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Resolve Culture Critics

The global statistics present here come with the caveat that the figures vary, especially due to the absence of up-to-date information from national surveys that form the basis of the ILO’s global child labour estimates. Moreover, there is a serious problem of underestimation of child labour in official surveys attributable partly to the intermittent nature of children’s work and the definitions used. States may also be reluctant to provide a true picture of the extent of the prevalence of child labour to circumvent domestic and global pressure. Out of an estimated total of 160 million children between the ages of five and seventeen in child labour at the start of 2020, 79 million were deemed to be undertaking hazardous labour. A pervasive issue in countries of the Global South including in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, child labour is projected to increase by 8.9 million by the end of 2022. In absolute terms, 10.7 million children in the Americas are in child labour out of which 5.5 million are in agriculture including commercial farming and livestock herding, 3.8 million are in the ‘services’ sector, and 1.4 million are in the industry.

According to the 2016 child labour survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics (INE), 393,000 out of 3 million Bolivian children were subjected to child labour. That the 2016 survey results reveal a decline of around 50 percent in the number of children subjected to labour compared to the 2008 figure of 800,000 requires critical scrutiny: Bolivia reduced the legal age limit for child labour from 14 to 10 (with some conditions), so it is likely that those children (between 10–14) were excluded from the survey. Thus, the 2016 survey likely represents a figure reflecting the lowered legal age limit for child labour in Bolivia rather than the internationally recognized minimum age, thereby significantly skewing the actual number of children subjected to child labour. Bolivia is among the countries in Latin America with the highest prevalence of children subjected to child labour.

Around half of these children are of indigenous origin and many of them are involved in hazardous forms of work. It is also worth noting that the INE 2016 estimates are based on its distinction between child ‘labour’ which is considered harmful to children’s well-being and ‘work’ which is categorized as fulfilling the functions of learning and socialization. Refusing to accept this distinction, UNICEF draws on the same survey estimates to argue that 739,000 children and adolescents were subjected to child labour in Bolivia. The issues of under-reporting of child labour in informal sectors of the economy prevail, including with regard to plantations and informal mining, street work, and commercial sex.

Contesting the case for a right for children to labour to live: A critical engagement

Evidently, child labour is a condition primarily prevalent in the Global South because of the high incidence of poverty and vulnerabilities. While there is a broader consensus that poverty causes child labour, analysts too often do not focus on the causes of poverty, but instead on individual children and their families in specific socio-cultural and economic settings. Thus, debates around child labour, and for or against the rights of ‘working children’ pivot around juxtapositions of universal and cultural relativist premises. Those operating from universalist premises maintain that child labour is a violation of children’s rights and support its abolition. The ILO has more recently reiterated its position that ‘child labour is a violation of the rights of children who undertake hazardous work’.

Universalist policies directed at the eradication of child labour, therefore, have strong momentum behind them, with legal implications at international and, via ratification, at national levels (with states of the Global South have committed to these). Contemporary rights-based anti-child labour movements have also made the case for the need to provide welfare support systems to poor children in support of achieving the universal intent. These include financial assistance to the families of children who work (so that children would not have to work) and the provision of quality education and nutritious food. However, the universalist stance rarely explicitly engages with the root causes of poverty, which would comprise a critical examination of the politics and political economy of development. Cultural relativists share this lack of understanding and engagement with (a critical examination of) the political economy of development. They see the universal principle of the proscription of child labour and its implications, such as resource redistribution, as problematic impositions by the North on the South. For cultural relativists, the universalist agenda is misguided and premised upon ill-informed conjectures about the socio-cultural and economic realities of the lives of working children in developing countries.

Sound Examination of Child Labour

We turn to a closer examination of these premises. Two broad inter-related themes can be identified in the culturalist relativist critique of the universalist defense of children’s well-being and global anti-child labour campaigning efforts.

  • Children’s involvement in ‘work’ is claimed to be an integral part of the culture(s) of non-Western societies were values associated with childhood are alleged to be different from the West.
  • Countries in the Global South are assumed to be limited in their capacity to provide welfare.

Against the backdrop of such arguments, restricting children’s involvement in remunerative work in regulated sectors of the economy is claimed to be premised upon a problematic ideology of Western liberal childhood and deemed ineffective in the context of the high prevalence of child labour. From these perspectives, attempts to abolish – or legislate against – child labour would hence only have the unintentional consequence of forcing children to find employment in far more hazardous conditions and occupations in the ‘informal’ economy. The argument thus dovetails with rather than contradicts justifications of child labour on the basis of culture and developmental stages. On such accounts, a specific conception of childhood – understood as a distinct and protected phase of individual human development – is assumed to have evolved in Western Europe and North America during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – an era is known for an unprecedented increase in pauperization and child labour. In explanations about the decline of child labour in Europe, a number of interrelated factors are considered: the ‘advancement of science and technology’; the efforts of ‘middle class’ reformers in raising the consciousness of common people against social injustice; the effects of labour unions and the formulation of labour protection laws; and the gradual advance of universal welfare services including schooling and health care. While some attribute equal importance to technological advancement and statutory factors in the decline of child labour, modernization through industrialization is considered to be the most crucial factor in increasing the demand for child labour at first but also ultimately leading to its decline. This stadial narrative of development forms a bedrock of critics of the universalist’s stance that all children should be protected and that child labour should be abolished. It is premised on a highly problematic ahistorical and non-relational conception of development.


A critical counter analysis reveals that framing development in terms of the ladder metaphor serves to justify poverty and inequality as (necessary) stages of economic growth. When viewed through stages of growth lens, a high prevalence of child labour in developing countries is assumed to be unavoidable given their present ‘stage’ of development. What is highly problematic here is the acceptance that development is contingent on poverty. When viewed critically, such perspectives rest on the assumption that poverty is a condition prior to and external to relations of development. Consequently, it serves to justify child labour as a culturally contingent ‘fact’, and a necessary condition ‘prior to’ development. Material advancement is a necessary precondition for the eventual convergence of diverse childhood norms (focusing on global demands for abolishing corporal punishment and child labour). Effectively, global children’s rights advocacy aims to globalize post-industrial professional norms of childhood discipline onto non-industrial conditions. But discipline norms are part of a totality of social relations. Traditional farming necessitates children disciplined to labour because household survival depends on everybody, including children, fulfilling their allotted responsibilities. The tough conditions of traditional agriculture are a hard physical discipline for both adults and children and its high stakes make for tough discipline norms.


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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