Agriculture, CSR and Sustainability, Human Rights, NGOs, Stakeholders, Supply Chain

It’s time for a more nuanced debate on child labour

Pakistani Thaminah Sadiq, 7, works in a brick factory, on World Day Against Child Labor, on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. The World Day Against Child Labor is observed on June 12 across the world including Pakistan to raise awareness and contribute to end child labor. Thaminah earns 250 Rupees ($2 .77) per day according to her father. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

A guest post by Wayne Dunn, founder and president of the CSR Training Institute.

Child labour is a big issue. But, not all child labour is exploitive or wrong.

Children have been part of the economic structure of the family for millennia. Working children have been both an economic necessity and an integral part of education.

If, that is, you assume that education includes practical preparation for adulthood and being a productive member of society.


In West Africa, child labour is at it’s most complex as an issue

Children have long been expected to contribute to the collective workload of the family and be part of the economic fabric that held family and community together.

I was milking cows and doing other chores on the farm for as long as I can remember. In the early 1960s, well before I was six.

When I was nine I would take a tractor and, by myself, go work the fields all day, taking a lunch and coming home at night for supper. My father spoke of taking a team of horses and doing the same thing when he was the same age.

I’d also work picking rocks to clear fields for crops, cleaning barns, building fence, milking cows, etc. The summer I was twelve I worked as a man on a logging crew cutting, peeling and piling pulpwood. It was exhausting and, at the time, I hated it. But, it taught me life lessons and prepared me for a world that didn’t always give me what I wanted on a platter.

Sometimes, but not often, it interfered with school, but I learnt more useful life lessons from the few days that I missed school than I would have learned with another day in the classroom.

Nestlé Cocoa Plan infographic - web

Nestlé Cocoa Plan, tackling child labour in West Africa

Yes, times change and it is fifty years since I was nine. Standards and societal norms and expectations have shifted. Yet, I am proud of the fact that I was able to help my family and I think it helped prepare me for life as a productive adult.

My father did me a favour by requiring the work he did from me.

It was hard, it wasn’t fun at the time, but, it helped support our family and it prepared me for life, where hard work is key to success.

But this kind of work is very different from the exploitation many children face today. It’s clear that the worst forms of child labour must be addressed and stopped.

These obviously include servitude types of situations, mind-numbing factory work for young children, dangerous working conditions, and work that prevents any chance for formal education. These are all exploitive and are worthy of campaigning hard against.

But people and organizations should learn to better distinguish between exploitive child labour situations and those that are simply a normal and healthy part of family life and economics in much of the world.

Too often there is an indiscriminate lumping of all child labour into the ‘this is terrible and must be stopped’ bucket. Exploitive child labour is wrong. Period.

But normal youth participation in family economics should not be used by campaigners to advance their causes, agendas and financing.

How do I distinguish them? I try (not always successfully) to simply apply common sense. A ten-year old that is regularly kept out of school to work on the cocoa farm or palm oil, or retail shop, or whatever the family economic base might be is wrong. Period.

A ten-year old that helps on the farm, or retail shop or other business after school and might, in exceptional circumstances, miss a day or two of school for harvest or other emergencies is often simply a necessary part of the economic survival of a family.

Practices involving child that are made to work in unsafe conditions in artisanal mining or fishing are of course wrong and should be addressed. Safety is important for all workers and especially for children.

I don’t know of a bulletproof framework for distinguishing between exploitive and non-exploitive child-labour. Maybe there isn’t one.


Indonesian child fishing in the forests of Sumatra (with parent out of shot) Photo taken by the author, February 2014

But, I do know that not all child-labour is exploitive and campaigners and those of us that read and react to their reports and communications should learn to ask more questions and try to better understand the difference.

Campaigns and communications that fail to capture these nuances might capture short-term headlines for the campaigner, but they can also cause harm to families.

Legitimate youth support to precarious family economic situations can become lumped in with exploitive child-labour practices.

When we capture productive family economic practices and life lessons in all-encompassing child labour campaigns we do harm to people and families, and ultimately, over time we detract from those exploitive child labour situations that are so important to address.

My challenge to the campaigning NGOs out there is to begin producing research that makes these distinctions clearer.

Explicitly recognize that not all child labour is bad. Some is good and necessary.

This would allow us all to focus on eliminating the worst forms of child labour rather than treating the whole area in the same way.

Wayne Dunn is president & CEO of the CSR Training Institute and professor of CSR practice at McGill University. He is hosting CSR training workshops and master classes in Accra, Ghana later this year. Details below:

CSR Bootcamp for Executives & Leaders (2 days)  Oct 30-31, Accra, Ghana

Advanced Masterclass in CSR Strategy & Management Nov 1-6 Accra, Ghana

Contact him at:

Innovation Forum will be hosting, with ETI, our “Ethical trade and human rights forum on 19th-20th October in London. 300 companies, NGOs and Unions with gather for two days of intense debate.

Details at:

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