Child domestic work received little attention until the late 1990s. It remains highly neglected because of the relatively invisible nature of such work, the difficulty in getting good data within and across countries, lack of interest among policy-makers and legislators, limited law enforcement, etc. In several countries, labor-related laws still do not address domestic work, much less that of children which is still perceived by many people as a “good” option for poor girls. This problem has as much to do with children’s rights and public attitudes as with deregulated labor markets and necessary changes thereof.
Domestic work represents up to 10 percent of total employment in several countries, according to ILO’s labor statistics. Yet, it is generally undervalued, overworked, underpaid, unprotected and, therefore, open to abuse of children and adults as well. Indeed, a significant proportion of domestic workers are children in spite of international treaties and national laws prohibiting it. Yet, the first point to stress is this: Human rights violations get more sympathy when it comes to children, but we can more effectively crack down on domestic child labor through efforts to improve the regulatory framework covering domestic work at large – a critical point reemphasized at the end of this article.
One in seven children is in child labor of some sort, according to ILO’s statistical efforts since the late 1980s. Over 6% of the working children are in community, social and personal services, including domestic work. Child domestic workers are estimated around 175,000 under 18 in Central America, nearly 325,000 between 10 and 17 in Brazil, over 53,000 under 15 in South Africa, some 38,000 between 5 and 7 in Guatemala, more than 688,000 in Indonesia, and probably much more in some other large Asian countries for which semi-reliable estimates are still missing.
About 90% of domestic child workers are girls; boys may exceptionally share up to 50% (e.g. in Katmandu in the late-1990s); most are in the 12-17 age group, but some are as young as 5 or 6. They are often far from their families, controlled by their employer, invisible to public authorities, frequently deprived of basic rights and related social services, decent lodging and working conditions, deprived of protection from sexual harassment and mental and physical abuse. As some evidence shows, they are often victims of child trafficking within between and within countries.
On the whole, the global situation concerning domestic child labor is way off targets of eradication of worst forms of child labor set for 2016. It is shameful, scandalous and unacceptable. Some progress has surely been made in the attitudes of policy makers, legislators and the public in general, but not even close to what needs to be done.
Some reflections in the light of Brazil’s experience
Brazil is one good example showing both advances and difficulties in eradicating child labor and, among its worst forms, domestic child work. Since the early 1990s, positive initiatives have been put in place – with the Government’s leadership and/or blessings – to curb child labor, including domestic child work since the late 1990s. Among developing countries, Brazil had the most impressive drop in child labor between 1992 and 2004 in both absolute and percentage terms, making its experience relevant enough for many other countries.
Much of the 30% decline in the most critical 5-15 age group from 1992 to 1998 and, again, from 1998 to 2004 was due to a good mix of initiatives, particularly in education, labor inspection, and family income assistance, combined with efforts to develop child labor statistics, national- and state-level multi-entity forums and related action programs by local and state governments and NGOs partly assisted by international agencies. Labor inspection played a key role in reducing child labor in the formal economy, whereas more schools and income assistance made inspection effects relatively sustainable. From 1998 to 2004, the 30% reduction also reflected the 1998 Constitutional Amendment No 20 which increased from 14 to 16 the minimum working age, except as an apprentice from 14.This partly compensated for the greater difficulty of removing the remaining working children from the so-called “informal” economy in rural areas, street vending in urban areas, hidden illegal activities, etc.
Constructive pressure from civil society and the media in collaboration with governmental and international agencies have raised public awareness and helped to mobilize action-oriented efforts.
