Made in Brazil: Confronting Child Labor
“To force a child to work is to steal the future of that child” – Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva1
While Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has made significant efforts to reduce child labor, at the end of his tenure the issue still remains urgent.
In 2004, President Lula, who himself began to work at the age of eleven, declared fighting child labor a high priority.2 Although Brazil is often regarded as a positive example for other Latin American countries for its progress in the fight against child labor, more than four million Brazilian children between the ages of 5 and 17 are still working.3 Especially in the poorer northeastern part of the country, many children have no choice but to become integrated into the illegal job market.
In 1989, the Brazilian constitution enshrined certain fundamental rights for children. The constitution now states that the state has to approve every decision made by the federal government that affects children in order to demonstrate that it is beneficial to children’s interest.4 Moreover, the constitution states that no child or adolescent should be a victim of neglect, discrimination, exploitation, violence, cruelty, or repression.5 Nearly every district throughout the country has a council whose job it is to ensure that children’s rights are observed. In practice, however, these bodies are often criticized for undertaking inadequate efforts to improve the lives of children in Brazil.6
Why Do Children Work?
Child labor in Brazil remains chiefly fueled by extreme poverty. Claire Salmon, assistant professor in the Department of Economics of the University of Savoie, points out, “Children are much more likely to work when they live in a household where the potential of income generation is low and where this potential has already been used up.”7 In many low-income Brazilian communities, children constitute a reserve army of labor. When the adult members in the household do not generate sufficient income, children are usually expected to work. Brazilian children are often employed in places where they can work with their hands, such as in sugar, orange, coffee, or cocoa plantations. Since field workers are often paid according to their output rather than an hourly rate, parents are often tempted to make their children work with them to increase the family’s earnings.8 As a result, an important indicator for child labor is whether a mother has a paid job or not, as children are likely to work with their mothers. This is particularly the case for young children, especially girls, and children living in rural areas. According to Levison, Degraff, and Robinson, “There are strong connections between mothers’ and children’s employment characteristics, including industry and sector, location, commute times and whether paid.”9 This distinctiveness has to be taken into consideration when the government wants to address child labor in its policy.
In addition to poverty, cultural habits in Brazil also play a significant role in child labor. In the impoverished northern areas of Brazil, most of the people who are parents today started working before they were eight years old.10 Since child labor was very familiar to them as they were growing up, these Brazilians often fail to view child labor as a serious problem, in contrast to their wealthier western counterparts. The problem of child labor thus becomes trapped in a generational cycle.
A third reason for parents to send children to work relates to the condition of Brazilian public schools. In sparsely populated rural areas, primary schools are located far away from each other, and secondary schools only exist in bigger cities. These schools are generally underequipped and in bad structural shape due to lack of funding. Officially, education is compulsory for all children in Brazil aged 7 to 14, but the requirement is only loosely enforced.11 There are many poor families living in favelas and rural areas who cannot afford to buy the required school uniforms, books, and bus tickets. Ninety percent of children working in rural areas attend school for less than four years, and only one out of every eight children living in a favela goes to school.12
Between School and Work
It is important to note, however, that child labor and school attendance are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The 1998 Brazilian Household Survey showed that almost 18 percent of boys between the ages of 7 and 16 hold at least a part-time job. Nevertheless, school attendance is quite high; 93 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls between 7 and 16 attend school at least part-time.13 Scholars have reached different conclusions on the effect of labor on children. Whereas many studies reveal the negative effects of child labor on school attendance and learning, some studies found no relationship between work and education, and others showed that paid work actually enables some children to pay tuition, when they would otherwise be forced to drop out completely.14 A 2006 study investigated factors that deter children from school attendance, concluding that child labor decreases the probability of continuous schooling.15 In contrast, Professor Kaushik Basu, C. Marks Professor of International Studies and Economics at Cornell University, referred to field workers in India who argued that, in poor areas it is best policy to allow children to combine schooling with some work. “Doing some work and earning some money may be the only way that children can afford to attend school”, he said.16 Indeed, the relationship between child labor and education may be more complex than previously thought—any solution Brazilians devise will have to take such complexity into account.
