OPINION: Why a blanket ban on child labour can harm children: lessons from Ethiopia

by Alula Pankhurst | Oxford University
Thursday, 10 June 2021 18:32 GMT

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Working about 20 hours a week can have a positive impact on children’s school attendance, analysis by UNICEF and Ethiopia’s Central Statistics Agency shows

Alula Pankhurst is Ethiopia Country Director at Young Lives, an international study of childhood poverty run by Oxford University following the lives of 12,000 children in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam 

The Sustainable Development Goals target 8.7 to eliminate the worst forms of child labour immediately and end all forms by 2025 sounds commendable.

However, some work children do is beneficial for their development, relationships, and transition to adulthood.

Children often take pride in being able to contribute to their families' livelihoods, especially in hard times. Furthermore, working enables many children to gain confidence, skills, and responsibility, and some to continue with their education.

The U.N. Children's Fund's (UNICEF) 2020 'Child Labour Analysis in Ethiopia' reported that 60% of children were working at age 11, and 80% were enrolled in school, using data from the 2015 National Child Labour Survey.

However, this is an underestimate of the numbers working, notably since household chores are not included.

Young Lives, a longitudinal study of childhood poverty led by the University of Oxford, has followed two cohorts of children since 2002 in Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam.

It found that in Ethiopia, 90% of children were involved in some work, often herding livestock, fetching water and wood from around the age of eight, and that the work children do depends on their age, gender, where they live and family circumstances.

As they grow up, girls work more in the home, cooking, cleaning, washing and looking after younger siblings, while boys work mainly in the fields. Children from poorer families do more paid work and small-scale trading, with labour in irrigated agriculture increasingly common. 

GIRLS WORK LONGER HOURS

The International Labour Organization's (ILO) Minimum Age Convention 138 - which considers work under the age of 15 as reprehensible child labour to be banned, and work above 15 to be encouraged - is both arbitrary and unhelpful.

Some work that children under the age of 15 do is beneficial for their wellbeing. At the same time, preventing hazardous work and ensuring decent working conditions and pay for adolescents above the age of 15 is important. 

Ethiopia's National Child Labour Survey found that 43% of children were child labourers, according to the ILO definition. Of these, 23% undertake hazardous child labour, which is work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals.

The household survey also shows higher proportions of boys working - at 50% - compared to girls - at 34% - due to the exclusion of household work, which is belittled as "chores" ignoring the impact of the gendered division of labour.

Young Lives research shows that once chores are included, girls work longer hours and consequently have less time for homework and studying.

WELLBEING OF WORKING CHILDREN

The impact of work on schooling and dropout is often cited as a major reason for seeking to ban child labour.

However, UNICEF's analysis, which was produced jointly with Ethiopia's Central Statistics Agency, suggests that carrying out some work may have a positive impact on school attendance, which only drops when a child works 30 hours per week.

"The highest probability of attending school is not at zero hours, i.e. for children not working, but rather for those working a small number of hours," it said, with children who work 21 hours per week having the highest rate of attendance.

"This somewhat surprising result suggests that carrying out some work may have had a positive impact on school attendance ... and so the complete elimination of child work may not improve school enrolment."    

Child trafficking and harmful child labour need to be prevented, but the bulk of children's work does not fall into these categories.

A blanket ban on child labour is therefore likely to be counterproductive, potentially harming children, going against their wishes and endangering the survival of poorer families.

Rather than banning child labour, resources should be spent on improving the wellbeing of working children. Flexible approaches to the school day, incentives such as school meals and scholarships and enhanced social protection programmes, should be considered to ensure children continue school.

Rather than focusing on a blanket ban, more emphasis is required on how to improve working conditions and hours, to secure decent wages and better training, and to ensure better transitions to the labour market. 

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