Why is child participation not yet fully embedded in responses to child labour?

Involving children in decisions that impact them is a good thing, right? After all, it should be ‘nothing about us, without us,’ as reflected in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and often in domestic law, which guarantee children the right to have their views considered in matters and decisions that affect them at all levels of society. So why is child participation not yet fully embedded in responses to child labour?

We recently brought together a brilliant hand-selected group of individuals from a variety of backgrounds for an online ‘global roundtable’ exploring the complexities and difficulties in addressing child labour. We encouraged a focus on work exposing children to the greatest danger and harm, also known as ‘the worst forms of child labour’.

We didn’t attempt to reach a consensus on any of the issues discussed – instead it was an exploratory and sharing event held under Chatham House Rule so participants could talk freely and openly from their personal perspectives (and not organisational positions).

The importance of child participation

Child participation was a hot topic that could easily have occupied the entire 3 hours. (We also examined issues related to small businesses and child labour – I’ll save that for another blog.) Few question the importance of some level of child participation. Instead, the debate tends to centre on whether the participation is meaningful.

We discussed how meaningful child participation is not just collecting children’s views but supporting them to analyse their circumstances and take action where they can.  It should not be project- or events-based. Participation should be an ongoing process which enables children to participate meaningfully in the long term. It should support children to think through their lives, experiences, and ideas, and to learn how their views, and those of adults, are incorporated into decision-making processes.

There are many good examples to learn from. However, it was noted that if child participation is not done well, it can be damaging, not least for children. Key factors currently limiting child participation in relation to child labour (though many of these points apply to other sectors too), include:

  • Engaging only the easiest to reach and educated children
  • A lack of commitment and resourcing
  • Risk averseness, resulting from certain safeguarding perspectives that argue that participation might not be in children’s best interest
  • Claims that engaging children in collective organisation would undermine the legitimacy of programmes to eliminate child labour

This last point is particularly challenging. Working children risk being excluded from platforms set up to discuss the elimination of child labour, as they are seen by some as making demands (e.g. improvements in working conditions) contrary to the aim of eliminating child labour. But, recognising the various definitions that exist, who determines what ‘child labour’ is and who determines what ‘decent work’ is? Surely children’s views are important here?

And should children sacrifice the right to better working conditions on the promise of a future without child labour when they are working in extremely hazardous conditions now? Many argue that supporting children to improve their working conditions while they are in work does not undermine the wider effort of institutions working to eliminate child labour.

Advancing child participation

So, what can we do to advance child participation in relation to child labour? As a start, we could clearly define criteria for participation in relation to child labour, including the minimum standards, processes and resources required at all levels; increase calls for child participation at all levels; and recognise safe and non-hazardous work for adolescents where it exists (which is legal in most countries) and focus on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour.

There is growing recognition that solutions which draw on children’s experiences are more effective and more likely to avoid unintended consequences. There is also a growing body of evidence that, if well supported, children generate sophisticated analyses and innovative and impactful action.

One reason I enjoy being part of the CLARISSA consortium is our approach explicitly recognises both the importance and benefit of child participation.  We are co-developing with stakeholders (including children and business owners) innovative and context-appropriate ways to increase options for children to avoid engagement in hazardous, exploitative labour in Bangladesh and Nepal. Our aim is to generate innovation to sustainably improve the lives of children and their families. And who best to tell us how to improve their lives but the children themselves.

August 5, 2022
Katherine Richards