» Archive for category: ‘4235-Young people and work


With ‘Working ChildhoodsJane Dyson presents a rich ethnographic account of the significance of everyday work practices in young people’s lives and in the social reproduction of Himalayan village life more generally.

Much research on children’s work is guided by policy concerns. This is reflected in the working definitions that are employed and the objectives of such studies. Typically these studies concentrate on the school-work relation, how work impacts on various dimensions of children’s present and future lives, the household poverty-children’s work nexus, and above all: it presents the role of work in children’s lives as a problem.

Such policy oriented studies certainly have a function, yet they typically tell us very little about the role of work in being young and growing up, the role of children’s work in social reproduction, and the sociality of work more generally. To shed light on these issues an ethnographic and relational perspective is required. This situates children’s work within wider sets of social, economic and ecological relations. Such a perspective also seeks to appreciate work for what it means to those directly involved, thereby registering important gender, age, and caste related differences. This is often best done through the anthropological approach of ‘participant observation’ by joining in and co-experiencing the practice – however awkward, difficult and perhaps impossible this may be for an adult outsider.

The main bulk of the research for Working Childhoods was conducted in 2003-04 (15 months of fieldwork) and complemented with several return visits since. The research was conducted in one village (referred to with the pseudonym Bemni) in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, where Dyson’s research concentrated on ‘fifteen key informant young people [aged 10-18] and their families…chosen to cover a range of social differences, including age, gender and caste’ (p20).

The book is organized into a total of 7 chapters. The first chapter introduces the reader to the study setting and to some key debates the book speaks to: children’s agency and the place of the environment in young people’s lives. The second chapter describes the study setting in more detail and situates it in social, historical and geographical terms. Next, children’s work is introduced. Excerpts from children’s diaries are used to give an overview of the range of work activities children are involved in and how they experience and negotiate this. The chapter also reflects on children’s schoolwork because in Bemni ‘most children could combine household tasks and educational work’ (p61). The next three chapters are each dedicated to a specific working activity. One chapter concentrates on herding, one on leaf collection (leaf litter is used in cattle stalls), and one on lichen collection. Collectively these empirical chapters show in vivid detail how the environment intersects with gender and the complexity of this relation as children’s gender subjectivities unfold whilst growing up, whilst also the environment constantly changes (for example due to its seasonality) and comes to take on a different meaning as children’s gender subjectivities transform.

In the final chapter Dyson returns to the theme of ‘agency’ and the ‘environment’. The contribution she makes to the former is highlighting the importance of children’s agency in processes of social reproduction. This is often overlooked in the study of children’s agency as the spotlight, typically, has been on how children’s agency counters dominant norms, thereby ignoring children’s agentic contributions to everyday forms of social reproduction. The focus on the environment allowed Dyson to return to the materiality of children’s work and highlights the environment as important ‘site of social activity and cultural production’ in children’s lives.

Altogether, the book demonstrates the importance of ethnographic approaches in studying children’s lives. This includes the importance of time. After all, it is only after conducting a full year of research that the importance of seasonality can be fully apprehended. Unfortunately, this seasonal dimension is typically lost in shorter research which is mostly carried out when the seasonal conditions are conducive (read: pleasant) for research. In addition, ethnography seeks to understand social practices from the perspective of the research subjects. It is this ethnographic route that let Dyson to write about often ignored dimensions, such as the place of friendship through work, and uncover how the same activity (collecting lichen) can take on a rather different meaning (for example between boys and girls).

posted by Roy Huijsmans

My encounter with a 14 year old German girl who combines full-time schooling with part-time work and who came to share her experience as part of the course ISS 4235: Young People and Work, has given me a new look into understanding work in young people’s lives. “So do you work?” I asked her. The whole class went silent. As I recollected myself I realised that this was because our 14 year old guest had just explained to us about her work as a tutor to fellow students and sports trainer. The silence made me realise that it is important to listen carefully to how children understand their own activities and be careful with imposing my own understanding of work.

The discussion with our young guest speaker also confirmed a few things about age-normativity. What is age and who defines it? Is it the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Minimum Age Convention (ILO, 1973), the constitutions of national governments, communities or the individual? Whether it is coming straight from the supra-national to the individual level, the social context in which we find ourselves plays a great deal in defining this concept. “Would you allow your younger sister to work?” That was one of the questions posed by us. As we all paid close attention to her response, she replied “No, she is too young”.  My reaction was Ooh! Too young!” I was surprised and you will equally be if you got to know the age of our guest’s sister. She is 12 years (Just two years her junior). This small difference in chronological age contrasted sharply with the firmness with which our young guest dismissed the idea that her younger sister might start working. Apparently it is not just chronological age that underpins norms about young people’s involvement in work.

