Working Children Get Organised

Summary: International policy debates on child
labour issues have recently witnessed
the emergence of a new set of factors
- working childrens organisations from
Africa, Asia and Latn America. Many of
these organisations have a long history
of working with working children to
help them improve their lot in some
cases over 20 years
International policy debates on child labour issues have recently
witnessed the emergence of a new set of factors
- working childrens organisations from Africa, Asia and Latn America.
Many of these organisations have a long history of working with
working children to help them improve their lot in some cases over 20
years. It is however. only in the last two years that working
children's organisations have become visible in international debates
and have participated in conferences and discussions on child labour
issues, in their own countries and internationally

Althongh the Unitcd Nations Convention on the Rights oh the Child (
1989) confers on children and young people the right to participate
in decisions about issues that affect them and the right to organise.
the involvement of working children's organisations in international
chiId labour debates has been extremely controversial. It is often
charged that the children concerned are not really representative of
child workers, particularly those involved in the most hazardous and
exploitative forms of work; or that they are manipulated by adults.

This paper is intended to inform discussion of working children's
organisations. It presents five organisations and movements examining
their history, their philisophical and political orientations and the
kinds of activities in which they are involved. The focus is in the
organisations in their local and national context, rather than in the
international debates where they have attracted so much attention.
Wherever possible, the voices of working children themselves
illustrate wha participate (in in these organisations has meant to

1. Introduction

Preparations for the drafting of the International Labour
Organisation's (ILO) forthcoming Convention on the Elimination of the
Worst Forms of Child Labour were marked by a v igorous and historical
attempt by organised working children and youth2 to take part in the
international decision-making process.

The experience left the children feeling that - nearly a decade on
from the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child -
there is still a considerable gap between the rhetoric about the
right of children to participate in decisions affecting them and
their ability to do so. Some feel that they have not really been
listened to, others that, though they have been heard, their views
have not really been taken into account.

Their movements represent tens of thousands of child workers in
Africa, Asia and Latin America and have a long collective history of
fighting the exploitation and abuse of working children and of
protecting their members against abuse. A number are playing an
important role in their own countries in the development of
children's rights. Some are already contributing systematically to
the formulation of local and even national policy.

In their first intervention in the international debate about a new
ILO Convention - at the Amsterdam Conference on Child Labour in 1997
- delegates from the working children's movements caused something of
a stir. Some adult delegates imagined that the children would put
their views across in the form of a song or a theatrical sketch but
they spoke to the issues with great confidence and adroitness,
holding their own with government labour ministers, trades union
leaders and captains of industry. It was hard to believe that they
came from remote villages and city slums. They presented a list of 10
demands worked out by their organisations and movements in 33
countries and adopted at a little-publicised First International
Meeting of Working Children held in Kundapur, India, in 1996. With
the notable exception of Brazil's National Movement of Street Boys
and Girls (MNMMR) - which took a markedly different position on child
labour from the others - the declaration produced at Kundapur had
enjoyed unanimous backing.

The first of the demands the young workers presented in Amsterdam was
for "recognition of our problems, initiatives, proposals and our
process of organisation". The other demands underpinned the core
position that, because their lives and those of their families
depended on their working, they wanted the right to work.
Governments, they said, should seriously tackle the causes of child
work - primarily poverty. In the meantime, they should regulate
rather than ban children's work, giving them access to dignified
employment, attuned not to their age but their personal development,
properly remunerated and with working hours that leave ample room for
education and leisure needs. Governments should also make sure
working children get quality schooling and occupational training
adapted to their lives as workers. None of the young delegates
regarded work as a substitute for school, but as the means by which
children, given the impoverishment of their families, might get an
education and be contributors rather than dependants. Once the
economic compulsions of child work were removed, children ought to
have the choice of whether to work or not. Finally the movements
wanted to be consulted in all decisions concerning working children
at local, national and international levels.

While they supported a new Convention that would stamp out extreme
forms of exploitation- - use of children in slavery, prostitution,
drug-trafficking - they wanted to be sure that it was both drawn up
and implemented in ways that really would serve the best interests of
the children involved, improving their quality of life, along with
that of their families and communities. They urged that, at each step
in implementing the new Convention, the children likely to be
affected ought to be be fully consulted and argued that this would
happen most effectively where working children were organised.

A mix of factors made it difficult for them to get their case across
to their satisfaction. Their demands for access to appropriate
beneficial work, twinned with an international assault on poverty,
put them at odds with trades unionists and governments who argue for
the retention of ILO's Minimum Age Convention 138. With some
important exceptions, Convention 138 seeks to remove children from
the work-force on the basis of age. Underlying this opposition of
views is the challenge that organised working children present to
conventional ideas about childhood.

