With poverty widely accepted as one of the root causes of children’s harmful work, could measures to raise incomes be an important part of the solution?
In many developing countries, children from poorer households are more likely to work, and more likely to do hazardous work. In Ghana, for example, UNICEF reports that exposure to hazardous work is almost four times higher in the poorest households than in the richest ones (pdf).
However, these correlations could be due to a range of factors. To understand if increasing incomes could really reduce children’s work, especially hazardous work, evidence of causality is required.
Focusing on agriculture, where children’s work is most common, the International Cocoa Initiative literature review (pdf) looks at the impacts of three triggers for income change:
- External negative shocks, such as drought or farmer illness that decrease incomes
- External positive shocks such as increased yields or price rises that increase incomes
- Social policies designed to increase incomes or ease pressure on household budgets, such as cash transfers or school subsidies.
While not all work by children is necessarily harmful, some is. In agricultural settings, which are the focus of this review, children’s work often involves carrying heavy loads, using sharp tools, or being exposed to agrochemicals. These tasks are classified as hazardous work as they can have long term negative consequences on children’s health and development.
What can we learn from shocks that decrease incomes?
Shocks that decrease household incomes generally increase children’s work. Faced with crop loss, a poor harvest, or a drop in prices, children’s work is often used as a buffer to cope with the challenging circumstances. In one example from cocoa-growing communities in Côte d’Ivoire, a 10 per cent drop in cocoa prices led meant children were more likely to work, more likely to be ill/injured in the past month and less likely to attend school.
These findings are especially worrying in the context of COVID19 and the impact on household incomes. The World Bank has forecast a recession in sub-Saharan Africa due to the impacts of the pandemic, while recent surveys in Nigeria and South Africa found that, since lockdown, over 50 per cent of respondents said their incomes had decreased.
What about shocks that increase incomes?
Studies of shocks that increase incomes show a more mixed picture. The effects of increased yield, higher prices, or favourable exchange rates go in different directions, depending on the context. Out of 11 studies that examined the effects of positive income shocks, only four found unambiguous reductions in children’s work. In five cases, their work increased. When households saw the potential of these shocks to bring higher returns, many invested in farm productivity, increasing the demand for child work.
Factors such as asset ownership can play an important role in mediating the effects of income shocks. Studies of price rises in Pakistan and Uganda found increases in child work, but not among the children of landowners.
Overall, the findings suggest that whenever the value of agricultural activities increases, there is potential for children’s work to increase as well.
Can policies and programmes to increase incomes protect children from harmful work?
The review also examined a range of social policies designed either to support incomes directly – such as cash transfers – or to reduce the burden on household budgets, for example by subsidising school costs.
The results of these interventions on child work were also mixed. Just over half of the policies or programmes reviewed caused child work to decrease. Others resulted in mixed impacts or none, while a minority caused child work to increase.
The most evidence was available on the impact of cash transfers on child work, which emerge as one of the more promising types of intervention to increase incomes and reduce children’s exposure to harmful work. Both conditional and unconditional cash transfers generally led to reductions in child work, although impacts were often different for girls and boys. Boys were less likely to undertake paid work (often shifting to unpaid work on family farms or businesses instead), while girls often reduced their participation in household chores.
To help mitigate the social and economic impacts of COVID19, countries are rapidly expanding the use of social protection programmes, including cash transfers. This move looks promising as a way of helping households to weather economic shocks, as well as protecting children from harmful work.
A few income support policies caused child work to increase, including children’s work considered harmful. This happened for two main reasons:
- Households invested in farms or businesses, where children ended up working, or children substituted for adults who moved to a new business activity.
- In other cases, the income increase appears to have been too small to make up for the income lost when children stop working. In one example from the Philippines, children were eligible for a cash transfer conditional on school attendance, but since the amount provided was not enough to cover school-related costs, children’s work increased to make up the shortfall.
Even when children’s work (including potentially harmful work) increased, income support policies usually brought other benefits for children, such as increased access to schooling, improved nutrition and material wellbeing, highlighting the importance of accounting for the costs and benefits of child work together.
A new perspective
The evidence brought together in this review illustrates a complex set of linkages between income change and children’s work. While showing that drops in incomes are likely to increase children’s work, including harmful work, rises in income will not necessarily cause children to work less. Equally, while policies to increase incomes can be effective in reducing children’s work in some cases, without careful design and attention to context and gender, they can also cause children’s involvement in harmful work to rise.
The findings of this study show that children work for a variety of reasons and that the decision to work or not is influenced by multiple factors, not just income. While poverty reduction interventions must form part of efforts to protect children from harmful work, effective interventions must account for the many drivers and benefits related to children’s work.
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