12:40am Monday 23 September 2019

Child labour in developing countries: a complex issue

If they do not go to school, they will not develop their potential. But according to sociologist Ellen Webbink, who will be awarded a PhD by Radboud University Nijmegen on 16 May, this is not the whole story. Working does not necessarily exclude school, and developing potential could also mean being allowed to work rather than having to work.

Wchild labour congoebbink’s thesis portrays the first ‘full picture’ of child labour in sixteen developing countries in Asia and Africa. Previous studies focused on paid employment, but Webbink shows that 80 percent of children in developing countries spend a lot of time (this can be more than 15 hours per week) on unpaid work in and around the home. A minority (on average fewer than 10 percent) are actually paid to work by a company; these children usually work longer hours, some even working full-time.

Work and/or school

Webbink examined the factors affecting the extent and nature of child labour. They vary per region, but in general it can be said that children who work spend less time at school. And as prosperity is always the governing factor in child labour, children work less and go to school more as soon as the situation allows it. Most children combine work and school: on average, 26 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys in Africa, and 13 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys in Asia do not go to school at all.

Have to work or are allowed to work
But averages can be misleading. Looking at the figures shown above, one could conclude that girls in Asia are the best off in terms of development opportunities. This may be true on average, but Webbink also noted in the more traditional regions in Asia, the girls are largely doing housework and not working in the family business; this work is left to the sons. “You could say that in the most traditional areas of Asia, girls are not allowed to work rather than they don’t have to work. This is different in Africa where even in the more traditional regions, boys and girls are both expected to pull their weight. This surprised me. It makes you wonder whether not working is in fact always good for development.”

Every region is different
International aid organisations and national governments in developing countries are keen for children to go to school more and work less. Webbink’s research clearly defines the factors affecting the extent of child labour, so her findings may be of use to policy makers. It is important to realise that the influential factors vary per region: a specific measure may have a positive effect on reducing child labour in one region, while having an adverse effect in another.
An example: in most regions, the availability of basic utilities (such as water and electricity) reduces the amount of time children spend on housework and helping with the family business (tending to the animals, working in the fields). In rural areas in Asia, however, the availability of utilities increases economic activity and the number of hours that children work in unpaid employment. 
According to Webbink, this type of work is often labelled ‘work experience’ and is designed to further children’s development. “But nobody monitors whether this type of ‘work experience’ is actually having the desired effect. And of course there is always a danger of exploitation.”

Ellen Webbink used data from the Database Developing World for her PhD research. Large-scale research is carried out in developing countries to analyse health, living conditions, working conditions, education, etc. Since 2004, sociologist/economist Jeroen Smits (Radboud University) and other researchers including Ellen Webbink have been correlating and comparing the data from these studies to compile a database. The database now contains information relating to millions of households in more than a hundred developing countries.

Thursday 16 May 2013 at precisely 13.30 hrs. PhD ceremony for Ms E. Webbink. Title: Child labor in the developing world: making the invisible visible. Supervisor: Prof. E. de Jong. Co-supervisor: Dr J.P.J.M. Smits.

Foto: (c) Julien Harneis, Wikimedia Commons. According to the photo credits, the boy in this picture, Nicholas, goes to school in the morning and helps his father, who is working in the mines in Congo, in the afternoon. The work from the mines pays for his schooling.

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