» Archive for category: ‘children’s work


12 June marked the occasion of the World Day Against Child Labour.

Organisations like ILO-IPEC use this to reinforce their message of banning child labour through minimum age of employment regulations. Such interventions are often presented as acting in the best interest of children. Yet, working children are seldom consulted about these measures and interventions and if they speak out their voices are rarely heard.

The organisation the Concerned for Working Children used the occasion of the ‘World Day’ to draw attention to these forgotten or muted voices. It does so through the short film Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail which is well worth watching. The film presents a children’s perspective and shows the effects of international minimum age of employment regulations on working children’s lives using a case study from the Egyptian garment sector. The Latin American Working Children Movement (MOLACNATS) expresses similar concerns in this short Spanish language clip.

posted by Roy Huijsmans



The Bangalore, India, based organisation ‘The Concerned for Working Children‘ will soon release ‘Fogotten on the Pyjama Trail‘ (and HERE) – it highlights some of the problems of ‘banning’ children’s paid employment.

The nearly 20 minutes film is inspired by actual events that took place in Morocco. The story is based on Fathima, who works in a Moroccan garment factory and who experiences the ‘banning’ of her work. Such interventions are common but as the film indicates typically based on a poor understanding of children’s work.



The OpenDemocracy platform, on its Beyond Trafficking and Slavery pages, features an Open Letter endorsed by ‘over 50 leading academics, human rights practitioners, and advocates in the area of children and youth labour’. The letter urges the United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child ‘to avoid binding the proposed ‘General Comment on the Rights of Adolescents’ to the ILO Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) or the minimum age standards set out in that convention.’

The Open Letter also usefully rehearses the various arguments in the children’s work debate. This includes the main arguments commonly used by advocates of the minimum age of employment set out in ILO Convention No. 138, and the counterarguments. It also helpfully discusses some areas of conceptual confusion common to many a children’s work discussion, such as the problematic distinction between ‘children’s work’ and ‘child labour’. Lastly, whilst the signatories of the Open Letter are critical of the ILO Minimum Age Convention, they are in supportive of another ILO Convention: No 182 on the worst forms of child labour – provided that the full range of children’s rights is respected ‘including their protective rights such as their right to education as well as their participative rights such as their right to information, their right to participate in decisions that affect them, and their right to organize, among others. In addition, they also stress that ‘any application of ILO 182 in practice would need to take into consideration the local contexts where children work to ensure that children’s best interests are always served.’

See HERE for the full text of the Open Letter.

posted by Roy Huijsmans


indexA recent article in Children’s Geographies sheds light on an actor seldom studied in work on children’s domestic employment: their employers.

One of the tenets of the so-called new sociology of childhood was the appreciation of children as social actors. Coupled with the ‘participation’ rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child this has contributed to a real shift in research on children. Children may for long have been objects of research, this is no long the case. There is now a wealth of material in which children, as subjects, are the central focus of research.

At times however, this child-centred research has become child-only research thereby losing sight of important other actors shaping children’s lives. Children’s domestic work is the case in point. Despite a growing body of research on children as domestic workers we know relatively little about the adults employing them (but note Raya Muttarak’s work in Thailand).

In a recent article in the journal Children’s Geographies Natascha Klocker contributes an important corrective to this picture. Her piece is entitled ‘Struggling with child domestic work: what can a postcolonial perspective offer?‘ By employing a postcolonial perspective, Klocker seeks to ‘expose the hegemony of Minority World knowledge systems and their neocolonial imposition on Majority World lives, issues and spaces’ (p465). In relation to the issue of child domestic work this means for Klocker 1) giving voice to those that have been silenced by Minority World knowledge systems. This includes child domestic workers themselves, but also their employers. 2) Critiquing the suggestion that Majority World children need rescuing from their adult compatriots as much NGO discourse implies. 3) Finding scope to go ‘beyond discourses of exploitation formulated around western economic theories and notions of appropriate employment arrangements, to the potential for ethics of care and more-than-economic relationships in children’s working lives’ (p466), 4) emphasising the West’s complicity in the conditions experienced by many in the Majority World.

In the pages that follow Klocker gives a rich overview of how employers of child domestic workers look at the arrangement and their experiences with and perceptions of child domestic workers. She does so on the basis of interview work with a total of 75 employers of child domestic workers in Tanzania. Importantly, the interviews were conducted by a team of Tanzanian researchers, including some former child domestic workers, in order to avoid the likely bias in responses generated by the presence of a foreign researcher.

