Worlds of Education

Interview | Susan Hopgood: “In the fight against child labour the key to progress is to involve unions”.

published 12 June 2020 updated 12 June 2020
written by:

On the World Day Against Child Labour, Education International President Susan Hopgood gives insights into the work of education unions to eradicate child labour, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on vulnerable children, the lessons we have learned from previous crises and the way forward.

Could Covid-19 reverse steady progress made towards the eradication of child labour?

Evidence shows that crises with high economic impact (whether conflict, war, natural disaster, or pandemic) worsen the prevalence of child labour.

Marginalised groups have been most severely affected by Covid-19. So there is indeed a great concern that the pandemic will push into child labour children from minorities, indigenous peoples, internally displaced, refugees, migrants, children with disabilities, children from single or child headed households. Families from rural areas and the millions dependent on the informal economy will also be hard hit. Over 60% of workers worldwide are in the informal economy. Many have already lost their daily source of income due to the lockdowns imposed by governments in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

We know that poverty is the main driver of child labour. The UN Secretary General has indicated that between 42 and 66 million children under the age of ten could fall into extreme poverty because of the lockdown. This adds to the estimated 386 million children who already live in extreme poverty, which includes 152 million who are officially involved in child labour.

What were the lessons learnt from EI’s previous work on HIV-AIDS and Ebola?

EI gained considerable experience of supporting member organisations in HIV-Aids and Ebola affected countries in the past. During the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016, over 5 million learners were affected by school closures. At the time, there were few initiatives of homebased learning. Things have been different with Covid-19 when developing countries acted quickly to implement distance learning schemes through TV and radio in countries where internet is not reliable, and where most households do not have electricity, let alone computers or cell phones.

Girls were disproportionately affected by Ebola as fewer girls returned to school once the outbreak was over. They became trapped in the domestic sphere, taking on caring roles. School closures reinforced traditional gender roles with girls mostly staying at home and boys performing income generating activities outside of the home.

In severely Ebola-affected villages in Sierra Leone, school enrolment rate for girls dropped. Sierra Leone also saw a sharp rise in adolescent pregnancies and, according to children who were interviewed, this was directly linked to school closures. Children in isolation do not see their friends and are disconnected from support networks.

As schools reopen after Covid-19, education unions involved in the EI programme for the eradication of child labour will pay particular attention to ensuring gender responsive re-enrolment measures are put in place.

Unions will also call for social protection mechanisms. The HIV-Aids tragedy showed that family separations and the mortality rate of care givers made children vulnerable to poverty, child labour and abuse. Access to school provides children with security and a sense of belonging. Schooling also provides them with the competencies to secure decent jobs later in life.

In the 13 countries where EI has child labour eradication programmes, do education unions expect all children to return to school?

It is still too early to say. The “Child Labour Free Zones” projects have had a tremendous impact. In Albania for example, the project addressed the deep-rooted discrimination and exclusion faced by Roma and Egyptian minorities. In Mali, headmasters from the 11 schools of the Ouroun project, reported 1,555 school dropouts in the school year 2013/2014. For 2018/2019, no dropouts were recorded.

The acute poverty resulting from the Covid-19 lockdown will make it more difficult for poor families to cover school fees, tuition, uniforms, transport… the direct and indirect costs of education. We know that even occasional child labour has an adverse effect on school attendance and performance.

Children and families also lose the habit of going to school. Desperate caregivers resort to negative survival strategies, including child labour and child marriage. Children are at risk of forced labour and of being trafficked to work, for instance, in sweatshops. Rural families move to cities.

Child Labour regulations are less likely to be enforced by governments during economic hardship. Also there are concerns that governments are pressured by employers to weaken labour laws. When social protections and social services are reduced, and inspections are fewer, child labour is even easier for unscrupulous employers.

Are poverty and the global economic recession we are witnessing the only cause of child labour?

Poverty itself is a consequence of a system where economic profit takes priority over human well-being. Poverty is a result of interconnected factors such as inequity, discrimination, segregation,colonialism, lack of quality education, prevalence of informality and limited access to decent work, weak involvement of unions and peoples’ organisations in decision making.

Vulnerable individuals and families who have lost their jobs including in the informal economy, in urgent need of funds for household survival but without savings and limited access to protection and State support, are likely to fall prey to lenders providing credit on terms constituting debt bondage. Criminal networks are also actively using this global crisis to exploit vulnerabilities to increase the financial profit that forced labour and human trafficking generates.

What are EI and its member organisations doing to fight child labour?

We will continue and strengthen a dual approach of organising and advocacy. Locally, teachers and headmasters are trained together with all community education stakeholders. The purpose is to understand the laws connecting compulsory education and minimum age for work, but also to make school attractive and to convince parents that school is also a place of social learning. We are seeing some good results in terms of changing the social perception of child labour. At the inception of the programme, in the village, child labour is considered normal, after a few years of awareness raising child labour is no longer accepted and school attendance is the new normal.

The advocacy is led by EI at international and national levels to convince governments and donor communities to invest in quality public education. In the local communities, the investments translate into more teachers, including female teachers who act as role models. More teachers and additional classrooms are needed to lower the teacher to pupil ratio. Improved sanitation facilities, with separate toilets and changing rooms for girls - so that they do not miss schools because of menstruation - also improve schools.

EI supports its member organisations to advocate for a strict implementation of the laws on child labour and compulsory education. Education unions will closely monitor both enrolment and retention. Psychological trauma counselling must be a focus with specific training for teachers and principals. The EI programme includes a component on positive school climate, non-violent behaviour, and student-centred teaching. All children, especially those from marginalised communities, those released from child labour and those with a learning gap must feel welcome by every teacher.

Employers and local authorities also have a role to play, to ensure that laws are respected and there is zero tolerance for child labour in the communities. In the fight against child labour the key to progress is to also involve unions in the strategies.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.