How has child labour been changing over time? An overview of this widespread phenomenon starting from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist up to the latest ILO statistics. “Boy for sale!” was shouting out Mr. Bumble in Oliver!, a musical by Lionel Bart premiered in 1960 and based upon Charles Dickens’ novel.
Almost all of us know Oliver’s history: the main character is an orphan, Oliver Twist, who was born in a baby farm and spent his childhood with no one taking care of and feeding him, or even coerced, by the beadle of the parish he lived in, to work picking oakum at the main workhouse. Dickens’ novel dates back to the first half of 1800s, when children exploitation in workhouses was a usual and rooted practice even in many rich countries, such as England.
Nevertheless, nowadays the phenomenon of child labour is still affecting many communities worldwide, with 1 out of 10 children involved. Of course things have been changing and children employment is no longer considered a usual routine, at least in developed societies. Many organizations (International Labour Organization, Unicef, several NGOs…) are still facing children labour as a crucial issue to be urgently addressed. The global community’s commitment towards the eradication of child labour is embedded within the Sustainable Development Goals: target 8.3 requires immediate and effective measures to prohibit and eliminate the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms. However, it is interesting to notice that the ILO points out in its Convention that children employment is not always a deplorable action in absolute terms: up to a certain boundary, employment should be considered as a way to learn and to become more responsible as citizens and members of a community, being it a family or a school class. Thus, the meaning of child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.
Children shouldn’t be deprived of their right to education and to healthy and safe lives: even if a specific close list of works to be included in the broad definition of child labour doesn’t exist, all those activities preventing children from being allowed to such a lifestyle, according to their age and context, are to be considered child labour. Moreover, a worrying feature to mention is that around half of the 152 million children involved in child labour globally are victims of so-called hazardous works (73 million), meaning all those activities that attempt to children’s physical and moral health and well-being: some examples of this broad category are prostitution and production of pornography, slavery, drug’s traffic and other illicit activities. Coming back to the “Boy for sale” claim in Oliver!, is straightforward to notice that child labour is a way, as many other yet existing, to make profit taking advantage of the exploitation of a workforce which is not able at all to defend its own human rights, that is why these phenomena are broadly considered de-humanizing. Dickens was very passionate in analyzing children’s condition within the hypocrite Victorian context he lived in: lucky pupils attending schools were treated as boxes to be filled in with contents, while the others were exploited coercing them to work in firms and mines. Now things are much different: we are no longer living in hypocrite environments, as Dickens meant the term hypocrisy, and child labour doesn’t appear as a cultural matter.
The ILO Report 2017 points out that it is affecting mainly Africa, Asia and the Pacific region, with a particular intensity in those areas which are currently experiencing conflicts and crisis, due to the unbelievable number of children employed as soldiers. This is of course quite an unsustainable situation, that is why SDGs require the total eradication of such a social issue, but it is worth noticing that, according to ILO’s last reports, since 2000 data are showing a positive trend in the evolution of the phenomenon, with a decreasing number of exploited children worldwide. This is happening at very different rates according to the specific geographical area, and, what is more, during the 2012-2016 period it’s happening more slowly than it happened up to 2012, but of course there is an ongoing effort towards the final goal. In sum, child labour has been changing over time, from a situation where the Industrial Revolution led to exploitation of children as a means to increase productivity and profits, to a totally different scenario, where wars and a severe shortage of sustenance in the factious areas is causing a high number of orphans and, as a consequence, a strongly negative impact on children’s freedom from the burden of exploitation.