The qualitative material works to nuance stereotypical images of employers of child domestic workers. Certainly, some are abusive and exploit their young workers, yet this does not appear to be a universal picture. Such research, Klocker points out, contributes to further decolonising our understanding of children’s domestic employment. Moreover, it may also be of strategic relevance. Many employers agreed that more must be done to improve the living and working conditions of child domestic workers – perhaps working with employers offers more scope for realising this aim than working against them.

posted by Roy Huijsmans

indexChildren’s rights feature prominently in the Nobel Peace Prize 2014, but are children’s right to education and a workfree childhood two sides of the same coin?

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the prize jointly to Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai ‘for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education’.

Malala Yousafzai’s story is well-known, and described in much detail in ‘I am Malala‘. She was shot by Taliban fighters in rural Pakistan for her promotion of girls’ education. Malala survived the injuries and is since celebrated as an important global symbol for the right to education of girls in particular. Malala’s message is certainly an important one. However, critical voices have pointed at the silencing of other Pakistani children’s voices that happens at the same time that Malala’s story is celebrated. This echoes Spivak’s question whether the subaltern can actually speak.

Malala’s co-winner is Kailash Satyarthi, a long time anti-child labour activist from India. Kailash is the founder of the Indian Bachpan Bachao Andolan (‘save the childhood movement’), a key figure behind the ‘Global March Against Child Labour‘, one of the architectures behind the ‘rugmark’ initiative that is meant to guarantee child labour free carpets, and known for his raids aimed at rescuing working children from bonded and forced labour conditions (see HERE and HERE).

Together, Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai seem to represent an simple yet powerful message about children’s rights: the right to education and the right to a workfree childhood are two sites of the same coin. Hence, the joint award. However, here some nuancing is important.

For example, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child does not speak about a ‘workfree childhood’. Instead, it calls in Article 32 for the regulation of children’s work and for the protection of children ‘from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.’ This is broadly in line with what working children themselves call for (see HERE and HERE), who furthermore also stress the importance of safety, respect and dignity in their work.

It is to be hoped that with the boost the theme of children’s rights receives with these two Nobel Peace Prize laureates such important nuancing is maintained.

posted by Roy Huijsmans


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


Looking at this picture, the first impression that came to my mind was how sweet this boy is. Then I asked myself: Is this child work or child labor? And is the activity conducted by the child empowering and appropriate for the child? What does the existing literature in development and childhood studies has to say about this? What position would development practitioners/experts and Social Workers on the ground take? And what would this picture mean in the eyes of indigenous people residing in the locality where the picture is shot? And most importantly what would be the view of this child himself on this picture?

For me, I know it is impossible to say much about what is depicted here without understanding the social environment and the current situation of the child. Yet, the picture was posted on an open Facebook page without any story or caption attached. The Facebook page is called ‘Ethiopian Kids’ and uses the slogan ‘For Ethiopians who love their KIDS’. Its current membership stands at 13,764 members.

The picture seems popular. Since it was posted on 19th May 2014 it has received 195 ‘likes’ and 35 ‘shares’. It also received a total of eleven comments – yet, not a word in these comments about the questions I have raised, only words about the cuteness of the boy in the picture. In many ways this particular picture is representative of the other pictures posted on this Facebook page: members post pictures of children and comment on how lovely these children are. Whilst I share these sentiments, it glosses over many other issues and leaves me wondering what the children themselves would say about their pictures.

guest contribution by Fasil Nigussie Taye (PhD researcher in PER research programme at the ISS)


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).

imagesStudy support on the workfloor: an innovative approach to combining learning and working or a new novel strategy to expand market shares.

Since the summer of 2013, the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn has regularly featured in Dutch national news for the apparently novel introduction of study support for its largely young and school-going work workforce (see HERE, HERE and HERE).

What’s happening here? Since September 2013 some Amsterdam based supermarkets have been offering free study support to their young school-going workers. The support is offered by university students (not trained teachers) on the workfloor (before and/or after work), and to this end a computer and WIFI have been made available to the young workers.

In line with Dutch labour regulations, Albert Heijn, like other Dutch retailers, employs teenagers starting from 15 years of age. Dutch minimum wages are age-based; the younger the worker the lower the minimum age till the age of 23 is reached. Young workers are further attractive for the flexible nature that characterises the comtemporary organisation of labour in the Dutch retail sector.

According to acclaimed supermarket expert Gerard Rutte, the introduction of study support to the workfloor might have less to do with a concern on part of Albert Heijn with the study performance of their young workers, and more with expanding the market share in the highly competitive Dutch retail sector. By offering study support, Albert Heijn hopes to increase the loyalty among its young workers as well as its quality. Albert Heijn thus expands the boundaries of competitiveness beyond the branding and pricing of its products to include the service quality of its young workforce.

Whether this will positively affect Albert Heijn’s market share will be hard to tell. At any rate however, this novel strategy generated some free, nationwide publicity for the supermarket chain (and yes, this blog posting contributes to this too…)

posted by Roy Huijsmans



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.