Disputing Child Labour Globally: Legitimation Struggles in the Past and Present

Event Reports

Is there a correct approach to child labour? What are (de)legitimation strategies of those who are dealing with it on a daily basis such as the children themselves, parents, and employers? The international conference Disputing Child Labour Globally: Legitimation Struggles in the Past and Present (9 – 10 November 2022) at the NETZ/ Centre for Nanointegration (CENIDE)  invited scholars to look at the historical development of child labor and its conventions by taking a closer look at global cooperation and the struggle over rules and norms as well as the (de)legitimation of child labour.

The historical perspective, though often forgotten, is essential. Looking at legacies of normative baggage that have been established and carried through history reveals how long-term developments and fluctuations over time compare to child labour conventions today. Since in-depth analyses of child labour are scarce and the studies on the Global South are even fewer, the conference sought to bring existing research together and compare opponents, defendants, and disputes of child labour both diachronically and synchronically. Other major aims were to move the discussion in child labour discourses beyond the dichotomy of the Global North and South and to diversify research to shed light on entanglements and circulations transnationally and over time. The various panels covered topics such as child labour conventions as well as less visible forms of cooperation, e.g., between social movements and the individual biographies that come with them.

Marianne Dahlén’s paper focused on the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) minimum age conventions and several studies she has conducted on the issue. Her dissertation, focusing on the period from 1919 to 1973, verified that by the end of the campaign the transformations in societies during the century had made ‘the child labor problem’ an issue mainly for the developing world and with different conditions and implications in many respects. The content and ‘grammar’ of the minimum age campaign was however never properly challenged. Cornelia Ulbert presented her empirical research on the ILO as knowledge-broker and analyzed why a new standard was adopted, when from a legal point of view, standard setting on minimum age seemed to be completed within the framework of the ILO and why it focused on ‘worst forms of child labor’.Antje Ruhmanns project ‘Dialogue Works’ is a global campaign to anchor children’s participation sustainably within civil society and to advocate for its institutionalization within political processes on local, national, and global levels. The plenary discussion made obvious that there is an inherent need for better strategies supporting children who need to work.

Irene Rizzini presented data about child labour worldwide, comparing several regions, especially Brazil. She highlighted the effects of Covid-19 on increasing risks of Child Labour. Marcela Vignoli gave a talk about child labour as a concern of feminists and government officials in the case of Argentina from the 19th to 20th century. The final panel saw Heidi Morrison presenting a global interconnectedness approach to child labour with (post)colonial Egypt as her case study. Morrison claimed that under the British Protectorate in the early twentieth century, Britain made meager investments in the education of children and in protective legislation for them, as child labour was Egypt’s comparative advantage – something Europe benefited actively from.

The keynote by Kathryn Kish Sklar, Distinguished Professor of History Emerita at the State University of New York on ‘The Changing Place of Child Labour in Florence Kelley’s Reform Agenda, 1882-1932’ ended the first day of the conference with stimulating and productive discussions. The lecture by Sklar was devoted to Florence Kelley, a leading American reformer and activist against child labour who advocated for child labour reform. Kelley lobbied Congress to pass the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916, which banned the sale of products created by factories employing children aged thirteen and under.

The second day of the conference began with an interesting talk by Ben White on colonial responses to the employment of children and debates that led up to the first ordinance regulating child labour in the Dutch East Indies in 1925. Using this particular example as a way of illustrating the different colonial responses to the ILO conventions, he demonstrated how adaptations to local conditions in the colonies involved constructions and redefinitions of ‘childhood’, ‘(child) labor’, ‘workplace’ and even ‘day- and nighttime’. Pedro Goulart presented an analysis of three cases concerned with child labour and its respective regulation in Portuguese colonies. Reviewing the rhetoric around attempts to delegitimize child labour and the existing conditions, Goulart presented Portugal as a comparatively late adherent to international legislation. Elisabeth Anderson’s paper, building on findings from her 2021 book Agents of Reform,offered important insights into the role played by individual middle- and upper-class actors for successful policies on child labour regulation. Using case studies with two-pair comparisons and a catalogue of relational strategies employed by these actors in their attempts to rally for legislation curbing child labour, she illustrated how it was the interaction of micro-level actors with larger macro-structures that facilitated the ratification of these laws.

Together the three panelists discussed the highly interdisciplinary nature of child labour research and its intricate connections to other fields, as well as on the complex question of terminology and where to draw the distinction between child labour and child work. Two central aspects that were emphasized and that helped to build an argumentative bridge to discussions of the first conference day were the need to pay attention to and deconstruct underlying assumptions and discourses on both childhood and child labour, as well as concerns about the potential generalizability of models and their application to processes and regions in the Global South.

The sixth panel dealt with historical opponents and defendants of child labor in Asia. Boris Gorshkov discussed imperial and soviet cases of child labour and illustrated how child labour in the Russian countryside was not only a widely accepted common practice, but an integral aspect of preparing children for adult life. Gorshkov concluded his paper with a reference to the importance of developmental psychology and neurology for (future) research on child labour (de-)legitimation, as this also yields important insights into the occurrence of work accidents that can directly be traced to children’s developmental stage. Following the panel, a lively discussion ensued about the discrepancies between existing (national and regional) discourses on childhood and child labour (de-)legitimation, and the actual practices that were employed. The audience debated how drastic changes in state systems and socio-political context – such as the Russian Revolution – although not necessarily leading to the abolition of child labour, still had a large impact and altered its character from an individual to a collective endeavor complemented by schooling.

The day closed with two compelling roundtable debates focusing on comparison and entanglement as well as global approaches to child labour. The roundtable debate ‘Comparison and Entanglement: Promises and Pitfalls for a Global History of Child Labour (Focus on Methods)’, led by Peter S. Stearns, Monika Bàar, Ben White and others, discussed the logical approaches towards studying past and present legitimation disputes over child labour. There’s the general global thrust from the ILO and other sources, national policy variants, different company and association reactions and the children’s voices themselves, as introduced by the conference, although those are tough to handle historically, in terms of evidence. There is also a need for greater attention to the adult family members in contributing to patterns of child labour.

The second roundtable began with Gianluca Ferrittu presenting empirical results from his research on child labour determinants and outcomes in Europe. Using a comparative approach, he showed a decline in child employment rates in various European countries after 1950. According to the findings of his study, this development could be linked directly to agricultural transitions taking place during this period, such as the adoption of certain new types of technology and the introduction of irrigation systems. Pointing to existing problems for current and future research, Ferrittu explained the need for including a longitudinal perspective, the difficulty posed by the scarcity of comparable data on child labor, as well as the previously discussed problem of terminology/definitions when talking about child labour or child work. The roundtable discussed with the audience possible approaches to writing an inclusive, global history of child labour, since there hardly seem to be any truly generalizable findings. Nina Schneider presented some of the key findings from her book project on child labor opponents and their campaigns in the global perspective, which uses an entanglement approach. The roundtable emphasized the need to reconcile macro- and micro-level actors and structures in one’s research and pay attention to global entanglements and the mutual awareness and exchange that existed between actors on the transnational as well as regional scale.


Event report by Sabrina Pischer (pischer@gcr21.uni-due.de)

Event page, photo galleries

Research project 'Child Labour'