One of my worst fears as a kid was being sent to a boarding school as a punishment for not behaving. That threat was the only effective weapon against parental exasperation my mother could use when my brother and I were driving her crazy. She knew it would always do the trick.
I still remember the day she used the boarding school threat in front of a family friend, who promptly added “no, not to a boarding school, mom will force you to find a job and go to work every day.” We went silent – more fascinated by such thought than actually scared – and my mother did too. It took her a good 20 seconds to react by saying in a very serious tone: “no, what kind of parents would do that? Children should not work.”
Children should not work. I have always thought the same. After all, children, at least the lucky ones who were born and raised in wealthy Europe as I was, have a long list of both institutionalized and commonly recognized rights nobody would or should ever dare question. They have the right to receive an education, to follow their vocational orientation, to decide what they want to study and what they want to become. They even have the right to play, as this activity is crucial for the development of their personalities.
This is why I was a bit puzzled when I received a press release from a prominent charity whose activities I had often covered. Terre des Hommes (TdH), which supports children rights in the developing world, was publicly calling for the International Labour Organization (ILO) to invite representatives from networks of child workers to the Global Child Labour Conference which will be kick-started on May 10 in the Hague.
While it made perfect sense to me that a conference on a particular social category could not exclude its representatives, I was not familiar with the concept of NAT’s networks, which represent child and adolescent workers – “niños y adolescentes trabajadores” in Spanish – in some Latin American countries.
At first I found the idea of what sounded to me like labour unions for kids a bit disturbing. It took me a while to digest it and to go dig deeper into the issue. I am now glad I did as a better look at what NAT’s are about made me change my mind.
TdH president Raffaele Salinari said that “NAT's, in their different articulations, have defended child workers’ rights with some remarkably advanced proposals for several years.” A quick look at some NAT's websites was enough for me, indeed, to realize how useful these associations can be for children in disadvantaged world regions.
Professional training, leading to better opportunities for youth who are forced to work to help out their families, is among the main targets of NAT's in Latin America, where regional NAT's movement Molacnats’ action plays an important role in promoting government policies for the protection of child workers. Eradicating violence on the work-place and assisting child workers within their family environment are also among the organization’s targets.
NAT's movements are particularly active in Peru and across Latin America in general, but similar organizations operate also in Africa and in Asia. Supportive NGOs were also created in Europe, mainly in Italy and in Germany. They all try to improve the living and working conditions of children where child labour still cannot be removed.
Children should not work. I still believe societies must tend to the implementation of this principle. But there are places, at present, where children do work and this will not change until more complex development issues such as poverty are properly addressed.
In these places, parents wish they could send their kids to a boarding school and children would perceive this as a reward, not a punishment. By the time this opportunity is extended to their social environment, though, these kids will be adults. Meanwhile, they could use some support in the fights for their basic rights as workers, which are so difficult to defend even for their older colleagues.