Did you know that students who combine school and work perform better in class in comparison to their colleagues who don’t? At least this is what our young guest speaker taught us and it indeed contrasts with the conventional understanding that work is detrimental to children’s educational performance (and attendance). Out of the 22 students in our young guest-speaker’s  class, only eight students work. And by far, the performance rate of these eight students outweighs the rest she reiterates. Perhaps though, here the particularity of the work also matters. Our young guest-speaker, as well as the other students in her class, was recruited by her teacher to provide some tutoring in physics and mathematics (for pay and on a structural basis) to students struggling with these subjects. This suggest that she was already doing well in school and arguably  the more you’re explaining mathematics and physics to someone, the deeper your understanding.

Whilst this suggest that work might be a form of education, our young guest speaker also raised some notes of caution. Combining school and work is not for everyone she claimed.  When asked if she would advise her friends who are not working to work, “It depends” she replied. Students who are allowed to work must prove to be capable of taking on ‘extra work’ and must desire to work.

A final part of the discussion that struck me was about the status of the money earned. Does it matter whether the money is coming from the parent or from the child’s hard earned money?  Well it does matter it seems, our young guest speaker elaborated on the importance of having earned the money herself: “I can save and do whatever I like. It’s my money”.

guest-contribution by Yenutien Kombian (Social Policy for Development major programme, ISS 2013-14).

Our whole life is built around employment and labour. You go school to get a job, and you work to make a living. Generally speaking, people would agree that the harder you work, the more you can expect to be successful. Personally, I do not think that is true. I would say that notions of success and failure have become linked to one’s employment status and occupation and may have little relation with how hard one works. This produces a sense of superiority among the employed over the unemployed.

This idea of superiority was one of many seeds planted in my mind during lectures on the youth employment challenge and labour market policies in our course, Young People and Work, here at the ISS. Society values people based on employment status, and that labour and productivity are central in society was a feeling which grew even stronger after a guest-session by staff from the municipality of The Hague. After their presentation and discussion on current policies implemented to tackle the increasing unemployment rates, especially youth unemployment, it was clear that the Hague municipality is concerned with the youth employment challenge and invests a fair amount of money in various programs and policies aimed to address the problem of youth unemployment. However, I would argue, that it is just as clear that many of these programs are too shallow. Shallow in the sense that they reinforce the structures creating youth unemployment and segregation, rather than  dealing with the roots of the problem.

Let me explain this further:

Labour market policies in contemporary Europe can be seen as activation programmes. Even though there are examples from countries where it has been successful, Youth Guarantee Programs have been criticised as ‘cosmetic measures’ that do not address the  structural problem. Working full-time for nothing but the unemployment benefit, only to be active, does not empower the unemployed youth. Instead, it risks further stigmatising youth and contributes to further strengthening the power of capital (employers) vis-à-vis young workers.

The social construction of youth as irresponsible, absent-minded and not full citizens on par with adults, constructs that stick to unemployed youth in particular, works to legitimise youth development programmes that I would argue are disempowering for youth.

Concepts of youth entrepreneurship and innovation rapidly permeate the labour market. This results in an individualised environment, in which individuals themselves are blamed for their unemployment. This development is taking place at the same time as the current system could be argued to be characterised by jobless growth – the inability of turning economic growth into employment opportunities.

It seems quite evident that there is a discrepancy between economic growth and the creation of jobs. But where then is the economic growth invested?

Or what if it is not? What if it turns into profit, and goes down the pockets of the investors? Then, I would argue, it is not the unemployed youth that is the problem, but rather the employer. A solution to the constant youth unemployment can only be solved when the problem is identified, and in this case, when more pressure is put on employers. This could be done through regulative policies, putting pressure on employers and especially on private investors in the public sector, to actually invest in employment – as a mean to keep the quality of services provided on a high level.

Guest contribution by Rasmus Ahlstrand (Social Policy for Development major 2013-14)

MA Student in Social Policy for Development

International Institute of Social Science, The Hague


The German organisation Dreilinden has again announced two scholarships for an MA in Development Studies with focus on decent work for lesbian, gay, trans- and intersexual (LGBTI) persons.

The scholarships are attached to the ISS major programme Social Policy for Development (SPD) and recipients must specialise in the field of Work & Employment. Importantly, this latter field of specialisation includes the course ‘Young people and work: Theory, practice and policy’. Therefore, we very much welcome applications that seek to study the area of decent work for lesbian, gay, trans- and intersexual (LGBTI) persons from a generational perspective, or through the lens of youth studies.


downloadIn the coming weeks we will be featuring a number of contributions written by course participants of the MA elective ‘ISS-4235 Young People and Work: Theory, Practice, and Policy‘ (for an early post in this series see HERE).

There are many views on minimum wage regulations for young people and especially on youth rates. The ILO encourages its member-states to implement minimum wage regulations for reducing poverty and ensuring social protection (ILO 2013, p: 35). However some countries have a specific minimum wage for young people, a so-called youth rate, next to a general minimum wage. The Netherlands has taken this exercise yet another step further and has minimum wage regulations by age for young people aged 15 through to 22. It is only at age 23 that young people qualify for the adult-level minimum wage.

