by Keetie Roelen
A report published by the ILO – Marking Progress against Child Labour - earlier this week has the welcome news that the incidence of child labour has dropped considerably; since 2000, child labour has decreased by one thirds from around 245 million to 168 million children. The majority of the decrease occurred in Asia and the Pacific and took place in the last four years.
The report identifies various policy choices underlying this positive trend, including education, legislation and social protection. Although it is recognised that general changes in child labour trends cannot be directly attributed to any of these policies individually, these are considered to have played an important and positive role. Social protection contributes to reducing poverty and improves families’ resilience to shocks, thereby preventing people from having to resort to coping strategies such as sending their child to work.
Is this encouraging news and the acknowledgement that social protection played its part reason for those working in or on social protection to pat themselves on the back? Maybe briefly, but certainly not for too hard and too long.
First of all, the problem of child labour is still massive. The ILO estimates that another 11 percent of the world’s child population are still involved in child labour, and that 85 million of those are engaged in hazardous work. Whilst the absolute number of children working is greatest in Asia and the Pacific, the incidence is largest in Africa with one in five children involved in some form of child labour. Maybe most worrying is that forms of hidden child labour, and particularly that of young girls working as domestic servants, are on the rise. Not only makes the hidden nature of such types of child labour difficult to account for them but also difficult to address.
Secondly, for all the good that social protection does in terms of reducing child labour, it also does harm. And this harm is not sufficiently recognised, presenting a danger to the progress in reducing child labour as social protection policies continue to expand in coverage and size.
Social protection programmes that deserve particular scrutiny when considering their impact on child labour are public works programmes – programmes that require people to work for cash or food. Evaluations of such programmes have shown that they can contribute to reduction of child labour, both in terms of incidence as well as the number of hours worked. The additional cash or food available in the household ensures that children no longer need to provide an additional source of income or labour. That said, there are some potential negative side effects that deserve due attention.
Firstly, although public works programmes will officially not allow minors to work on their programmes, it is not uncommon to find children replacing their parents on the programme with supervisors not checking their age or not intervening. Secondly, public works programmes are also known to lead to a ‘substitution effect’, with children taking on their parents’ responsibilities on the family farm or in the house as one or both parents work on the programme. Not only can this increase the incidence of child labour, it often goes at the expense of other developmental activities of children, such as time spent at school, studying at home or playing.
Although last decade’s reductions in child labour are to be applauded and are certainly cause for optimism, we should keep on our toes and remain critical about what policy choices have which kind of effect. This certainly holds with respect to social protection more generally; the rapidly expanding evidence base pointing towards positive effects of various programmes makes it appealing to base policy and programmatic decisions on assumptions about what works and what doesn’t. Praise should be given when and where it is due, but after that it is quickly time to do even better.