Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 175 | Febrero 1996



What Do Working Children Want?

Among children’s rights must be included the right to work. What really violates their rights are poverty and abuse by adults. Children dream of a world where play, work and study go together.

Manfred Liebel

Since 1994, a group of educators and sociologists, with the active participa tion of working children, has been studying the way these girls and boys interpret their labor experience. The study was carried out in two settings:

Workshops and meetings with nearly 1,500 children belonging to the Movement of Working Children and Adolescents. Movement members, commonly known as NATRAs, are between 9 and 16 years old and work on the street and in markets and parking lots.

Testimonial workshops about the domestic work girls do at home, which was part of the international "Give a voice to children" campaign. In this project, 110 children in the same age range as above participated.

Many of the children already knew each other from other meetings or activities or met during the research and had the opportunity to work together. These young leaders contributed their ideas and proposals to the preparation of the question guides and the methodology. The children themselves led the meetings, workshops and working groups. In addition to the results from Nicaragua, this analysis includes data from 24 Salvadoran peasant children between 7 and 17 years old.

How do the NATRAs value their work? What do they want? What changes do they want to see? Regarding their work, they laid out six areas of criticism: discrimination, violence, inadequate working conditions and hours, and being deprived of their income and their freedom.

They Look Down on Us

Working children feel discriminated against. They do not feel respected as people assuming a responsibility and contributing economically to their family's sustenance. They note that adults neither value their contributions nor recognize the value of their work.

The NATRAs say it bothers them "when people say that our parents are the ones who should be working," not because they don't want their parents to work, but because people don't think about the fact that there is a lot of unemployment and that children work out of necessity.

They also feel disrespected when people characterize them as "street children," thieves or vagrants, and criticize the fact that many adults "harass us, insult us, humiliate us, frown on us and treat us with contempt." They also see discrimination when what they do is not recognized as work and they are underpaid simply because the work is being done by children.

Girls who work in their homes complain that they are the only ones who do the domestic tasks and also say that they are scolded and punished more than boys. They feel that they are considered inferior to their brothers and discriminated against for being female. According to studies by Karla Blanco in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, "girls are clear that household work is a job they do at home, but that it is not recognized by either their family or society."

Both boys and girls who work on the streets denounce the violence to which they are subjected. They are often harassed. "They destroy our goods; there are clients who rob us, and drivers who run us over and kill us; there are adults who steal our clients; there's a lot of mistreatment." They also lament the "selfishness among us," and criticize their parents for beating and abusing them "when we don't sell enough."

It is mostly girls who criticize the physical aggression and sexual harassment, not only out on the streets but also in their homes. They report rapes and sexual harassment by uncles, stepfathers, cousins and older brothers, when they are home alone and when they leave the house to do errands.

Girls who work at home charge their fathers with mistreatment and cruel punishments. "They make us eat all the food if we burn it, or make it badly; they burn our hands and feet; they insult us; they shout; they pile on double the work; they don't let us eat; they hit us with belts; they pull our ears."

"We Roast Out in the Sun"

NATRAs in the countryside talk about the taxing work they have to do. For example, they don't like weeding the fields "because it gives us backaches and exhausts us, and our arms get burnt because we're right under the blazing sun." They especially don't like spraying with poisons. "The poison stinks and you can't even breathe. It's easy to ruin your breathing, and if you put in too much poison, it gets way too strong." They feel that the tools they have to use are too big and hard to handle, though they like to use the same tools as adults because it gives them prestige and recognition in the peasant community. In general, they complain of the risk of accidents, the pain and fatigue, the illnesses they fall prey to and the fact that they can't attend classes.

Urban NATRAs, those who work on the streets, at home or in businesses, also criticize the risk of accidents and illnesses due to a lack of protective measures at the workplace. "Out on the street, we roast in the sun, get exhausted and sick; nobody guarantees our health." The dangers are greater when they have to work at night, but during the day adults often force them out of the most advantageous spots.

The children who work in the garbage dumps say that "we can't find anything" so they have to compete very aggressively with adults and other children to get what little there is, which in turn means greater risks. They speak of "coyotes," the intermediaries who pay poorly and take advantage of their dependence.

The children who work in businesses, particulary those who work in masonry, feel that their work is very hard, and those who work as mechanics bemoan the fact that they are always dirty. Girls who work at home point to household accidents burns, electric shocks, etc. as a result of ironing, cooking, making tortillas and cleaning house.

