Ask children in West Africa why they work, and many will say ‘to get an education’. That should make you pause.
I would like to be able to support the idea that school creates a barrier to child labour, and perhaps is even the solution to eliminating it. This common, widespread perception is surely a source of hope for anyone dismayed by the prevalence of working children in the world today. But it does not stand up to empirical evidence.
At first glance, school or work can seem to be a question of either/or. In West Africa, for example, the majority of working children are not in formal school, and the majority of children fully enrolled in formal school are not working on the side. But if you look closer at the lives of working children, you find a more complex relationship at work. On the one hand, it is clear that school in itself is not enough to protect children from being put to work. And, on the other, for many young people working is essential for the continuation of their education, and not only in financial terms.
This text offers readers a chance to take seriously what working children and adolescents in West Africa tell us. Where are they with school and education, and what could be done today to support their education and integration into society? Their answers show us how reductive it is to still think of school and work as two (strictly) separate realms.
The voices drawn on for this article come from socio-ethnographic surveys conducted in Senegal between 2015 and 2020 in various sectors of the urban informal economy: in total, some 60 adolescents - girls and boys, mostly aged between 12 and 20 - were interviewed. They are petty traders, cart pushers, touts, baggage handlers, shoe shiners in markets or train stations, all-purpose workers in small restaurants, domestic servants (salaried or unpaid family helpers), apprentices in sewing, welding, carpentry, mechanics workshops, and apprentice drivers.
Their accounts show a great diversity of work experiences, either one-off or long-lasting, but rarely linear, and sometimes starting from the age of nine or ten years old. These surveys complement other socio-ethnographic research that has been carried out over the past 20 years with child workers in West Africa. By listening to these voices, we can better understand the situations of working children, better protect them, and perhaps finally imagine the conditions of a world in which harmful child labour cannot thrive.
Knowledge without opportunity
Let there be no mistake: few families today, and especially few children, fail to understand the importance of schooling. For girls and boys alike, learning is a necessary ingredient in any projection towards a (better) future. Yet, in Senegal in 2013, more than 47% of school-age children (6-16 years) were not in school.
This disconnect cannot be explained by reasons of economic scarcity alone. Multiple factors are intertwined: economic, certainly, but also socio-cultural, socio-demographic, linguistic, health, psycho-pedagogical and political. When we listen to them, the children describe the difficulties and contradictions of the school system as it exists today. They find it at times strongly distanced from their personal or family aspirations and obligations, but they also find in its functioning and malfunctioning a near-certain path to upward social mobility.
Lamine, for example, spent five years at school because both he and his mother wished for him to be there. At the age of 13, however, he realised that he was still struggling to express himself in French beyond the usual greetings. This didn't seem good enough given the annual enrolment fee was worth two bags of rice, which enabled his mother to feed his three younger siblings for two months, so he explained to her that it would surely be preferable for him to look for another path to professional integration and a better future. As Lamine's story shows, even if working children's discourse on work and school appears contradictory at times, there is often a lucid accuracy about it in contexts where the welfare state is reduced to a trickle.
Working children say that every child should learn, but they understand that access to education is conditioned by the duties, roles and status that children occupy within the family. In order to both honour these duties and pursue a course they hope will be educational, some children and adolescents choose to leave school and pursue a different course.
The COVID pandemic, which led to the closure of schools for several weeks in many countries in the Global South, has increased the perception that school is only one of several educational options. Studies are underway to document the multiple adaptations that are taking place as the COVID crisis becomes protracted. Among the alternative pathways that children and families seek out and take, child labour is likely to be central, a hypothesis that early evidence seems to confirm.
Working to continue education
There is not enough data to say whether, at a macro level, it is leaving school that pushes children into work, or if children are leaving school so that they can start work. But micro-level data has proliferated over the past 20 years, and it rigorously documents how child labour gives rise to a continuum of situations in practice.
At one end is the abuse and violence that we read about in the papers. The other end, which is far less acknowledged, are processes of socialisation, contract-type relationships, and educational or even professional pathways. We can only understand what leads to the intolerable, and what could move more working children toward the second pole, by asking the children to explain the dynamics guiding their decisions.
What is striking when listening to girls and boys at work is the strong link they draw between the work they do, often in harsh conditions and without social protection, and an educational project they are striving to pursue. This link is particularly salient in at least two types of cases. One case regards pupils, often as young as 10, working during the school holidays. However meagre their earnings, the money they receive helps to pay for school fees and supplies.
That's the economic benefit, but there are crucial social benefits as well. Working during the holidays, they say, demonstrates their physical and moral commitment to accessing additional resources and building their future. This ensures their social status and that of their family, which in turn strengthens their parents' and relatives' support for their schooling. In short, by showing that they are willing to work in order to learn, they increase the likelihood of having the opportunity to do so.
The other case concerns apprentices, both girls and boys, undergoing unpaid vocational training in informal workshops for a long period, sometimes for as long as six years. Such apprenticeships are usually done alongside other familial obligations, particularly for girls who are expected to take part in domestic work. Trying to meet both sets of obligations can make for very long days for the children, especially for girls. Yet, aware of how limited the opportunities for training are, and of how important such training is for having a profession in the future, many adolescents agree to take on the burden. Once again, their willingness to work creates a position of support - social, economic, symbolic - from both employers and family for their educational and life project.
Listening to working children as real social actors: forging an educational path for all
What can be done today to support the education of all children, including working children? Working children and adolescents express specific needs, and putting them in series allows us to highlight some of their concrete proposals. Taken together, they form two major lines of action which working children do not wish to separate: both educational conditions and working conditions must be improved.
To improve their working conditions, the children we spoke with emphasised the importance of establishing a 'contract of terms' (even an oral one) with the person who hires them. For this to carry weight they say the presence of a socially accredited witness is required, for example a neighbourhood chief, a religious leader, an association, etc. The most important points of the contract to be specified (and then respected) are: the scope of the work (hours, tasks), remuneration, sanctions or recourse in case of deviance, and how to resolve problems or conflict. Let us note here the maturity of these very young workers, whose demands directly echo the most common demands of adult workers' unions. An arguably more innovative desire is access to very low-cost savings banks from the age of 10 so that they can more securely possess money and mitigate the risks of theft or loss.
The children distinguished between pupils who "go on holiday to work" and those who have dropped out of school to become apprentices in informal urban workshops when recommending ways to improve educational conditions. With regard to the former, the children noted the social inequality that forms between pupils who work over the school holidays and those who instead attend private courses to reinforce their schooling. To mitigate this, they would like to see quality tutoring made available at very low cost, or even free, to working pupils.
Apprentices experience wildly differing conditions depending on their sector and location. They would like to find a way to ensure that the quality, duration and working conditions of apprenticeships are no longer just a matter of luck, but that follow certain standards of practice. Their question: how can good practices be disseminated so that apprenticeships in informal workshops are no longer rife with the exploitation of children and adolescents?
The voices of working children overlap to show us that they are committed to building their future, which they actualise by articulating various educational paths between school, apprenticeship and work in the informal economy. The needs they have expressed above are not spectacular. They are achievable. Shall we?
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