Fighting Child Labor
Finding the appropriate way to help working children is challenging because simply prohibiting child labor may in fact worsen conditions for Brazil’s poorest citizens. It would be mistaken to assume that parents would ensure that their children attend school regularly if they expected harsh legal consequences for allowing them to carry a paid job. Were the government outlaw child labor, parents would likely force their children to work in even less regulated and less visible jobs. Certain areas of work, such as jobs in private households, cannot be effectively regulated by the Brazilian state, and if children work in the home, it is nearly impossible to protect them from abuses. Indeed, Professor Larry French of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University suggests that domestic work can be even more harmful for children than labor market jobs. Furthermore, domestic jobs are often not captured in child labor statistics.
Brazilian girls are particularly likely to be forced to work in their parents’ households, where no one can monitor their welfare. French’s survey shows that both housework and childcare in Brazil have a negative impact on girls’ health, as well as on their school grades and overall quality of life. In contrast to jobs in the labor market, which are usually structured and overseen by a single individual, housework includes different tasks which are often supervised by different family members throughout the day. Furthermore, housework is often underpaid and is considered less valued than other types of work.17
Programs Against Child Labor
One policy President Lula implemented in order to reduce child labor was Bolsa Família, a financial assistance program for needy families. The program goes beyond simply prohibiting child labor by also providing financial incentives to poor families that ensure that their children attend school regularly and receive vaccinations. Bolsa Família provides a monthly stipend of 22 reals, about USD 12, for school attendance for up to three children per family. It is available for all families that have an income below the poverty line of 140 reals per month. Families who otherwise would have to live in extreme poverty (with an income less than seventy reals per month), now can receive an additional flat sum of 68 reals per month.18 The program has generated high praise from various domestic and international sources. According to the World Bank, Bolsa Família is “one of the key factors behind the positive social outcomes achieved by Brazil in recent years.”19 The Economist describes it as an anti-poverty program that “is winning converts worldwide.”20 The money is usually given to the female head of a household through “Citizen Cards”, which are similar to debit cards. Ninety-four percent of the funds go to the poorest 40 percent of the population. Numerous surveys highlight the success of the program, showing that most of the money is spent on food, school supplies, and clothes for the children.21
Nevertheless, some critics find that Bolsa Família is part of a strategy to minimize any increase in the legal minimum wage; a move that they say would more effectively benefit a larger number of families.22 Raymundo Mesquita, a Salesian brother who has worked with children of the slums of Bello Horizonte and other large cities for 37 years, also criticized the program. According to Mesquita, many families become dependent on the money sent by the government, which he claims leads a number of aid recipients to lose interest in working towards a professional career that would provide them with enough income to live without money from the Bolsa Família program. Political paternalism and corruption are also big problems, especially in northern Brazil. In Mesquita’s opinion, Brazil’s future should depend heavily on education reform, an issue that the Lula administration did not adequately address. He points out that there are several free employment opportunities in Brazil that remain vacant due to a lack of well-educated workers.23 Of special concern is the poor reading and writing abilities of many Brazilians. For example, in Caetés, a town with about 25,000 inhabitants in traditionally poor northeast Brazil, about 30 percent of the population is illiterate. According to a government report in March, more than 22 percent of the approximately 25 million workers available to join Brazil’s work force in 2010 do not meet the education requirements of the labor market. Former estimates showed that tens of thousands of jobs in Brazil were unclaimed due to a lack of qualified workers.24
A Right to Work? Differing Opinions on Child Labor
Views differ widely concerning the question how to evaluate child labor. The International Labor Organization (ILO) strongly condemns child labor, which they describe as “unacceptable because the children involved are too young and should be in school, or because even though they have attained the minimum age for admission to employment, the work that they do is unsuitable for a person below the age of 18.”25 However, the ILO does attempt to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable work for children.26 According to the ILO, acceptable labor is defined as relatively easy work that does not harm the children’s well being or adversely affect school attendance. Unacceptable work refers to every form of compulsory labor, bonded child labor, slavery, and abuse, all of which negatively affects the children’s health, morale, and security.27