The children's movements are leading exponents of the participation
and brganisation of children. Most came into being because of the
lack of concerted action by the state, or anyone else, to provide the
most basic protection or development opportunities to the children of
poor neighbourhoods. What the movements have done is build on
children's ability to help protect themselves against the physical
and psychological traumas that poverty and social exclusion expose
them to. They have gone further, enabling children in varying degrees
to become protagonists for their rights and for social change rather
than victims of poverty. In Brazil, for example, the National
Movement of Street Boys and Girls (MNMMR) has played a major role in
exposing the killing of children by death squads. The members of
Bhima Sangha - a union of working children in Karnataka, India have
taken effective action against employers who exploit and abuse child

In itself, membership of a movement provides elements of protection,
access to information and opportunities for personal development that
are generally unavailable to unorganised child workers or, for that
matter, children in conventional schools. So the young delegates'
intervention in Amsterdam was not only the first of its kind, it was
also being made by young people who had benefited from a new kind of
developmental opportunity. They came confident that they could
contribute valuable ideas about the best interests of working
children and, if policy-makers were now concerned with their
protection, wanting a say in what form such protection would take.

Perhaps the major problem the movements faced in engaging in the
child labour debate was that little was known of them. As the Head of
the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, remarked
in a meeting with delegates from the movements, it was something very
new for policy-makers to encounter children and young people
demanding a say in their decision-making processes.

The representatives of young workers' movements gained some important
recognition at Amsterdam, most notably from ministers in the Dutch
Government, but relatively few ministers or union leaders sought them
out. Furthermore, the reactions of some adult delegates hardly
augured well for child-centred implementation of the new Convention.
Some implied that the young delegates were being told what to say by
adults who had their own agenda. Others said that, as they were
mainly in their late teens, they had no right to speak for children.3
Yet others feared that they would play into the hands of unscrupulous
employers who would exploit their position to oppose the new
Convention. The young representatives felt they had little chance to
explain what their movements really had to offer and that trades
unions - which should have been their allies - were against them.
They feared they would not be given representation at the ensuing
International Conference on Child Labour in Oslo. In the event, their
representation in Oslo was reduced to three delegates (from eight in
Amsterdam), although a last minute widening of the door by the newly-
elected Norwegian government allowed a representative of working
children to address the conference.

Anyone observing the intensive deliberations of the young delegates
immediately before and during the Amsterdam Conference could see that
they were not manipulated. These were meetings at which they prepared
their strategies, allocated tasks among themselves and planned their
interventions in what was a highly unfamiliar and sophisticated
conference arena. Although most of the delegates had experienced
great hardship, and some of them abuse, they appeared very balanced
young people, affirming, if anything, the newly emerging insight that
being active participants in society is - more than a right - greatly
beneficial to children's personal development.~ They conducted
themselves in a dedicated and thoroughly democratic manner,
reconciling differences with considerable skill, drawing on the adult
facilitators present for additional information and practical support
and occasionally checking their interventions when they threatened to
interfere with their work. Every now and then, they would break the
tension with a joke, or a game or a rousing song. Their concentrated
energy often left the accompanying adults flagging.


This report offers a brief but overdue introduction to the various
working children's movements and reveals some of their many
achievements as evidence of the valuable part they have to play in
the battle against the systematic exploitation and abuse of chilaren.
The report focuses on the National Movement of Street Boys and Girls
in Brazil (MNMMR), the African Movement of Working Children and
Youth, the Movement of Working Children of Latin America and the
Caribbean, and the BalMazdoorSangh and Bhima Sangha in India. They
are not the only organisations fostering the participation and
organisation of children, but they are major players who are in turn
inspiring the development of other movements. I have direct knowledge
of the MNMMR and on the basis of that and available documentation,
along with interviews and observation of the movements in Amsterdam
and Oslo, I have tried to convey how the movements themselves
understand what they are doing. In some of the accounts I have
highlighted the role of a particular organisation in the development
of a national or regional movement. I have done so to allow for some
richness of detail and illustration in what is a very brief
introductory account. The cost of such a brief report has been not
paying tribute to some of the other major contributions made by other
people and organisations.

The story of the development of the participation and organisation of
working children in the South begins some 30 years ago. It develops
in the context of govemments pursuing national and international
economic policies that have resulted in the social abandonment of
millions of children, along with their families and whole
communities. In many parts of the world, the process has been marked
by large and rapid migrations of people from neglected rural areas to
overcrowded, unserviced urban slums; the weakening and breaking up of
communities; the undermining of families' struggles to survive
poverty; and the translation of a traditional role of children as
contributors to the family labour force to a cash-economy.

The process has also been marked by the flow of children to the
streets. While some such children are abused and exploited by their
own families, the vast majority play an essential part in their
families' resistance to poverty - they work to help themselves and
their families survive. Simply to remove them from that role would
have severe consequences. Furthermore many children who do not work
are as, or even more, exposed to dangerously unsanitary conditions,
violence and neglect.

