Good and evil faces of child labour


Paper cutouts of boy and girl. Artwork from World Day Against Child LabourOne of the less noticed special days, the World Day Against Child Labour, is celebrated on 12 June. Most Australians will associate child labour with past times and distant places: with Dickensian chimney sweeps and coal miners and with children sold into slavery on other continents.

Some may also be ruefully reminded of their attempts at domestic strike breaking and negotiating with their children to help with the washing up. Either way it is not one of Australia's greatest problems. But it does encourage musing about when child labour is wrong, and what this may say about adult work.

Even in impoverished nations children's work is not uniformly bad. Two acquaintances come to mind.

A young woman who was trafficked for sex work in Australia was sold across the Burmese border when she was five as a domestic servant. She was on-sold to Bangkok to work in a factory when she was nine, always locked into the factory premises. At 12 she was further on-sold for sex work in Bangkok, later in Malaysia as the bloom of youth faded, and finally to Australia. Her work history is one of straightforward evil.

I also met a girl in a village of El Salvador. For generations her family had lived by making rope from cactus fibre. She was fully equipped and educated for her working life by the age of nine. Her work contributed substantially to the family income and made her a valued member of her society.

Although this form of child work may cease to support families in changing economic circumstances, and we would hope that children will receive a broader education, it cannot be simply condemned. We must ask further under what conditions children may legitimately be asked to work, and when work will be abusive.

The test of the legitimacy of children's work is whether it helps them flourish as human beings. It must help them develop into healthy, secure, sociable adults, equipped to raise a family and make a contribution to society. Work can clearly play a part in children's development. In an ideal world work can involve physical exercise, encourage connection with other children and adults, teach skills and self-reliance, and help affirm the child's worth by the contribution they make to their family.

But to develop as adults children need more than work. Of course the balance of work, and even the definition of childhood, will differ in different cultures and economies. In Western cultures they need to have time for play and rest, for being around the house and listening casually to adults talking about things that matter to them. They need time to wonder and lots of unprofitable activity. Work forms a small part of the conditions that contribute to their development as persons.

To judge the legitimacy of children's work we must also consider the relationships involved in it. Where work is done within the family, is clearly beneficial to its welfare and is carefully measured to their own good, there is no problem. For that reason moderate domestic chores are important.

But when children are put to work in factories under conditions measured for adults, are subject to strangers charged with producing more at less expense for distant shareholders, and learn only simple repetitive skills, their work is an abuse of their humanity. It fails to respect them in their relationship to family and society.

The criteria by which we judge the morality of children's work, however, applies to adults' work as well. If judged by narrowly economic criteria, there would be no objection to children's work. It would be judged by its profitability and left to the market to set a price. As with the selling of drugs the only obstacles to engaging in it would be legal, not ethical. But once we hold that ethical considerations should govern the relationships involved in work, we must apply them to adults as well as children.

To lock children in a hot factory and require them to work for 12 hours without a break would insult their humanity. But it would also insult the humanity of adults. The damage done to children will be greater because of their development is more inchoate, but forcing adults to work under these conditions would be unacceptable for the same reasons. Work is a human activity and so needs to be measured by the extent to which it expresses and enhances the humanity of those who take part in it.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, child labour



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Existing comments

Negotiating with children to help with the washing up - now therein contains some treasured family moments! As I recall, only my quiet, responsible oldest daughter could be negotiated with in a calm atmosphere. Andrew's story of the young woman trafficked for sex work in Australia is deeply saddening - and an all too common reality for many children. I was reminded of Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" (second stanza): What candles may be held to speed them all?/Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes/Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes./The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;/Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds./And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Pam | 13 June 2013

Bringing this so strongly to peoples attention is great. But I feel helpless to personally address the problem. Do you have suggestion as to what one single person can do to stop this? Praying doesn't seem adequate.
Kathleen Anderson | 13 June 2013

Andrew I am not sure that a close reading of this article would not in some measure create an impression that Children working can be a dangerous positive? Given that in First world countries this is illegal and also seen as morally corrupt often akin to slavery is your example of El Salvador not more an issue of pure economic necessity? Also Dickens in his magnificent canon of work was a great hater of child labour due to autobiographical reasons. I am not sure that the argument that some work for children can be positive equates with current thinking on Community development. But again a great article that is food for more deeper analysis
richie scutt | 13 June 2013

As expected, an intelligent and nuanced article gleaned from your experience as a priest in the real world, Andrew. I am immensely grateful that there are still those such as yourself writing articles such as this neither from an armchair nor from some sort of expensive conference on poverty held at a five star hotel in Geneva or similar.
Edward F | 13 June 2013

Slight reality check in order here. Capitalism ended child labour. The vast bulk of human history includes a history of child labour. Labour that of its nature very few modern Westerners would tolerate, even for a day. Forget about whether a particular task would "help them flourish as human beings": it was labour that was of necessity for the bare survival of those children and their families. When did things begin to change? With the discovery of the miracle of the market, around the 17th century, in certain Western countries. From that point on, with spiraling labour productivity, children - never very productive compared to adults, albeit necessary to produce the widgets of life in dire circumstances - now could be hived off to schools, to vastly increase their production capability and enter the process at a higher level. The end of child labour is a very late achievement, the luxury of advanced capitalist economies. Which is a sufficient reason for encouraging all the undeveloped economies to shed their anti-capitalist fetters and embrace the free market. (Need I cite yet again: Hong Kong, 1950 - 1996 approx). I find this article disingenuous in that it crudely poses the issue of child labour as a choice between rope-making and its ilk, and sex-slavery. The vast bulk of child workers in non-capitalist economies are certainly not sex slaves. Nevertheless, they have jobs and job conditions which, if our unions had their say, would be outlawed and light years from quiet rope making. Yet to what end? As Oxfam discovered a few years back: the kids under such legislation (Bangladesh) are forced by circumstance into...prostitution! Well done, smug westerners, with your Dickens novels underarm.
HH | 14 June 2013

I would like to know perhaps the statistics of who makes up the majority of child workers in sex trafficking and also in the general area of child labour, as Andy Hamilton has used an example of a female child in the article? If the majority of children in sex trafficking is mainly girl children then I suggest this might be a gender issue and how can we as a church respond to this? Is there a link with how we talk about the dignity of women in the church. As Father John Shea suggests, when talking about mothers killing their baby girls in India, 'how can the church talk about the dignity of women when it also sees women as inferior to men, as in a state of subjection and as not fully in the likeness of Jesus'. This may not be totally unrelated to the topic. The way we talk about the dignity of children,both boy children and girl children may be of significance and the way we talk of the dignity of women and men may also be significant.
ros | 14 June 2013


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