Child work bans and adult’s high incomes: in children’s best interest?
A decent standard of living that covers basic needs and supports a dignified existence, seems unobtainable to many struggling smallholder farmers and farm workers. In many cases, children become an additional source of support in households where adults receive insufficient wages to support their families and smallholder farmers who cannot afford to hire adult labour, resort to children – and most often their own children – for cheap labour.
The understanding of the relationship between children’s work and poverty – i.e. poverty increases children’s work, and children’s work increases poverty – has been used to bolster the idea that all children should be in full-time formal education, and not working. Yet, my paper by ACHA, examines the discussion among advocates for three interventions, living wage, living income and child-labour free zone (CLFZ), and reflects on their implications for children’s work in African agriculture.
A living wage: accepted more in theory than in practice
The term living wage is usually used to refer to the wage necessary for survival based on the real cost of living for a worker and family. Campaigners stress the role of a living wage in poverty-reduction, based on the assumption that the barrier to reducing poverty is low wages. Moral arguments based on social justice, economic arguments focusing on the sustainability and capability of the workforce, and political claims centred around reduced risks of social tension have been fundamental in promoting the idea of a living wage.
Neoclassical economic arguments against a living wage focus on a likely reduced employment and investment. Others claim that higher wages are only one of several factors needed to improve farmworkers’ earnings and wellbeing, with others including working conditions, and access to health and education facilities. Measuring wages in rural areas is particularly challenging as inconsistent pay structures, seasonality and sharecropping arrangements hinder comparisons.
In any case, an uplift in wages can only directly address in-work poverty, not unemployment or informal employment, so has a limited effect in rural areas. Finally, because the living wage for an area is calculated by independent non-governmental organisations, it has no legal standing. And, there is no globally agreed definition of or method for estimating a living wage, which undermines its implementation and evaluation.
A living income as a catalyst for a farmer-centred approach
Paying a living wage is not realistic for many smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa who themselves rarely earn a decent income. It is argued that a living income for farmers – an income that is sufficient for a decent standard of living for all household members – will strengthen livelihoods and make agriculture more sustainable.
Campaigning organisations argue that agribusiness profits can be reduced (pdf) in order to increase farm-gate prices in the short-term. In the medium to long-term, they suggest that stronger farmer cooperatives (pdf), trade unions and consumer movements, as well as investment by government, can help ensure producers receive a living income. Ultimately, if farmers are to earn a living income, they must be able to access, compete and flourish in balanced and fair markets.
The child labour-free zone model
The Stop Child Labour (SCL) coalition considers that schooling and working are incompatible, and encourages universal, full-time formal schooling to eliminate child labour. With partners in Asia, Africa and Latin America, SCL promotes the CLFZ model as a way to eradicate child labour from a designated geographical area. It is important to note that this model assumes all risks to child rights are of equal strength, and that all children are equally vulnerable and in need of protection.
Proponents of CLFZ argue that a ban on children’s work will improve adults’ working conditions and incomes due to an allegedly high degree of substitution in the labour market. In fact, part of CLFZ advocacy package includes lobbying for decent pay for adults, in turn explicitly linking efforts to reduce child labour with living wage and living income campaigns.
In children’s best interests?
Community monitoring of children’s work relies on social disapproval, acceptance of the value of the offered formal education and willingness to report other community members. Rural children in sub-Saharan Africa commonly work to pay some of the cost of their schooling and many provide needed (un)paid support to their household, which can be a source of pride and empowerment for the child. For families with only a subsistence income and no safety net, an enforced ban on children’s work – without compensating for the forgone income of children and their additional needs – might be devastating.
Children’s work, and children’s harmful work, are clearly complex and contingent phenomena. Extreme caution must be exercised with ‘models’, no matter how well-intentioned, which leave little room for children’s responsibilities to their families or participation in decisions that affect them. Policies that only increase adults’ earnings or seek to ban all forms of children’s work may not be in children’s best interests. Those that increase the returns-to-education locally and protect children (and adults) from work-related harm are likely to be more effective.
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