work even at an earlier time. Therefore the distinction to the adult world is not clearly defined. This phenomenon takes even more complex parameters in most developing countries, where youngers get married at puberty, work as soon as they are able to and get pregnant at an age when we would call them children (see Montgomery 2001: p 82). These examples show how difficult a generalisation of ‘childhood’ is and how far it is from reality.

‘Cultural relativism’ is therefore the appropriate term to understanding the social diversity of the world. One of the reasons, why the implementation of the CRC remains still difficult is clearly the complexity of the cultural diversity in the global context. Under German law, child labour might be regarded as exploitation, which needs to be abolished - no matter to what religion, culture or social background a country belongs to. An international law like the CRC shall consequently guarantee an equal basis for all children in the world. Yet, the explanation just given proves that this is just not possible: What is regarded being not appropriate in Germany might be completely normal in e.g. India. Lavalette and Cunningham explain:

“[…] although NGOs acknowledge that the labour performed by third world countries might be considered ‘harmful’ by standards prevalent in contemporary western societies, they argue that when placed in a third world setting it becomes much more understandable.” (Lavalette and Cunningham 2001: p. 8).

Still, allies of this approach do not want children to suffer, far from it: They fight for the rights of the working children and want them having a say about their working conditions. ‘Explotation’ needs to be located within the cultural context. In his book “Kindheit und Arbeit”. Liebel gives various examples for items of written comments and reports, which come from organisations of working children (see Liebel 2001: p. 313ff). Those children do not aim to stop their work as it also brings them personal advantages and ameliorates their self-assurance.

Although the active role of children being agents in the social process is welcomed by various NGOs, adversaries of the ‘child centred approach’ notice many problems when taking children’s voices seriously throughout the process of decision-making. They claim that universal standards of treatment (such as the CRC) still have to be taken into account when talking about child labour policy, seeing that they have been created with a reputable motivation. Problems of the child agency approach will be emphasised in the analyses of the case study concerning child prostitution in Thailand.


5 Case study: child prostitution in Thailand – clients are regarded as friends

The following case study stands for a complicated dilemma between global theory and local reality. It gives insight on how complex issues such as child prostitution are, and that there are even dangers of realizing the participatory right children should have.

Article 34 of the CRC contains that every child has a right to a childhood that is free from responsibilities of work, money and sex:

“States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.” (Art. 34, CRC).

This article seems to be unambiguous and worth defending it. Hence, in practise it conflicts with the concept of children’s agency, which is also a part of the CRC.

Montgomery gives details on her research in the slum community Baan Nua in Thailand, an area where sixty-five children work as prostitutes (see Montgomery 2001: p. 87f). The people can be characterised as being rootless, extremely poor and who do not stay in much contact with other communities outside their region. Further on, Montgomery describes that children are expected as being a social investment for their family with an anticipated return and are therefore expected to work for their family (ibidem, p. 88). According to her interviews, Montgomery found out, that prostitution is marked by the children as being a reasonable job, which brings in a lot of money. Additionally, she reports that this kind of work is an accepted practice throughout the whole community, not only because everyone does it, but also because children described their ‘clients’ as friends. Children start at an age of 4 with the service for their western clients; they usually entrance this job through their older siblings or friends (ibidem: p. 90ff). During discussions, none of the children ever used the term ‘abuse’ or ‘exploitation’ when describing their clients. Instead, they called their clients ‘guests’ and ‘went out to have fun with them’ (ibidem: p. 93). Yet, it is beyond doubt that their clients from the West use their structural and economic power to exploit the poverty of these children.


Having this information in mind, it is not easy to remain fighting for the voice of the child, when knowing that these children do not complain about being exploited. Art. 12 of the CRC (see 4.1) underlines the importance of children’s perception and views concerning their personal issues. But one would properly even harm those children, if he or she would just consider children’s perspectives as the perfect proposal.

How to deal with those cases? Combating child prostitution with campaigns or considering children as agents of their lives and claiming that they have the right to decide what is good for them? Although one could mention that these children are somehow proud for being able to support their families financially, Montgomery states that they did not have the complete knowledge to make a fully informed decision (ibidem, p. 95f).

Clearly, a possible solution would be the consideration of the best interest for the child. Whatever these children might state, their voluntary prostitution is surely linked to a deep dependency to the wealthy westerners. Would children still want to work as prostitutes, if their survival would not depend on it or if the community would offer alternatives and if their families would stigmatize child prostitution in a very bad way? Those questions should be answered, before assuming that the child centred approach would deliver the one and only option out of this kind of exploitation. Maybe the solution is also a mixture of both: the regard of the best interests for the child as well as the policy of agency and participation of children in general.


6 Discussion

It comes out clearly, that the child labour problem is not easily to be solved. Instead, each approach seems to have theoretically reasonable solutions, but on the practical side there remain still difficulties in the implementation. By all means, one point is definitely true: Child labour has never been and will never be reduced to only historical developments of a nation. Those explanations would be too simple-minded. It is world- wide known that third world countries deeply depend on economically richer nations. The examples given in section 3 three showed that the developmentalist view can be denied completely: Many economically rich countries still struggle with the child labour problem. Therefore, market liberalization is, according to Lavalette and Cunningham, not the key to lessen child labour exploitation, but instead, it increases inequality between countries. The neo-liberalism even includes a charter to exploit child workers (see Lavalette and Cunningham 2001: p. 6f). A good example seems to be the department –stores in industrialized countries, who take their profit in installing their industries in third world countries. The earning-fees there are a lot lower than those in industrialized countries. The west definitely benefits from the problematic conditions in poorer countries.

The child centred approach though brings with it a completely different view on how to cope with this globally growing problem. Since there seem to be far too many difficulties in dealing internationally with child labour, NGOs focus more and more the aim to improve the conditions of children’s employment. In many cases, they even try to combine it with schooling. Although this approach does not seem to really make a vast difference within a short amount of time, it somehow deals with the core problems and difficulties children face while being exploited. Since the children are the ones, who suffer the most, NGOs and scientists become aware of their current situation and try to ameliorate their current circumstances. One can only give support to a child, when he or she understands its situation and opinion about the problems and challenges concerning the child’s labour.

In supporting the child centred approach, NGOs and politicians start to take children’s voice more into account, and take an important step into the right direction of solving the problem. It needs to be stated that the participation is one major key to enhancing the actual condition of children. Still, children need to have alternatives of the exploitation. One has to give them not only room to present their worries and fears, but also to find alternative solutions. In doing that, the main goal (the abolition of child labour) should not become a less important side issue. Those who want to stop child labour should start in ameliorating the current situation on a grassroots- level.


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