Eradicating child labour and getting children (back) into school: a fight waged by teachers and their unions around the world

published 9 June 2023 updated 22 March 2024

“One of my pupils, aged 9, had already left for Kayes, 750 km from our village, to work in a gold mine, because of his family's economic situation. His father told me that if I could go to Kayes, he would allow his son to return to school. I borrowed money from my brothers (22,000 CFA francs, or 33 euros) to pay for the bus journey to Kayes. The boy was ready to go back to school. Today, he’s doing very well at school. I did this because these days, if you’re not educated, you’ve got nothing.” This testimony from Tiecoura Bagayoko, a 58-year-old Malian teacher at Faradje Bamaro school, is an inspiring example of the commitment and key role played by teachers and their unions through various projects to ensure that children go to and stay in school, not at work.

After his training on child labour by the Syndicat National de l’Education et de la Culture (SNEC) in 2015, Bagayoko also worked hard to bring three other children who had dropped out in 2021-2022 back to his school.

Across the globe, projects to combat child labour implemented by teachers’ unions with the support of Education International (EI) and its partners  [1] have enabled more than 11,000 children to escape exploitation: 5,869 former child workers have returned to school, while 5,643 children at risk of dropping out have continued their education.

These results were achieved by 26 EI-affiliated trade unions active in projects to combat child labour in 15 countries in less than eight years  [2]. However, these are only official figures, duly recorded, sometimes under difficult conditions. The real figures are undoubtedly higher.

EI President Susan Hopgood points out that “the eradication of child labour is one of Education International’s top priorities. It is widely recognised that the most effective way to eradicate child labour is to improve access to and the quality of education. Universal quality education can break the intergenerational cycles of poverty and household dependency on child labour.”

She also notes that, for more than ten years, in close collaboration with its member organisations, EI has involved heads of schools, teachers, parents and the wider community in projects that have a holistic approach and cover issues relating to the quality of teaching, school safety, professional ethics, inclusive education, gender equality, and the status and conditions of employment of teachers.

“I would like to thank and congratulate the teachers and their unions who, without ever giving up, day after day, through their projects to combat child labour, bring girls and boys back to school, enabling them to build a better future for themselves, their families, and their communities”, Hopgood concludes.

Developing child labour free zones

Most of the projects supported by EI and its partners involve developing child labour free zones. Trade union training for teachers in the target area is always one of the first steps in these projects. This training generally covers definitions of child labour, as well as better teaching approaches. Teachers also learn how to communicate better with the community on the subject of child labour.

After the training, many teachers say that they are able to distinguish between child labour, which harms the child’s schooling, health or development, and which is prohibited, and “socialising” work, light work that can be done by a child at home or nearby without any negative consequences.

In most cases, the unions extend this training to prominent figures in the community, such as representatives of town councils, traditional chiefs, and parents’ associations, so that they can support the teachers in implementing the project. One concrete example of this support is joint visits to the parents of children who have dropped out of school because of work, or whose schooling is being jeopardised by excessive workloads, in order to persuade them to change their behaviour.

Raising awareness at every level

Awareness-raising activities on the importance of education and work-related risks are carried out in the community. Anti-child labour clubs are often set up in schools in the target area. Pupils who are members of these clubs develop street theatre, poems and songs that address all the themes linked to children's rights, including the right to go to school in good conditions.

Awareness is also raised through radio broadcasts, articles in the press and the creation of billboards with messages against child labour, which are placed in strategic locations in the community. In several countries, the project has set up associations of mothers of schoolchildren, whose members play an important awareness-raising role in preventing girls in particular from dropping out of school. Special days are organised in the project area to commemorate important dates, such as the World Day Against Child Labour (12 June) or the Day of the African Child (16 June).

Opening the eyes of the authorities

The development of child labour free zones, limited to a few villages, is not an end in itself. Rather, the aim of these projects is to encourage authorities to take action, using methods developed by the teachers' unions. The free zone method also aims to place teachers and quality public education at the heart of solutions for the sustainable eradication of child labour. Numerous examples reported to EI show that authorities are following the lead of the unions thanks to this type of project.

In Togo, for example, the Fédération des syndicats de l'Éducation nationale (FESEN) has been developing a project in the canton of Kazaboua since 2019. “The FESEN project has had a major impact in the four schools selected in my canton, with a big improvement in the drop-out rate. I have therefore formed committees, raised awareness, and trained the heads of the ten other schools in the canton, so that they can follow the example” says Lanto Akaba-Abalo, head of this canton.

