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The crucial aspect of the underdevelopment of child labour international address is the unequal exchange realized in the market between goods produced in capitalist firms, where labour is valued according to its exchange value, and goods produced by the peasantry and the urban informal sector, where the use-value of labour predominates. The latter group is paid only a fraction of its real cost because households are able to survive by pooling incomes from a variety of sources, undertaking subsistence activities, and using the work of women and children to save on the costs of reproduction.

Punishing childhoods: Contradictions in children’s rights and global governance

The premise that the concept of work-free childhood underpinning the ILO and UNCRC is a Western-centric construct of modernity forms the problematic basis of the claim that child labour is an integral practice in non-Western cultures. It is profoundly contradicted by the fact that child labour is tied exclusively to poverty and this ought to raise critical questions about why some children are exploited and not all. As already indicated, the assumption about the origin of rights or human rights sensibilities as belonging to the West, is a misconception. The cultural relativist stance that maintains that there is a divergence between global and local norms of ideal childhood in relation to the stages of ‘modernity’ or modern development relies on a problematic understanding of culture, rights, and relations of development. Similar justifications of child labour disarticulated from relations of poverty and development are premised on the assumption that ‘work’ conducted by extremely impoverished children for survival-related purposes is based on their free choice rather than on deprivation and compulsion. Leaving aside the ethical implications of such arguments, analytically they are problematic as they fail to account for the fact that poor families are compelled by poverty to send their children to work. 

Instead, cultural relativists point to ‘children’s activism to work’ as evidence of a struggle against what is framed as neocolonial tendencies in universalist proscriptions against child labour. As noted, this disregards that other cultures have always had sensibilities and values associated with notions of rights and justice, as well as the contributions anti-colonial struggles made towards the evolution of human rights practices. The misconception that only technologically advanced developed countries could afford the luxury of providing universal public welfare services including education and health care does not stand up to empirical scrutiny. A country need not wait until it is much richer – through what may be a long period of economic growth – before embarking on a rapid expansion of basic education and health care. The quality of life can be vastly raised, despite low incomes, through an adequate program of social services.’

Accordingly, it is simply wrong and politically limiting to assume that it is unfeasible to abolish child labour and ensure that families are not subjected to poverty. Advocacy of children’s rights conceived in relativist terms has gone as far as to call for a ‘reconceptualizing’ of the rights of poor working children in a way that would allow children a role as breadwinners for themselves and their families. This includes facilitating the conditions for them to ‘participate’ in the global capitalist economy through, for instance, microcredit schemes. Again, such a perspective denies that it is participation in the neoliberal variant of the capitalist economy that has produced impoverishment of poor families and their children.

Bolivia has remained in general committed to the underlying position of the global anti-child labour movement according to which child labour should be banned and progressively eliminated. However, this position has met with considerable resistance, especially from those who support children’s engagement in paid employment. The question of whether child labour needs to be eradicated or legalized has been framed as the contradiction between the ‘norms’ of childhood at the international and the domestic levels. This tension needs to be resolved by finding a ‘middle’ ground between the two extreme positions of abolitionists and the legalization of child labour as in the case of Bolivia. It is unclear to us what a middle ground would mean and through what analysis it could be defended.

A relational understanding of development and poverty avoids the fallacious positions advanced in terms of ‘pragmatism’ or what is framed as ‘realities of developing countries’. when children are exposed to harm or hazard in the workplace, it is not always necessary, or the best available option, to remove the children from work. It is often more useful and respectful to them to focus first on the precise nature of their problems in the context of the children’s lives. Extra income for food might be extremely important for a child who would otherwise be malnourished, but insignificant to a child from a middle-class home. Thus, for adults who actively support the legalization of children’s work irrespective of their age, this is evidence and justification of their position that children themselves want to work. However, no serious analytical consideration is given to the fact that the central reason for their situation given by children who work to live, is their subjection to poverty and the denial of entitlements to quality food, health care, shelter, and education, which ought to be fundamental rights.


The words of empowerment, independence, autonomy, free choice, and dignity used by advocates of child labour resonate with neoliberal doctrines about development. Advocates completely miss the point about what compels such ‘choices’, that is, ‘what poverty does to children’. The evidence they present is substantively prefigured by the questions poor children are asked in their research and also in terms of how their responses are framed and interpreted. A central claim made in studies conducted with children subjected to labour in similar contexts is that children reject the idea that just because of their status as children, they would be ‘more vulnerable to some kind of work than adults’. It is assumed that exploitation experienced and reported by poor working children is due to the conditions under which they work including, for instance, ‘long working hours and lack of proper wages, training facilities and freedom of association’. For example, a 14-year-old boy in Argentina working since the age of six states: ‘What strains me is when I have to work under bad conditions, have no rights and am exploited.’

Again, the responses of these poor children are interpreted by academics and practitioners as an indication that the most feasible way to improve their lives is through legalizing their work. Thus, the case is made for children’s ‘right to earn money’ in recognition of their role in the national and global economy. Unsurprisingly, some researchers and NGOs who work as ‘collaborators’, ‘educators’, and consultants propose policy prescriptions aimed at developing ‘entrepreneurial’ and ‘financial management’ skills of poor children. Save past, present, and future. Still, it is our responsibility today. And we will keep it too, truly!


Sparrows by morning, live in peaceful nests! Design shouldn’t dominate things, shouldn’t dominate people. It should help people. Don’t spend your time solving your favorite problems, solve problems that need to be solved, generically. A home is a place where you live, and society is a place where your story begins. Honesty shares honesty, as it is honesty’s nature. Stay always in Ablution and get back to the trust you have been, with.

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