Across the board, the NATRAs express concern about adults' lack of comprehension and seeming dismissal of their specific needs, physical safety and health care.

With one voice the NATRAs criticize their long working hours, which don't leave them enough time to study, play or go out. In the countryside, boys and girls work between 10 and 14 hours a day, surpassing the average working day for a child on the city streets. The burden for girls is much greater than that facing boys, because in addition to the work they have to do on the streets or their collaboration in agricultural tasks, they oftentimes have to take responsibility for the domestic work. In the cities, boys principally street vendors often complain of having to work at night.

"They Shouldn't Prohibit Our Work"

When the NATRAs say that adults parents or bosses "exploit us a lot" or "abuse our work,' they mean that they are paid nothing or are poorly paid for their work, or are paid less than an adult would be. They complain that there are no fixed wages for kids and, referring to those who have some kind of contract, that they do not get their December bonus. They are also exploited by clients who ask for credit then don't pay, as well as by taxi drivers who, for example, "ask for a scratch lottery ticket but then won't pay us."

They also point to parents and other adults who "take away what we earn, the few cents we make from our sales." Almost all the NATRAs want to help their parents and are willing to hand over or share their earnings, but they want to make that decision themselves. Those who work within the family economy without receiving any sort of pay feel that "we give more to our families than we receive."

One very common criticism among NATRAs is that "adults force us to work." Children can see the necessity for working, given their families' scarce resources or the fact that their parents are unemployed, and are willing to contribute to their family's support, but they want to make the decision themselves whether to work or not. This includes making decisions about working conditions and hours.

Girls also complain that their parents often won't let them do the work they want to do, particularly if that work is outside the house. They feel like they're under lock and key when they do domestic work. Out on the streets they feel that their decision making power is thwarted, because sometimes "adults take our work away from us."

Almost all the NATRAs also feel that it is discriminatory that child labor is prohibited by law. "Prohibiting us from working is to not think about the children.... If they prohibit us from working, they are acting against our rights.... Instead of forbidding us to work, they should help us.... They shouldn't prohibit child labor but instead should draft laws that protect us and give us more rights as workers."

"We'd Die of Hunger"

If we look closely at NATRAs' comments about whether or not they like their work or the advantages they feel work gives them, we can point to six kinds of arguments. They like working because it earns money with which they can satisfy needs, get some social recognition and overcome their marginalization, develop family solidarity, learn to "earn their living," gain more freedom and autonomy and have more interaction with other people.

The kids know they are working out of sheer need and that they need the money to live, not just "to eat and clothe ourselves" but also to maintain or recover their health and be able to study as well. In the neoliberal state, all basic necessities are converted into merchandise and the kids are well aware of that fact. Water, electricity, hospital costs, taxes, school supplies, etc., all have to be paid for. "If we don't make any money, we can't get better or fix our teeth, and goodbye to any chance of studying."

While the kids say they like to earn money, they also reflect on the poverty in which their families find themselves and it seems normal to them to take on the responsibility of working. Some do hold their parents exclusively responsible for protecting them and guaranteeing them what they need, but the majority prefer to personally contribute to their families. They understand that, without their contributions, their own living standards would quickly and seriously deteriorate.

Those who look only at the risks and the negative effects associated with child labor forget the price these children would pay if they didn't work. The kids themselves point it out: "If we didn't work, we'd be illiterate, we'd be living in rags, in misery, we'd be starving to death."

The NATRAs remind us that we should not make negative assessments about child labor without taking into account the concrete conditions in which children who work are living. In a life threatening context, children's work is an option for life, not only because they have no other alternative, but also because through work they can overcome their powerlessness and obtain an identity and consciousness of their own.

"The Crisis Would Be Worse"

The NATRAs believe that they increase their social standing by working. Though in many cases their work is not recognized, they feel that they are doing something indispensable for their families and for society, something that makes them feel like "someone."

Peasant children live in a context that facilitates their recognition within the community. In the countryside, children's labor has deep roots within the indigenous community, and is valued as a positive element of the socialization and education of each new generation. By working, children are integrated into the community and gain respect.

Because of these roots, many peasant children identify closely with work. For them, seeing plants come up out of the earth is sacred, something whose value can't be meas ured. They make it clear that, though the work is difficult, it's worth the effort to see life emerging from the soil.

Rural NATRAs also feel that their work is useful to the entire country. The fields they work generate food for people who aren't just from their own families or commu nities. They know that the beans or corn that they grow will be sold in faraway places, thus helping the nation as a whole.