Most of the children's movements grew from the localised actions of
small groups of individuals who were appalled at the waste of human
life and potential unfolding before their eyes. Despairing of the
likelihood of the state acting in the best interest of all the
people, they voluntarily took responsibility upon themselves.


The first initiatives - in Brazil and Peru - were started by
unconventional Salesian priests working closely with groups of young
adults with a strongly spiritual motivation. These pioneers were
themselves from poor neighbourhoods and identified with a growing
popular resistance to social exclusion and oppression being developed
by organised labour, neighbourhood associations, women's and
indigenous peoples' organisations and others. They were inspired by
liberation theology, which identified Christianity with commitm ent
to the liberation struggle of the poor, and they had a contrasting
view of the value of human life to that which underpinned the
processes of social exclusion. For them, each human being has an
inherent value; to ignore that value in others is to turn your back
on your own potential for good. The pioneers also had a utopian
vision of society - one based on mutual concern, love, respect and
development of the individual within the community - which was quite
opposed to marketplace models created by people and groups pursuing
personal gain irrespective of the impact on others. They wished to
dismantle hierarchical power relationships in the state, church and
society, including the domination of men over women, and so pioneered
radically child-centred approaches. The movements in both countries
would argue that their methodologies were primarily developed with
the full participation of children through a process of observation,
action and review.

The two initiatives do, however, have somewhat different frames of
reference. In Pent, the Movement of Working Children and Adolescents
from Christian Working Class Families (Manthoc), reflects the great
value attributed both to Christianity and to work. It has drawn on
and adapted the methodology developed by the Young Christian Workers'
movement founded in Belgium in 1925 - that of 'education through
collective observation, action and review, directed at building the
new society from the grassroots.' Its emphasis on work also picks up
on the identification of work with life in Andean cultures. Manthoc
deliberately highlights a positive aspect of the socially excluded
children who are its members - the fact that as workers they
contribute to the economy. The name of the Brazilian organisation -
The Republic of Small Vendors - identifies it most markedly with the
practice of participative democracy. The Republic grew partly from
the efforts of a group of young activists to put Christianity to work
in the community,

These early pioneers, like others who have followed, were also
reacting to the failure of existing state and voluntary sector
responses to Street and working children, In many countries, state
policy towards such children was oppressive and often violent and
corrupt - administered mainly through the police and courts and
directed at protecting mainstream society rather than the child. Many
church institutions were also disciplinarian and oppressive.
Meanwhile, the charitable and welfare responses of the church and the
voluntary sectors at best rescued a few children in the multitude. At
worst they created dependency in the children they tried to help,
alienated them from their families and communities and failed to
equip them to survive as independent adults in the labour market.
They did nothing to attack the causes of the social abandonment of

If anything, these approaches revealed that the adult world did not
know what was best for such children. Reluctant to create yet another
damaging prescription, the pioneers of the children's movements set
out instead to build a relationship of solidarity with children and
reinforce their strengths rather than respond to their disadvantages.
Instead of removing them from the streets and workplaces in which
society had abandoned them, they joined them there, developing the
role of reliable companion, street educator, animator, collaborator
as they are variously called. Through this relationship they planned
to enable the children - who were generally treated with disdain - to
realise their own value and to demonstrate that value to the society
that had rejected them.

Because the work of these movements is founded on the belief that
everyone is of value and has a contribution to make and because it is
pitched against processes of social exclusion, the movements
developed participatory democratic forms requiring the adults
involved to review their own power relationship with children and the
children their power relationships with each other. Thus the
movements have become a means by which both children and supporting
adults can explore and define their role as citizens.

As movements and organisations of street and working children have
spread and grown, other adult social actors have become involved.
They include activists from other churches and other religions and
many from non-church backgrounds - people from trade unions,
neighbourhood associations, non-government and government
organisations and a wide range 'of academic and professional
backgrounds. The pedagogy of Paulo Freire became an important
reference in the development of the movements in a number of
countries, but there were also other influences. Gandhi's ideas, for
instance, helped inspire the activists who supported the development
of Bhima Sangha. In Africa and India, the movements emerged from the
initiatives of secular voluntary organisations, and in one case from
the intervention of trade union activists who took up the cause of
working child ren. Some of the newer movements drew inspiration from
those in Latin America, whose work was broadcast internationally
through UNICEF, non-governmental (NGO) and church networks and
through the media. Other movements started spontaneously with groups
of people deciding to take responsibility for the difficulties faced
by children in their immediate neighbourhoods.