Basu takes a different perspective, pointing out that sometimes, “there are worse things that could happen to a child than working.”28 The alternative could be suffering, hunger, or starvation. Additionally, holding a job sometimes helps children to attend school by providing money for school fees and other daily costs. The discussion of whether children have a right to work is two-sided. According to Professor Manfred Liebel, director of the International Academy for Innovative Pedagogy, Psychology, and Economics (INA) at the Free University of Berlin, the right to work can be understood as “an individual child’s right to freely decide whether, where, how, and for how long they would like to work, and it goes beyond employment under the regime and dependency of an employer within a capitalist economy.” According to this school of thought, the right to work is supposed to broaden children’s capacity to make decisions and help them integrate into society. As Liebel points out, since the late 1970s there have been several small, informal mutual aid groups for children as well as initiatives among young people and adults in Latin America who urge children to claim their rights independently. These movements do not oppose child labor, but rather want children to work without exploitation under fair and safe conditions. Most participants in these mutual aid groups are between the ages of 12 and 18 years old and are employed in the informal economy. According to Liebel, these groups structure themselves so that children effectively have most of the power, allowing them to make decisions and have the final say. “This is where children find and develop their own social spaces and age specific forms of communication,” Liebel asserts, “by which they can assure themselves of their situation, search for solutions to their problems and develop their identity.” According to him, organizations of working children have already succeeded, at least in some Latin American countries including Peru and Bolivia, in influencing the legislation with their views.29 Nevertheless, as Liebel points out, these organizations provide a strong complement to international labor law and national action programs, which try to achieve a complete abolition of child labor. It is hard to tell yet which approach will become prevalent.
The Effects of Brazil’s Economic Growth
Brazil has the strongest economy in Latin America, with large agricultural, mining, manufacturing, and service sectors, and it is fast expanding its presence on the world stage. Despite seeing record growth in 2007 and 2008, Brazil was not entirely spared by the financial crisis. Since September 2008, the country has experienced two quarters of recession in which global demand for Brazil’s commodity-based exports diminished, while external credit soared. Nevertheless, Brazil recovered faster than most other emerging markets, and its GDP grew in the second quarter of 2009. For 2010, Brazil’s Central Bank expects an economic growth rate of 5 percent.30
Liebel explains why a reduction in poverty is so important in the battle against child labor: “Economic growth does not automatically reduce the demand for working children, but a reduction of poverty reduces the pressure for children and their families to accept exploitation.”31 Consequently, Brazil’s growing economy has the potential to reduce child labor.
According to Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC, “there has been some significant progress during Lula’s presidency, with cumulative per capita GDP growth of 23 percent, as compared to just 3.5 percent during the Cardoso years.”32 Moreover, during Lula’s tenure, unemployment declined significantly from over 11 percent in 2003 to 6.9 percent in 2010. Furthermore, according to the UN Economic Commission on Latin America, from 2003 to 2008, the poverty rate decreased from 38.7 percent to 25.8 percent.33
Brazil has become an important trade partner for a number of developed countries, receiving much media attention in the process. Brazil’s increasingly high profile certainly has the potential to place pressure on it to improve its record on child labor. Highly developed countries, such as the United States, are now closely linked to Brazil. For example, the U.S. is Brazil’s second largest trade partner after China, with a trade relationship valued at more than USD 46 billion. 34 Brazil’s trading partners have an important responsibility to demand children’s rights and avoid buying products which are produced under exploitive working conditions.
The number of working children in Brazil has been declining in recent years, due in part to Lula’s commendable efforts to reduce extreme poverty, which is demonstrably the main cause of child labor. Nevertheless, 25.8 percent of families are still classified as very poor in Brazil35 and are likely to continue to depend on child labor. Even though the Bolsa Família program provides an income supplement for a major portion of the country’s poor, critics remain skeptical about the long-term effects of the program. Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s new president-elect still has much work to do to improve the situation of poor children in Brazil and protect them from exploitation. If the country wants to continue to compete with other nations as a major modern power, it needs a drastically improved education system, as well as highly qualified workers. Consequently, ensuring that children are attending good schools on a regular basis and do not fall into a cycle of child labor must remain as an issue of highest priority in the hearts and minds of Brazilians across the country.
References for this article are available here