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September 27, 2007

We can all condemn child labour, but - ask A S H Smyth - can we offer alternatives to the world's poorest families? A S H Smyth remains unconvinced: Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor - David L. Parker

Posted by A S H Smyth

Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor
by David L. Parker
Pp. 160. Quantuck Lane Press, 2007
Hardback, £22.99

David Parker is a medical epidemiologist who does some major moonlighting in the children's sector of human rights.

A physician specializing in occupational health and safety,
as Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa) introduces him in the foreword to Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor. Harkin himself has a long history of involvement in the fight against child labour and has been connected to the Child Labor Coalition since it was established in 1989.

This book of photographs is designed, of course, to raise awareness of child labour:

Officially, more than 320 million children under age sixteen work worldwide and 25 per cent of children do not complete a primary education.
It's light on writing, Parker introducing each section of photographs with a brief few paragraphs on the context and circumstances of the images. Though the photos come from a range of countries (almost all in Asia and Latin America), the chapters are divided by theme: agriculture, quarrying, brick-making, textiles and other manufacturing, street workers, garbage-picking and begging.

Before even opening the book, there's a perennial concern with projects of this nature, and it can be – depending (very literally) on how you look at it – a big problem: these pictures are too beautiful. As pictures. As art-works. They're very good. Really, to be shocking and memorably horrible, such images need to look like the concentration-camp scenes from Schindler's List, or Band of Brothers.

But that approach only brings up secondary concerns. People either find the images so awful they can't look long enough to contemplate them or, as routinely happens in museums (and indeed with war films), people experience overload, and the effect is lost. After all, we've long since grown used to seeing this kind of photojournalism over breakfast, courtesy of the Sunday colour supplements.

Harkin heads off one theme of criticism in his foreword, saying that Parker's

work has been criticized for portraying children smiling and laughing as they labor.
Well, I have no problem with that: children smile and laugh, and it is generally a sign of their incredible resilience. As the Senator responds:
Parker depicts these children in their full humanity.
And rightly: readers would be less compelled to act if he did not.

Still, for all the smiling, some of these photographs are outrageous. Tiny kids, no older than 5 or 6, lugging stacks of bricks about, working with leather-tanning chemicals or stoking kiln furnaces. One features a toddler with his nostrils caked in clay for brick-making. Another shows the burned arms of a child employed making fireworks. These go a long way in off-setting the complacency of the reader when looking at other, less frightful images. The Guatemalan girl, smiling as she pours gunpowder into firecrackers: she's not been burned… yet.

Senator Harkin is not wrong about the value of photographs. They can always

raise questions and bring the truth to light.
Harkin knows this well, having been fired from his job as a Congressional staffer in the '70s, for publishing photos of South Vietnamese political prisoners. And, as he recalls, photojournalism of this kind has done its bit closer to home: Lewis Hine's pictures in the early 20th century helping to swing public opinion and bring about some of the most important labour reforms in US history.

No, my problem is not with the pictures, but with the accompanying text - and more so with the text that is not there than with the text that is. So much is not discussed and the omissions, I would suggest, weaken the impact of the project.

It is taken as read that the employ of children is a bad thing; it is not put in context that their families might need the money these children can bring in, or that these children are simply viewed in other societies as extra able bodies in the local economy. The title - Before Their Time - does not invite such doubts, and conspicuously steers the reader towards the inherent wrongness of children working at all.

But not all child labour is working with poisonous glue to fix rubber soles onto trainers for capitalist pig-dogs like me. Some of it is simply about producing food for the family (not, in itself, such an ignoble occupation). Caring for the family's animals (or even your own siblings) is not child labour as I understand it. Nor is it anything that would have made Westerners blanche until fairly recently. It's not so long ago that school terms were adjusted to help with harvests. Picking apples in Kent and picking coffee in Guatemala are not, of course, the same in practice; but they are the same in theory.

Nor is all child labour about preying on children specifically because they are young and malleable. Some is, of course: sex-workers being an obvious example. But mixing in, unannounced, the issue of child soldiers is a serious wrong note in this book: few people would consider the use of children (willing or abducted) in war as being synonymous with child labour.

There's a lot of undisclosed utopianism under the surface, too:

In some nations up to one-third of agricultural workers are children.
So what would happen to that economy if all the children downed tools? It hardly needs stressing that the countries in question are not ones which could afford a 33% dip in agricultural output. No-one's suggesting all these children live a life that is like something from Laurie Lee; but one has to be realistic about the deprived and struggling areas of the world. There's not much of a choice between going to school and starving or tending the animals and having something to eat.