The various movements differ in some of their views and strategies,
child labour being a case in point.. For some, the work of children
is of positive value and a right. It is because children are
contributors to society that they have the right to be social
protagonists. For others work is a necessity. They want the economic
compulsion for children to work to be removed and, until it is, for
work to be regulated in children's best interest and working children
to be respected for their contribution. For Brazil's MNMMR, and some
other organisations not included in this report, the prime
requirement for children is access to undisrupted schooling,
requiring an end to work below the age of 14. After that age children
should have access to dignified work that allows them to continue
with their schooling or contributes to their training and preparation
for the world of work. Unlike the other movements, MNMMR participated
in the Global March Against Child Labour.

These different standpoints have had some important consequences. In
March 1998 delegates from the working children's movements in Asia,
Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean - but not Brazil - met in
Dakar and formed the International Committee of Working Children's

In anticipation of the June 1998 ILO Conference, they issued a

· urging that working children's movements are consulted before
processes concerning them are launched;
· declaring their opposition to such 'intolerable forms of child
labour' as prostitution, drug-trafficking and slavery but identifying
them as crimes rather than forms of work;
· asserting that one day (when the causes that compel children to
work have been tackled) children should have the choice of whether to
work or not;
· stating that the work children do should depend not on their age
but on their development and capabilities;
· explaining that their movements did not support the Global March
Against Child Labour because they
could not 'march against their own jobs' and were not taken account
of in the planning phase of the march.

The Committee also asked to participate officially in the ILO
Conference at which a draft of the new Convention would be presented.
The bid failed because the movements did not meet conference
requirements in terms of their statutes.

There are other differences between the movements, for instance in
the structural relationships between the children and supporting
adults. Manthoc was conceived of as an independent movement of
working children. The adults who initiated it planned to support the
movement from the outside but were included at the children's
insistence. Brazil's MNMMR was formed by adult educators as an
organisation of both educators and children. However the adults are
committed to children's participation and organisation and have
encouraged children to define their own form of organisation,
expression and lines of action within the movement. What has emerged
is more of a partnership or alliance of children and educators. In
other cases - Bhima Sangha and the African Movement of Working
Children and Youth are examples - adult supporters are located in
separate voluntary organisations which foster and act as resource
centres for the organisation of working children.

It is not within the scope of this introduction to analyse these and
other intriguing differences except to observe that they indicate
that the movements have developed independently and in very different
cultural, political and socioeconomic frameworks. For example,
differing attitudes to child labour among the movements may be
located in differing values attributed culturally to children's work.
They may relate to the availability, or otherwise, of work that helps
rather than impedes children's development. The fact that Brazil is a
major economic power in which no child should have to work, but which
also suffers the world's most skewed distribution of wealth, may have
a bearing on MNMMR's stand on work.

More remarkable perhaps, given the differences, are the similarities
that identify the movements with each other.

What the adults in all the movements try to give children from the
poorest neighbourhoods is an experience of being valued, respected
and included. By encouraging them to reflect on their experience and
act together to try to overcome their problems, they also enable them
to develop analytital skills, an experience of solidarity and the
confidence to take action. Instead, of being defined by the values of
mainstream society as failures and victims, the children are able in
varying degrees to develop a critical awareness of that society,
motivating them to seek social change.

The movements have made many remarkable achievements, demonstrating
that working children have major contributions to make to social
development and to their own development and protection. Some have
been key players in the promotion of children's rights, to the
benefit not only of themselves but of all children. Some have
developed ways to feed their ideas into local and national policy-
making processes.

All have had some impact - in some cases considerable - on public
attitudes towards working children. Their achievements are wide-
ranging - persuading local authorities to repair bridges and roads
used by children, developing and persuading schools to pilot
curricula for working children, supporting neighbourhood struggles
for improved services, negotiating access to health care for street
and working children, tackling abusive employers and negotiating
better working conditions.

Children involved in the movements have come to see their struggle as
integral to that of their families, neighbourhoods and all
marginalised people. Asked what he understood by citizenship, Vidal
Coco Mamani, then of Manthoc and a delegate at the Amsterdam
Conference, replied without hesitation:

It is to be the subject of rights and know your responsibilities. It
is to want to be treated as a member of society, not as a victim of
poverty. As citizens we should respected - whether we are very small
kids, working children, adults or old people. Citizenship is the
exercise of mutual respect.

While there is no systematic record of what happens in adulthood to
children from the movements, a number - and perhaps many - have
become activists in the children's movements themselves, in trades
unions and other branches of popular movements. It is the hope and
expectation of adults in the movements that the children will
continue to develop their role as citizens throughout their lives,
strengthening the grassroots resistance to poverty and the bottom-up
demand for social change.

Few if any of the adults involved in the movements would claim that
their way of working is the only way, or a model for others, or that
they get it right all the time. They are still explorers of territory
that is very new. Nevertheless, their movements are among the most
advanced manifestations of what many people now recognise to be
essential to the development and well-being of children but few know
how to procure - the active participation of children themselves in
determining what happens in their lives.
Owner: Anthony Swift