Moustapha Guitteye, Secretary General of SNEC, gives another example from Mali: “SNEC has created a ‘space for social dialogue’ in each of the villages where it is developing projects against child labour. This space includes representatives of the mayor, the local education authorities, pupils’ mothers’ associations, young people, teachers and school management committees. The members of these groups meet regularly to discuss the fight against child labour in their community, and they take the opportunity to address all the problems facing the school.” SNEC has shared the positive experience of its social dialogue spaces with the Malian government, which has drawn on their example to extend the process to 270 villages, he added.

Trade union projects help set up school canteens

In some of the poorest regions, malnutrition is a major factor in children dropping out of school. Some pupils arrive at school hungry in the morning, so they are not able to follow their lessons to the best of their ability, and some leave school halfway through the day and never come back. Many end up dropping out. Where national governments have not set up canteens in schools, trade union projects sometimes manage to mobilise local forces to meet this need.

This is the case in Malawi, where six school canteens have been created in the Chigudu area, out of the fifteen schools included in a project carried out over the past two years by EI member unions, the Teachers’ Union of Malawi (TUM) and the Private Schools Employees Union of Malawi (PSEUM). The canteens are organised by the schools, with the support of village chiefs. The food is served early in the morning, to encourage all pupils to arrive on time. This is the result of raising awareness of the importance of education and the momentum for education created by the project: the chiefs decided that the villages around the school would take turns to provide the food for the school food programme.

Social dialogue at the heart of the fight against child labour

One of the common features of the projects against child labour supported by EI is the strengthening of social dialogue, initially at local level and then at national level. Including local authorities in the initial project training means that we can count on their support in raising awareness of the importance of education. In countries such as Malawi, Uganda, and Mali, local regulations are even adopted by traditional chiefs or other local authorities to punish parents who fail to send their children to school, with penalties ranging from fines to exclusion from community solidarity mechanisms.

Preventing child trafficking

The momentum for education generated by these projects goes beyond the fight against child labour. In many cases, child trafficking can be prevented by the vigilance of all those involved in the community.

This is the case in Togo, where awareness campaigns carried out as part of the FESEN project in two communes in the Central Region have greatly contributed to a drop in the number of children trafficked from these communes to Nigeria.

In 2021, in Burkina Faso, Balkissa, a 7-year-old child enrolled in the first year of school in the village of Doh, escaped trafficking thanks to a trade union project set up by EI affiliates. Her aunt, who lived in Côte d’Ivoire, wanted to take her to Côte d’Ivoire, where she works on the plantations. Balkissa risked being exploited for labour, like many West African children trafficked to Côte d’Ivoire.

“She didn’t want to leave her parents or the school, and her parents didn’t want her to leave either, but in our tradition, an aunt has certain rights over her nieces, and the parents can’t oppose her wishes”, explains Amidou Bako, headmaster of the Doh school and local coordinator of the project.

He goes on to say that fortunately “Balkissa’s mother, powerless in the face of this situation, approached the head of the school mothers’ association set up by our project. She in turn alerted the school’s anti-child labour club and the village committee to combat child labour, which had also been set up by our project. We were able to mobilise the entire village community to put pressure on the aunt. As a result, Balkissa was able to stay in our village and continue her education”.

Some early marriages of young girls can also be prevented thanks to the increased vigilance of the teachers and communities involved in this type of project.

Trained teachers take lasting action

Through regular contact with its affiliates, EI monitors project areas, sometimes years after all funding has ceased. Oftentimes, trained teachers continue to combat school drop-out and child labour, sometimes many years after a project has ended.

In Albania, for example, a teacher from Levan explains that she and her colleagues today continue to implement the methods for combating child labour that they learned at trade union seminars in 2010.

The enthusiasm for education generated by the development of areas free of child labour generally leads to an improvement in educational results in the schools targeted by the projects.

In many cases, these projects also help teachers’ unions to improve their image with the public and the authorities, and even to recruit new members. A study by EI and the Algemene Onderwijsbond (AOb The Netherlands) published in 2020 revealed significant increases in the number of union members in the target areas, ranging from 23% in Uganda to 47% in Nicaragua.

1. ^

Principally AOb and Mondiaal FNV of The Netherlands, the Fair Childhood Foundation of the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft in Germany, Hivos and the Stop Child Labour coalition.

2. ^

Albania, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, India, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Nicaragua, Senegal, Togo, Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda, Zimbabwe.