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Stark choices on child labour

Child outside wooden building, Tanzania
20 July 2012

Across many countries in Southern Africa, primary education is neither universal nor mandatory. Add to this some of the highest HIV rates in the world and the result is thousands of orphans and vulnerable children (OVCs), child-headed households, and an incredibly complex, and dare I say compelling, contribution to the child labour debate.

Take the case of Swaziland - it has the highest HIV prevalence globally, 20% of the country's population is classified as orphaned or vulnerable and approximately 10 percent of households are now headed by children. The government is plagued by a fiscal crisis and in September 2011, schools failed to open when the government did not pay US10.8 million owed in fees for OVCs. While parliament questioned the value of using scarce funds towards universal education, the impact on Swaziland's youth hit hard - no school, no work, and no household income.

Susan Levine, an expert on children's rights at the University of Cape Town, argues that when children are removed from the workplace, childhood poverty and overall household insecurity deepens and that "the vacuum left by greater adherence to the law is not necessarily being filled by education or extramural activities". While this causality isn't new to anyone working in the field of ethical trading, there is a fundamental need for us to discuss the nuanced circumstances when a child is the household.

Recently I was asked to advise an African company on the following case. And this blog is my attempt to spur a debate about this situation which I have now seen is quite common in the non-food export sector in Southern Africa. The case: A fashion accessories company provides home-based work for over 500 rural women, exports its products to retailers the world over, is a social enterprise and a member of a fair trade organisation. Its success has enabled it to establish a sister NGO that provides critical services to the rural women who work for them, including payment of school fees, a mobile health clinic, HIV counselling and educators, and access to clean water. They have been approached by child-heads of vulnerable households and OVCs (i.e. children living with elderly relatives) asking for work. If they provide the work, they are breaking the national age laws but also bringing these households into their NGOs safety-nets, and therefore the non-working children in the household become eligible for school fee payments. From the perspective of local health experts, the future for OVCs running these households is bleak. They are the lost generation in the HIV crisis. But the children who depend on them would be given a new chance. Not only could they attend school, but there would be money in the home for food and other basic needs.

What is the right answer? While fair and ethical trading principles require adherence to national laws and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Fair trade also states that any involvement of children in the production of Fair Trade products (including learning a traditional art or craft) is always disclosed and monitored and does not adversely affect the children's well-being, security, educational requirements and need for play. The real question I am struggling with is in a country where the enforcement of working age is weak, is child labour still a grey area or does it become more stark?

As we have all seen, a good media exposé thrives on the exceptions and ignores the opportunity to showcase the benefits and long-term decrease in child labour cases that a situation like this might lead to. What should retailers and suppliers do? One concrete action I recommend is to audit fair trade suppliers, for the purposes of understanding context, especially when new to a country. As the ethical trading sector matures, the complex issues will be the ones to keep us on our toes and ensure continued relevance to the workers who we are doing this for. But I look to my ethical trading peers for help on this one.