Let’s talk about human chains, not value chains

The term ‘value chain’ is often associated with business jargon of “design, production, marketing and distribution” and the activities it takes to bring a product to market. But what we do not hear about, are the human chains that keep entire sectors functioning. Human chains reflect the importance of human beings, human connections and human values, norms and practices – which value chains do not.

On the World Day Against Child Labour, we are reminded that in a COVID19 world, children are more vulnerable than ever before. We must understand the causes of the most harmful and dangerous labour, and why millions of children end up doing it. But in the first instance, understanding the people and interactions within “human chains” is fundamental.

These human chains involve many people – children and their families, but also intermediaries or brokers who find children work, employers and others – in social networks that vary in different contexts and sectors where children are employed in the worst forms of child labour (WFCL). The human chain that draws a child from the villages of Nepal into domestic work and then to the Adult Entertainment Sector in Kathmandu can look very different from one where a child in Dhaka enter work in a tannery near where they live with their family.

“In the future, I want to be a sewing operator in a shoe factory because the salary of a skilled sewing operator is very high. I want to save money to support my family, build a home in my village and for my wedding. I want to pay all the debt of my mother and live a respectful life.” These are the aspirations expressed by a working teenage girl in Hazaribagh, a slum area in Dhaka where many children are employed in the hazardous leather manufacturing sector.

The people in these chains cannot always able to be divided into categories of ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’. While a child engaged in hazardous labour is often seen by others as exploited, they might see themselves as conscientious and responsible, and even see their employers as role models. The lines between these labels are not always clear, nor are people’s role, practices and norms static throughout their lifetime. Efforts to tackle child trafficking often encounter people who go on to facilitate the exploitation of others, sometimes while they continue to be exploited themselves.

For example, intermediaries and employers are often portrayed as villains or criminals. Intermediaries in the human chain may or may not be aware of the situations that children end up in. Our work in the new Child Labour: Action Research Innovation in South and Southern Asia Consortium in Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal support existing evidence that has shown that employers may see themselves – and may be seen by others – as supporting poor families by providing an additional source of income as they employ a child in a hazardous form of labour.

This perception is just one example of a benefit of employing children. Indeed, employing children in extreme exploitative, and hazardous labour has both social and financial benefits, as well as costs, for each of the people along the human chain. For children, for example, immaterial benefits of working might include “prestige, independence or being part of the adults’ world (pdf)”, as well as the material benefits of helping to support their families. The dreams and aspirations for the future of children like the teenager can often rest on the money and experience they gain from such work.

This is not to say that poverty and financial constraints, including lack of access to credit and capital, are not also key in understanding the causes, but these factors alone cannot explain why children end up such extremes forms of labour. Most children who are in the WFCL come from poverty, but most children in poverty do not end up in the WFCL. There are other, more complex processes at play. To understand the drivers of child labour, an understanding of the unwritten rules shared by society (pdf) – and the material and structural realities that these social norms reinforce and (re)produce to sustain a given behaviour among people in a human chain need to be taken into account.

Working through the messy concept of a human chain enables us to grapple with complex, non-linear routes into the most exploitative forms of labour. As opposed to a value chain approach centred on durable or perishable goods, a human chain approach highlights rather than reduces the human and emotional aspects of the process.

June 10, 2020
Shona Macleod