One example of this has been the “Communications Action Plan to Cope with Domestic Child Labor” – a partnership of ILO, UNICEF, Fundação Abrinq for the Rights of Children and Adolescents, the News Agency on Children’s Rights (ANDI) and Save the Children UK. This same partnership was extended to an ILO regional project covering Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay and seven countries of Central America. In Brazil’s case, the Project also involved four government Ministries and several civil society organizations in different states. Initial action began with three pilot projects: in Belém by Cedeca-Emaús, in Belo Horizonte by Circo de Todo Mundo and Recife by Cendhec. This work included qualitative studies on domestic child labor followed by meetings and workshops with nationwide media coverage, publications, follow up training, etc. Box 1 provides a synthesis of findings from the Cedeca-Emaus study in Belém, PA. A brief testimony by Carla in a national meeting with child domestic workers held in Brasilia in 2003 is featured in ANDI’s website video. Carla says in this video:
“I felt humiliated, discriminated against. It was as if they
wanted us children to do nothing but work and
live a wretched life. I was the loser! But we can have a life
with a childhood, with dignity”
BOX 1: A snapshot of domestic child work in Belém, PA, North Brazil
As part of a multi-agency project cited above, a 2003 survey carried out by Centro de Defesa da Criança e do Adolescente (Cedeca-Emaús) in the city of Belem, covered 255 domestic child workers, 90 mothers and 35 employers. The child workers included 192 students and 63 non-students; 95.3% were girls; 10.6% were in the 5-11 age group, 47.8% were 12-15, and 41.6% were 16-17. 76% were “non-white” distributed in sub-categories of different shades of mostly Afro-Brazilian origin (i.e., “negras, pardas, morenas, amarelas”). Over 41% started domestic work between 6 and 11 years old and 50% between 12 and 15.
Nearly 83% first worked in third party households against 15% in their own households. Only 52% had an employment relationship that was explicitly acknowledged; even less than 1% had a formal employment card required by law to ensure minimum labor protection, occupational accident coverage and social security contributions. 51% worked on a monthly salary basis, not regularly living in the working household, compared with 44.4% also on a monthly salary basis, but residing mainly in the working household, whereas 3% worked on a daily regime not living on the working residence. 96.2% received their earnings themselves, 2.3% had their salaries paid to their mothers and 1.5% paid to their bank accounts. 56.3% claimed they worked to be support themselves, whereas 34.5% said they worked to support their families. But 54.1% said they used the money mainly for themselves and 45.9% said they used it to help the family. 47.4% had decided themselves to take up domestic work, compared with 31.8% who were compelled to do so by their mothers. Among those who slept at work, 54.5% shared a bedroom with others, compared with 26.7% with their own bedroom and 15.7% who slept in the kitchen, hall, living room or other common area.
80.4% earned up to R$ 100 a month [i.e. about half of a monthly minimum wage in 2003] and 6% earned between R$150 a 200; 45.5% enjoyed paid vacation and 52.9% did not. 41.7% had Sundays off, 16.6% had the week-end off, 36.3% had some hours off throughout the week. 22.7% had work accidents. 43.1% of the work accidents involved burns and 29.3% knife cuts. Psychological violence was reported by 71.6%, physical violence by 24.3% and sexual violence by 4.1%.
Another pioneer action project targeting child domestic work has been ongoing in Salvador by CEAFRO – Centro de Estudos Afro-Orientais (Ceao) of Bahia’s Federal University in cooperation with UNICEF, ILO, the Bahia Domestic Workers’ Union (Sindoméstico), European donor agencies, etc.
The effectiveness of all these campaigns and initiatives on the real numbers of children working is unclear. Yet, these efforts did increase public awareness and undoubtedly paved the way for more effective policies, legislation and law enforcement.
Although the estimates of domestic child workers are not very reliable, the numbers have fallen from nearly 500,000 between 5 and 17 in 2002-03 to 323,770 between 10 and 17 in 2008 (94.2% girls), according to the latest national household survey. Since the number between 5 and 10 is known to be relatively small, the estimates therefore suggest a significant decrease nonetheless.
[Part One of Armand Pereira's article on domestic child labor. Part Two appears next week]
Armand Pereira is an international consultant, former Director of ILO for the United States and ILO Representative to the Multilateral agencies in Washington (2005-2009), former Director of ILO for Brazil (1998-2005), ILO economist in Geneva (1982-1997), etc. The author is grateful for collaboration offered from the Bureau of Labor Inspection (SIT) of the Ministry of Labor and Employment as well as the News Agency on Children’s Rights (ANDI), Cedeca Emaús.
For a summary of figures on global child labor compiled by the ILO, click here.