If one is being extremely hard-headed about all this, one eventually has to ask: why would a primary schooling be necessary for a child who is going to spend the rest of his life tending goats? Though this seems callous in depriving the child in question of a shot at a "better" future, it can't just be discounted without being viewed alongside the implications of the alternative – chief among those implications being that every child, having had some education, can (or even should) abandon what may be an ancient and traditional way of life. Working in a mine in Bolivia is something to be avoided; tending your family's goats doesn't fall into the same category.

Lack of clear dividing lines is a problem throughout this project, the result perhaps of the assumption that pictures can speak for themselves (if a picture is worth a thousand words this would have had to be a very much longer book…). It is unclear what Parker means when he says

poverty forces most working children and their families to become victims of economic exploitation.
"Victim" is a dubious word at the best of times: here it seems to mean little more than that many people have to work because they're poor. I'm not sure I understand why that is a surprise, or even a problem. In rich families only the father has to work; so, presumably, in poor countries several family members have to put in billable hours - in extreme situations, that will have to mean more than just the parents.

It's evident that working in a mine is unhealthy (and more so for kids than for adults). Likewise, working in a brothel. The same goes for breaking rocks, working with mercury, and crawling around inside tanning vats. But many of these pictures show children at work in a hairdressing "salon", a jewellery shop, as balloon vendors, or newspaper-sellers. While it's unfortunate that children anywhere have to do these jobs, these are not exactly hard labour: one of the kids is reading a comic.

If Parker has evidence that these kids are actually slave-workers, or being sexually abused by their bosses, he doesn't reveal it. And so he leaves unclear what he sees as the distinction between necessary participation by children in a family's every-day existence (herding, for example, or selling fish at your father's stall) and work into which children are coerced and then abused or paid next to nothing. Likewise he makes no clear statements regarding the difference between various types of work, and the different physical and mental stresses these will cause.

Age is a problematic issue. You're not an adult in the UK until you're 18, but you can leave school at 16 and begin work. Simply pegging everyone's human rights to the age of 16 is not sensible, though. If, for example, an acceptable working age were to be calculated according to, say, life-expectancy in Botswana (35), then that age of 16 we think is tolerable in the UK would have to be dropped to about 5 years old. I'm not advocating that; but in many parts of the globe 16 would be considered a pretty late start.

Parker cites the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which insists that children are kept from - that vagueness again - economic exploitation:

and from performing any work that is likely to be… harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.
I will not labour the point by highlighting all the generalisations and assumptions inherent in such a sentence, or the number of other ways all those developmental failings might arise in any person, of any age, anywhere. But while it is clear that employment can damage a child's physical well-being, we might also ask, for example, whether a strict religious upbringing does more or less harm to a child's "mental, spiritual, moral or social development" than factory work.

Likewise, Convention 182 of the International Labour Office (Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour) outlaws the use of children in slavery and bondage, prostitution and pornography, drugs trading and other unsavouries. No-one in their right mind would suggest that children should be involved in these things (though Parker reveals that almost 150 million still are). It doesn't necessarily follow that they should be prevented from working for the upkeep of their families, though.

The gaps in the debate weaken Parker's argument a little, but they do not undermine the basic generosity and compassion underlying Before Their Time. As a doctor, Parker's most compelling writing is about health and development. It is no mere matter of opinion that pound for pound, children are worse effected by poor, unsanitary working and living conditions than adults. Again, they are not being targeted as children, but they are relatively worse off (even before being materially ripped off by unscrupulous "employers" in ways that adults are better able to resist).

And what affects children is passed on, in the fullness of time, to the next generation. In general, the more education mothers have had - and the less time they've had to spend on the factory floor - the more education they will ensure their children have. Educated mothers tend also to marry later, have smaller families and healthier children.

Which brings us, ultimately, to Parker's focal theme, and his greatest concern for the future, for breaking the cycle of poverty: if children are working, they cannot be in school. Well, that's true enough. Even if - as is so often the case - there wasn't a school for them to go to anyway.

A S H Smyth is a freelance journalist, specialising in foreign affairs, conflict & security, and Southern Africa.


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Afghan families often farm together or weave carpets together. Often there are no schools, or schools are closed for planting and harvest times, as they used to be in many developed countries. Yet, they are tarred with the same brush as slave-labour brick kilns and the like in neighbouring Pakistan.

We need a different set of definitions -- to exclude family labour, or to stigmatise abusive labour (including that for children). Yet, most people in the West cannot be bothered to think about it in any depth, so long as they get an opportunity to feel indignant and superior, and their politicians can create another international institution somewhere.

Posted by: s j masty at September 29, 2007 03:36 PM
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