In the city, children gain virtually no social recognition with their work. There is no longer a work culture in the city that puts a premium on children's labor.

But even though city children generally do not do the kind of productive work that peasants do, they also feel that they are contributing to society's development. Those who pick through the garbage dumps talk about their contribution to "recycling garbage"; those who work on the streets say that if they were not working, "people would have dirty shoes, cars would be dirty or would get stolen, people wouldn't read newspapers, the country would be dirty." Girls who work at home know that without their work, "the house would be dirty, everything upside down" and "our parents would fight more, and things would get violent". A number of NATRAs have an overall vision of their work's value and importance. "If we didn't work," they say, "we would be in an even worse economic crisis than we are now."

Many of the urban working children see their work as an alternative to crime and a way to combat marginalization. When they say that they work "so as not to steal, or be involved in contraband, or beg," they are reflecting the difficulty of maintaining a "legal" and "respected" life in the context of severe poverty. Thus, in addition to its economic value, they see an educational element in their work that allows them to rescue the values of human dignity and coexistence with others.

Although NATRAs in the city do not identify with their work as much as peasant children do, they do see themselves as part of a working class that contributes to the country's development and deserves respect and recognition by all of society.

"We Are Learning to Be Somebody"

The NATRAs like to help their families and highly value family solidarity. Girls who cook, take care of younger siblings and keep the house in order know that their work allows their mothers and fathers to "go sell" or do other tasks that bring income into the family. Children who earn money for their work are satisfied because "we're helping to support our families." But it doesn't seem fair to them that their parents don't take their contributions seriously and don't offer them either the material or moral recognition they deserve. Girls particularly insist that "we all help out in the family" and expect everyone to contribute equally.

The NATRAs don't see their work only as a burden or necessity, but also as an opportunity to learn. The work independent of its type and conditions "helps form and train us," and also "helps us learn from the adults' experiences, it helps us be more responsible; we learn to defend ourselves, to be more independent, to earn our living, to prepare ourselves to be somebody in our lives." Without denying or hiding the problems they confront in their jobs, they are at least taking advantage of their participation in the labor force to prepare themselves and become integrated into society.

Their philosophy is: "We learn what work means to life." Hence they are more interested in jobs where they can learn a trade or broaden and deepen their knowledge and skills.

Urban NATRAs see work as a possible way to have a freer and more autonomous life. It helps them "not to have to depend on anyone." They like "depending on myself," the fact that "I buy my own things" and, in general, they "like having money." Not all jobs allow for this; in the countryside, kids are part of the family labor force and don't receive a salary.

In the city, jobs on the street are the main ones that help NATRAs achieve greater independence, not only in the sense of having money, but also because they get quicker and more skilled at defending themselves in tough situations. "We go where we want," they say. In this way, their working experience helps dissolve paternalistic subordination based exclusively on age and helps them understand and speak for themselves as subjects of their own rights and interests.

What many NATRAs like best about their work is that "it lets us relate to people." Kids who work on the streets frequently mention that "we enjoy ourselves" and "we make friends and can play with our friends." They also like "sharing the work with others."
Working in public places, despite its risks, can open social spaces that kids would not find elsewhere, either at school or in their families. On the street, work is not completely separated from play and other "free" activities, which motivates NATRAs to interpret work as "something dynamic" and attractive. It is an incentive and opportunity to organize in groups, to share work or develop collective activities in defense of their interests and rights.

Children's Right to Work

Clearly, NATRAs' opinions about their work are very concrete and differentiated. When they have the opportunity and feel they are being listened to, they criticize the negative elements of their working experiences the exploitation, abuse, lack of respect or discrimination. But they also point out the positive elements they see in their work. They don't want to stop working. What they want is to work in conditions with more freedom and dignity.

In this way, children are forcing us to understand something: it is not the work itself that violates their dignity but rather the poverty, policies and treatment imposed upon children by adults and by institutions dominated by adults. Poverty is what turns work into an obligation, what provokes violence, limits or robs them of their option to study, engage in recreational activities and work when and how they want to.

Policies made by adults do not guarantee the necessary protection on the job and do not allow children to enjoy their rights to eat, go to school and live in conditions that favor their health and development. It is adults bosses, clients, neighbors, politicians and parents themselves who deny them the affection and respect they deserve as human beings.