In the Netherlands the minimum wage for 15 years is € 2.57 per hour (gross, and calculated on the basis of a 40 hrs workweek) and there is 15%-17% increase for subsequent ages till 23. The minimum wage for adults (23 years and older) stands at € 8.57 per hour – more than three times the minimum wage of 15 year olds.

The Dutch Ministry of Social Affairs & Employment justifies this age-based minimum wage because it considers young workers less trained and experienced; their needs are less than those of adults; and because it is feared that high earnings would make work relatively more attractive compared to education (lecture notes ISS-4234, minimum (w)age session; lecturer Karin Astrid Siegmann).

Age-based minimum wage regulations seem favourable to employers and business persons as it allows them to legally exploit the productivity of young people at relatively low costs. This was illuminated in our visit to Albert Heijn, a large Dutch retailer.

We were told that more than 75% of the employees were employed on the basis of short term, fixed contracts and more than 40% of them belong to the age group of 15-18 years. It is noteworthy that various forms of work were done by adults as well as young people (e.g. work at check-out counters), and that there was no age difference in expectations about the performance of this work. Hence, by employing young people instead of adults Albert Heijn appears to cut its salary expenses with no loss of productivity. A situation made possible by Dutch age-based minimum wage regulations.

FNV, a Dutch trade union, has argued against age-based minimum wages as it views it a form of discrimination. It argues that when young people reach the age of majority (18 in the Netherlands) they should qualify for the adult-based minimum wage. Employer’s organizations in Netherlands argue that such a proposal world lead to an increase in youth unemployment. Such a position appears indeed supported by Canadian research on the abolishment of a youth rate, it found ‘some evidence that abolishing…youth rates significantly lowered employment and work hours of 15- to 16-year-olds’. But it also notes cautiously that there are also ‘questions regarding the interpretations of the results’ (Shannon 2011, p: 629).

Coming from India, I strongly feel that there should be protective tools regulating the labour market especially the employment of young people. This includes minimum wages and decent work conditions. Hence, while there is reason to be critical of age-based minimum wage regulations, not having any (effective) minimum wage for young people might still be a worse situation.

Guest contribution by Pranab K. Chanda (ISS MA in Development Studies, major Social Policy for Development)



Photo credits: Yenutien Kombian

Participatory tools: the right way of constructing knowledge

While the theoretical framework for creating and disseminating knowledge through active multi-directional process of collaboration is very advanced, in practice, very few educational institutions can apply those concepts in their modus operandi. Most part of the institutions still maintain the mono-direction process of teaching-learning creating a gap between personal experiences in the real life and educational experiences in the closed environment of the educational institution.

However, in the International Institute of Social Studies, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a truly modern, collaborative, multidirectional process of learning. The role-play game about child labour and international regulations of the ILO, part of MA course 4235 – Young People and Work: Theory, Practice and Policy, has given us the opportunity to really go deep in the theme. The participatory atmosphere has fostered extra research, real teamwork and many informal debates outside of the class.

The role-play was scripted on an actual event: the ILO Global Child Labour Conference that took place in The Hague in 2010. I was assigned the representative of the United States government. This means that I had to go in favour of Convention ILO 182 and against Convention ILO 138, because the US has signed the former, but not the latter. In order to better construct an understanding of the US position, I searched for speeches, quotes and texts related to the US participation in the International arena. Mrs. Hillary Clinton’s speech in the end of ILO 2010 Conference gave me the direction to follow.

My preparatory work made me realize that the US doesn’t see child work as a problem by itself. They clearly distinguish between child labour and child work. While the first one is seen as damaging children’s development the second one is considered fostering this development given them extra abilities. So far, my role seemed to develop confortably. Yet, things complicated when one of my peers in the role of the representative of ILO raised over email the issue of children’s work in the American agriculture. With just one day left till the final role-play I was forced to prepare a convincing response and well past midnight I started to search everything that I could about child labour in the American agriculture.

This research showed that the Gaps in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) were notorious, mainly because the federal government didn’t regulated it, leaving it to the states. The consequences were very different laws and a big fragility to the protection of children. As representative of the US, I could not acknowledge this reality yet I had to give an answer to the questioning of the ILO representative. Therefore I decided to attack the epistemology of the video used to present the claim of child labour in US farms. At 4:00am, I submitted the US answer to the problem of children labour in American agriculture.

Another important part of the strategy that I developed was the World Bank report about child labour. This was important, because ILO clearly was defending the elimination of all forms of child work based in ILO Convention 138. This position was against the interests of the US Government. The report of the World Bank gave me the opportunity to oppose ILO position to the position of another International Organization putting the US Government in a more confortable situation.

In conclusion, the experience with the role-play game was great; the consolidation of knowledge is evident. Moreover, Professors Roy Huijsmans and Karin Siegmann were able to make us develop the knowledge in a much more constructive way. The evident success of the methodology makes me think that it should be used more often and expanded to other courses and other institutions.

guest-contribution by Paulo Guerra (participant in the ISS MA programme 2013-14)

International Institute of Social Studies

ISS is an international graduate school of policy-oriented critical social science. It brings together students and teachers from the Global South and the North in a European environment.