My new favourite book (and it’s written by children)

I have a new favourite book.

It’s not a novel. I wouldn’t call exactly call it non-fiction, though, either. If anything it’s an instruction manual. And it’s not written by a famous writer, or journalist, or even a regular joe with a gift for words who had a horrible childhood/exciting divorce.

It’s written by children.

It’s called Work We Can and Cannot Do, and it’s amazing.

Work We Can and Cannot Do

It was published a little over ten years ago by The Concerned for Working Children, the organisation I’m volunteering for here in Bangalore. I love it not because it’s inspiring to read, though, in a strange way, it is. I love it because it’s a sudden sharp shock of sense in a very fraught debate. It’s like when you’re in the middle of a heated argument and then someone comes up with a new suggestion and everyone’s left thinking, ‘why didn’t we think of this before’?

The ‘child labour’ debate

You see, coming to work at CWC I have, quite unintentionally, stepped into the middle of one of the most fraught debates in the development sphere in India, and maybe anywhere – that of ‘child labour.’ (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a second.) You might think that this is a fairly straightforward matter, right? Child labour is bad. Children toiling in factories and hotels and fields when they should be in school? That’s bad, right?

If you’re involved in development or you’ve looked into the issue, you might have picked up that it’s a bit more complicated than that. The money that children make from working often provides essential support for their families, to pay medical bills, provide extra food, and so on. Simply taking the children out of work and putting them in school can be disastrous for families’ incomes or, more often, simply doesn’t work – the children skip school and are forced to work in ‘unofficial’ jobs, often with worse pay and conditions. To get them to stop working and stay in school, you have to provide extra financial support to their families to make up for the lost income.

That, at least, is the rough concensus amongst Western NGOs and the like. It’s also (kinda, sorta) the underlying principle of Indian legal and political efforts on the issue.

But it turns out it’s still more complicated than that.

CWC has been helping working children (I’m sorry for that sentence, I’m tired) since the late 1970s. They’ve spent a long time listening to working children, something not everyone working on ‘child labour’ does, and they’ve learned some really interesting things.

For one thing, lots of ‘child labourers’ aren’t actually doing wage work at all. They’re missing school because of chores they have to do for their families. Some spend eight or ten hours a day, starting at 2am or 3am, collecting firewood. Some simply miss school because they have to look after their younger siblings. For these children, simple ‘income replacement’ doesn’t allow them to return to school. But much simpler interventions can – like providing a firewood collection and delivery service for a village, or providing an anganwadi, or pre-school, to look after younger kids.

But wait! There’s more – and here’s where things get a bit more… radical. You see, the real insight that CWC has picked up in thirty years of listening to working children is this: they often want to work. They like working. They like learning what they feel are useful skills. They like feeling independent and having time away from often rather repressive homes. They hate school, and hardly surprising: Indian government schools, especially in rural areas, are often awful. They have huge classes; bored, often absentee teachers; regular corporal punishment and humiliation; and a formalized curriculum which they feel doesn’t address their real needs for life skills and practical skills.

This realisation kind of lights a fire under the traditional debate about how to ‘eradicate’ child labour. If children have to work, you might be able to tempt them into school by providing whatever is required to free them up from needing to work. But if children want to work, it’s very hard to force them to go to school – putting aside the gigantic question of whether it’s justifiable to.

Because of all this, the child labour laws of India – which are a confused mess – make some recognition of the fact that simply blanket-banning child labour isn’t necessarily a practical approach. The law prohibits work for children under 14, but only in certain industries and occupations deemed ‘hazardous’ to children – for example, railway construction or soap manufacturing. In other areas children can work legally for up to six hours a day, with a break. The idea is that child work is legitimate, but anything which seriously harms a child’s development constitutes ‘child labour.’ This is either a common-sense  recognition of reality or a legalistic compromise, depending on your outlook.

But the definition of ‘hazardous’ and ‘non-hazardous’ work is slippery, to say the least. The law doesn’t list agriculture as hazardous, for example- hardly surprising since it occupies 80% of India’s child workers by some measure. But depending on local conditions, agriculture can be hazardous. In some villages in India, a simple task like taking cows to water could involve a simple, quick trip across the village. In others, it involves a long trek of several hours, over half-broken bridges or narrow paths by fast-moving streams. One is safe and clearly compatible with a child having a decent life and getting an education. The other is not. But a list defined at national level can’t address these nuances, and the government is under a lot of pressure to simply ban children under 14 from working altogether – effectively to say that all child work is ‘child labour.’

Because CWC knows that many children want to work, they’re opposed to that. They believe that an approach which differentiates between ‘work’ and ‘labour’ can work. But it requires a different approach.

Which brings us to Work We Can and Cannot Do.

Ask the children

CWC’s approach to the question of ‘work’ vs ‘labour’ is simple, elegant and, it seems to me, profoundly sensible: ask the children.

In 1998-9, in 22 villages in the Kundapur district of Karnataka (the state of India where they’re based), CWC helped children conduct surveys asking children what work they did and didn’t consider suitable. They could break down certain areas of work into different tasks, and distinguish by age.