What deserves greater attention is the fact that NATRAs criticize not only working conditions, but also the policies and measures ostensibly designed to protect them. They don't often pay much attention to the world of laws and codes, but, if asked, they unanimously reject attempts to prohibit them from working. They feel that this kind of measure violates their freedom and dignity and is no less serious than the arbitrary treatment they receive from adults in their workplaces.

They want to be protected but don't want to be set apart in such a way that they lack any influence over their lives and future. They want to live their childhood and adolescence very distinctly from the "infantilism" that is proposed to them by a paternalistic, adult oriented society.

With this complex vision of work, NATRAs show us that child labor must be seen not only as a problem, but also as a basis on which children can fulfill their rights. When they declare that work allows them "to be somebody in life," they are expressing the fact that only children who are not completely dependent on adults have the power to effectively reclaim their rights. If they can be productive and actively participate in the economy, it will be easier for them to gain respect from others and overcome their marginalized and powerless position.

Active and Creative Participation

If we do not include the right to work in the overall rights of children, we will be continuing to treat children as beneficiaries of our benevolence and impeding them from emancipating themselves as social subjects. The right to work does not signify an obligation to work or justify the exploitation of children, nor does it resolve all their problems. What it does try to do is strengthen the social position of those children who are already working or who want to work, and facilitate their decision about the conditions under which to accept work. It is a question of establishing labor rights and regulations that guarantee the promotion of child labor, along with all the necessary protective mechanisms.

According to Giangi Schibotto, who has studied this issue in Peru, children feel that work allows them "the assumption of an effective, not merely symbolic, role in society: sharing problems and responsibilities with the family, the neighborhood, the community, the insertion of class in the contradictions of the system; a maturity distinct from that which brings these children to reach unsuspected levels of autonomy; their active and creative participation in the struggle for change." Work can recover children "as authentic and not fictitious subjects, thus questioning a dominant model of childhood that, in exchange for supposed overprotection, forces the minor into a complete dependence on adults and a total exteriorizing of the social processes."

Work is a Game

In modern society, with cynical pragmatism as a driving force that reduces our function to the reproduction of this structure, we have to some great degree lost "the capacity to anticipate the future, to live the possible as real and the real as contingent in other words, as possible but not necessary," said Alejandro Barrata in a recent speech given in Bolivia. "That is to say, something that is similar but that can be different."

It is virtually only children who still insist on "this capacity of projection, of a critique of reality, as well as a memory of the past. In other words, the presence of our cultural roots in the collective imagination. Children, however small they may be, are much older than adults. We adults are forty, fifty, sixty years old, while children are thousands of years old because it is through stories, dreams and imagination that they continue to be carriers of myths, not as a virtual reality, but rather as a truth of our cultural identity."

Children imagine a life in which work, play and studies are not contradictory or exclusive of each other. They are not surprised to find that cultures exist that practice and value work in a completely different way than what we know and take to be normal in "modern" societies. Rural cultures like those in the Andean region, where work, in addition to being valued as something useful, also has a playful character.

A Place for Children

"On the job, there is competition between people, between teams. Work is accompanied by song, and even dance, smiles and bets. At work, people make fun of each other, imitating and dramatizing the roles assigned them. It can be an occasion for recreation, for improvisation. In a balanced family, children know that work is entertaining, like a game, a useful game. Shared work is affection." That's how Alejandro Ortiz Rescaniere put it in a study he did on child laborers in Champacocha, Peru.

In a number of countries in America, we can observe that peasant children experience distinct social relations in which work, play and learning are all intermixed. A child of 5 or 6, says Ortiz Rescaniere, "begins to work as if it were a game, and later demands of his parents a space so that his or her play is transformed into work. It is true that parents wait for their young children to start producing, but it is also the case that, beginning at age 10, they accept that they have progressive economic autonomy."

In addition to conceding autonomy to children for their economic activity, it is an extended practice in Andean zones to concede to children property as well as a certain number of cattle or rows in cultivated areas. They receive these at distinct moments in their lives, moments that are culturally and ritually established. These practices are indicators that a social recognition of children's labor exists, expressed in the construction of "a patrimony from childhood," separated from that of the parents and other siblings. We can understand this patrimony as a specific social form of concretizing and defining the place of children as subjects of their rights," an element of great importance for children's autonomy and participation.

Any conclusions? One fundamental one. Work can be an enriching element in children's development. The imagination of working children in Central America contains much more creativity and realism than the policies whose only goal is to eradicate child labor.

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