Give Child Labour Hashtags at Least

Mar 27 , 2021
By Christian Tesfaye

Few things speak louder of the poor state of a country than child labour. Technically, there are laws against this in Ethiopia. The labour law does not allow the employment of children under 14 for any purpose. If they are between that age and 18, there are limitations on the sorts of work they are allowed. The criminal code prohibits the trafficking of children for compulsory labour.

But often in Ethiopia, laws are taken as standards to live up to, not rules the violation of which are punishable by a court – hardly worth the paper they are written on sometimes. The same goes for child labour. It is rife and unimaginably ugly but a fact of life for anyone that bothers to take note.

The younger the child is, nonetheless, the harder it is to fail to notice. There was just one kid working on a minibus taxi as an assistant to the driver (redat) that was hard to fathom for me. He could barely shut the sliding doors and was barely visible above the car seats even when standing straight. He had dry plump cheeks and rough, cracked hands.

He was diligent and quick on his feet for his age. From his physical stature, he must have been around six. If he was older, he must be suffering from malnurished, making him one of the over 30 million people suffering from the same ailment in Ethiopia. He is also one of the 27pc of the youth population participating in the labour force. Many of these are robbed of their childhood and opportunities to learn. Worse still, they may not have guardians and could be one of 20,000 children trafficked into compulsory labour, according to Humanium, a children’s charity.

Given how harsh these conditions are, how vulnerable the children could be, and the long-term consequences on human capital, this is top of the agenda, right? Children growing up in debilitating poverty, selling their labour for sums well under the poverty threshold as an alternative to begging, is a priority for society, no?

Not at all. There are neither rallies against child labour nor would anyone storm the streets over it. No one goes to war over starving children. What society puts on a pedestal –worthy causes to kill, maim and massacre for –are nationalism, historical memory and offenses and slights against one group by another. Child labour does not even get a measly hashtag, except perhaps on the World Day Against Child Labour, and even then because it does not hurt to virtue signal. Few in nonprofit organisations and government agencies working on children’s issues take a lasting interest.

Ethiopia is not alone in this. Most of the Global South – where all the bad things seem to happen – has high levels of child labour. More than a quarter of all children in poor countries are engaged in labour activities. UNICEF counts from five-year-olds who start providing 21 hours of unpaid housework services a week.

The culprit is poverty. If not enough wealth is created, millions of children will fall through the cracks to depend, or be forced to rely, on their labour to close income gaps for themselves and their guardians. Lack of wealth also means a government unable to provide a social safety net for its citizens, not even children.

There is no magic bullet. If there was one, laws should have worked. Enforcing them more strictly could help to an extent but not when poverty is entrenched and there is great demand for such cheap labour.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 27,2021 [ VOL 21 , NO 1091]

Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture.

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