(You read that right: the children were both the subject of the survey and the ones who designed and carried it out. That’s child-led research, more on which in a future post.)

The results from one group of villages or panchayat, Balkur, were translated and published as kind of a kind of ‘proof of concept.’ The result was Work We Can and Cannot Do. It provides a detailed and nuanced guide for families to understand what work, paid or otherwise, is and isn’t suitable for their particular children.

Take cooking, for example. That’s a domestic chore completely ignored by the law. It can be an important duty for many kids with, for example, incapacitated parents. But it can be harmful and dangerous. The children decided that washing rice and cooking vegetables is OK only for children of ten and above:


But that actual cooking – things involving heat – is only suitable for children of 15 and above.

Work We Can and Cannot Do

In the case of the making of beedi (traditional cigarettes rolled in dried leaf), a big area of child labour that’s completely barred to children, the children decided that the law is too strict. They agreed that preparing, rolling and packaging beedi is unsuitable work for children:

Work We Can and Cannot Do

But they were eager to point out that collecting tobacco from the supplier is acceptable work for children over 9:

Work We Can and Cannot Do

And that delivering packaged beedi to the contractor is OK for children over 12:

Work We Can and Cannot Do

Hands up anyone who thinks a national, legislative process would ever identify that degree of nuance?

Sometimes the children even differentiated by gender. Bicycle repairing was deemed suitable for boys over 15, but not for girls:

Work We Can and Cannot Do

Note also that the children generally specified a maximum amount of time they were prepared to do each type of work, always saying they didn’t want work to get in the way of school.

It works

I hope you’re as inspired as I am by the thoughtfulness and detail with which the children judged their own work capabilities. But this approach isn’t just democratic – it’s effective.

The law on child labour calls for panchayats to be declared ‘child labour free’ once no child under 14 is working in hazardous industries. In the panchayats where CWC did its survey, the standards stipulated by the children were adopted in place of the national standards for what work was and wasn’t suitable. With the guidance offered by their children, families in the panchayats found they were able to adjust to these new standards without loss of income or major inconvenience. Within a year, all the eight panchayats the survey had been completed in were declared ‘child labour free’ – and have stayed that way.

Now, you might be thinking: isn’t this just redefining the problem away? And it would be, if the researchers had simply looked at what work was being done by children and declared it all legitimate. But that’s not what happened. The children themselves decided, and they weren’t afraid to say they felt work which their families were currently making them do was unsuitable for them. But for desperately poor families, being told you can’t do work that you believe you can is just as harmful as being expected to do work you can’t. And if a village is declared free of child labour by a definition the children themselves have developed, what could be better than that?

Why not just take the rules laid out in Work We Can and Cannot Do and apply them across the country? Because as we described earlier, the kinds of work children are involved in – and its implications – vary widely across Karnataka, let alone India. In cities, for example, children are more likely to be working in hotels or factories, work which can be potentially much more harmful and dangerous. In other agricultural areas, the work might be heavy hoeing and planting rather than firewood collecting, which again is far less suitable for children below a certain age.

At one level, the Work We Can and Cannot Do approach is far stricter than the law. The current child labour laws only really restrict work for children under 15, though there’s some agitation to change that. Children 15 and above are legally free to work in any job – although in practice, problems with proving age means that those children are often caught up in labour law enforcement attempts (more on which in a future post.) The Work We Can and Cannot Do approach, on the other hand, covers children right up to 18, with some activities – like beedi rolling – being deemed unsuitable for minors of any age.

…but it hasn’t spread

CWC spread the Work We Can and Cannot Do approach to the various panchayats in which it has a strong presence, mostly through Bhima Sangha, a union of working children, which it helped create. But it never managed to get political support to employ this approach more widely.

In fact, over the last decade, the conversation about child labour has moved further and further from this children-led approach. A couple of years ago, India passed the Right to Education Act, guaranteeing free education to every child up to the age of 15 for the first time. Of course, free education isn’t the same thing as compulsory education, but in practice, state legislatures are under a lot of pressure from child’s rights organisations to abandon the ‘work/labour’ approach altogether and ban children under 14 from all paid work. A new national child labour law is currently being mooted, the first since 1986, which is expected to take that approach nationwide.

CWC believes this approach is too simplistic, and that while there may be some children who can be brought into full-time education with some support for their families, there are many – those aged 11 or 12 who’ve never been to school in their life, for example – for whom work, with some flexible education in the evenings, genuinely provides a better chance of supplying useful skills. The enforcement of the laws has also become more punitive, with children ‘rescued’ from their jobs – sometimes dragged kicking and screaming – and forced into care homes, often in appalling conditions, while they wait for hearings. But again, more on all of this in a future post.

For now, though, Work We Can and Cannot Do exists as a reminder that a more decentralised, democratic approach to dealing with child labour has been tried, and can work. More importantly, it’s a reminder of the fact that for all we like to think for them, often the people best placed to make judgments about children’s welfare are children themselves.


Author: Rav

City boy coping with liberal guilt and culture shock in Tanzania. Writes about development, politics, culture and technology.

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