Last week saw yet more stories of child labour in the international press. Two reports published within a day of each other from very different parts of the world caught my eye and made me think about what it is that we're actually trying to achieve by limiting children in the work place?
ETI's new Base Code Guidance: Child labour - practical guidance for brands and retailers.
ABC27 reporting from Harrisburg PA, USA first ran a story about the new legislation in front of state legislators looking to review current child labour laws.
House Bill 927 addresses issues for anyone under 18 years of age. Scott Robinette, Deputy Secretary for Safety and Labor was reported as saying: "It would govern the employment of minors, their hours, work permit requirements and their participation in entertainment."
One major change would be to increase the number of hours that children under of 18 are allowed to work, from 44 hours to 48 hours a week. The intention, clarified by additional comments from the bill's author Sheryl Delozier, was to give kids the option to work more hours if they want to.
Several thousand miles away, Timeslive in South Africa reported on an incident on a farm in Rustenburg where a 14 year old worker had died in an industrial accident. Underage, Molefe Mogale‘s hand was chopped off while he was operating farm machinery - he died in hospital the next day.
In a statement about the incident Solly Phetoe, provincial secretary of Congress of SA Unions said: "The reality is we have underage people working on farms. They should be in school. The provincial department of labour is not investigating any of this."
The fact that Molefe's accident and subsequent death were the result of operating farm machinery on a farm he was employed on dispels the common image of small-scale farmers eking out a living from a couple of family fields
According to South Africa's Basic Conditions of Employment Act it is illegal to employ a child under the age of 15. Children under 18 may be employed, but cannot do dangerous work or work meant for an adult.
As tragic and meaningless as Molefe's story is, it does highlight the more obvious arguments around the use of child labour.
Child labour is more common in less developed countries, it is a function of poverty and Western values of protected and carefree childhood are unrealistic in such circumstances. Yet the fact that Molefe's accident and subsequent death were the result of operating farm machinery on a farm he was employed on also goes some way to dispel the common image of small-scale farmers eking out a living from a couple of family fields, forced to include all members of the family into working the land.
This same idea - that child labour is somehow acceptable if it's in the family context - is also being used in US to pass the House Bill 927: Delozier was also reported as saying children may want to work longer to help their families.
So is the prospect of increased household income the driver here, as US and other developed countries face recession and income constraints on an unprecedented scale, and efforts to protect childhood can be pushed to the background?
As the economic ‘recovery' in the West falters, are we prepared to sacrifice our children's education and learning to bring more money into our households to try to maintain our consumerist lifestyles?
It is not just the modern ideal of a safe and carefree childhood that is the issue here. There are practical reasons that child labour laws exclude minors from certain tasks. Children are not as physically strong or - contrary to popular myth - as dextrous as adults; they don't have the experience and therefore the thought processes to realise the dangers inherent in particular work tasks. Childhood is the chance we all get to develop our understanding of the world around us and acquire skills, both physical and mental, to deal with the adult world.
A safe childhood may look very different from Africa to USA but putting more emphasis on the earning potential of minors will not help promote childhood as a foundation for better adult lives.
To date, a case of murder and child labour has been opened in Rustenburg but no action has been brought and no arrests are anticipated so it appears there will be no justice for Molefe.