A reflection on ‘child work’ and its measurement over the life cycle

While many would agree that addressing the issue of child work is of high importance, the consensus on how to appropriately define children in work is not always clear. Already difficult to outline for the average adult, it is less obvious how various forms and conditions of work should be considered in relation to children, and how they are measured across their life cycle as they transition into early adulthood.

The Young Lives data is well placed to contribute to this discussion as the household survey has generated rich information on children in work across time. It has a wide array of information on various forms of work (inclusive of domestic chores, care work, and economic work) reported both by the child and the caregiver which can also differ by its reference period (hours worked on a typical week or worked for at least an hour in the past 12 months), and type of payment (paid, unpaid).

Previous papers published by Young Lives highlight the strong incidence of child work through children’s time use that includes domestic chores and care work. The inclusion of domestic chores and care work was particularly important in highlighting gender difference, where girls tend to work longer hours in domestic chores and care work (see, for example in India, Singh & Mukherjee, 2017). The recorded hours spent in work also has important implications in understanding the interaction between work and schooling hours.

Other Young Lives research shows that children can work too many hours, resulting in detrimental effects on their schooling (Tafere & Pankhurst, 2015; Woldehanna & Gebremedhin, 2015). On the other hand, work is also a vital component to children’s survival, as well as their family relationships and aspirations for the future. Some children are also proud to be working and contributing to their household, and in some cases are able to build skills and networks to improve their productivity and access to work (Pankhurst, Crivello & Tiumelissan, 2016; Morrow, 2015).

The latest Young Lives data visualization (available here) instead attempts to unify the definition of incidence of paid work across time for children of the Older Cohort. This encompasses children who reported to have been in paid work for at least an hour in the last 12 months, across all rounds of the survey data. In this, we exclude domestic chores and care work not because they are not important aspects of work, but because we want to analyse trends around which children are involved in economic work as they transition into early adulthood.

This visualization evidences that incidence of work at age 8 is greater across our country sites in Ethiopia, Peru and Vietnam (8 per cent to 15 per cent) compared to India (2 per cent). While there is no clear trend between age 8 and 15, there is a clear upshot in incidence at age 19 that continues to rise until age 22. It is interesting to note that the magnitudes of the percentages at age 19 and 22 are quite different across country sites, suggesting differing access to further education or even early marriage or parenthood that may cause drop out from the labour market, depending on the country context. Moreover, we can see that across our country sites in India and Ethiopia, children were initially mainly involved in agricultural work but this shifts to non-agricultural work around the age of 15, raising questions on accessibility to different types of work at different ages.

Even a very brief look at this visualization prompts questions around the types and conditions of work children are involved in and how this changes across time, whether or not migration occurs in search of ‘better work’, and what other aspects of their lives (studies, family, care work) are being balanced with their current work. Since this visualization only sheds early insight into our findings from the fifth round of the survey, we will address these questions in our later work on labour market transitions.

Evidently, there are many nuances and variances of work that bring about different, context-specific, policy measures. For instance, this blog by Young Lives Director Jo Boyden, highlights the importance of accessible, relevant and high quality education that would not only cut costs for children to go to school (so that they do not have to work to go to school), but also relevant knowledge that links children in school to work opportunities. Meanwhile, this guest blog by Keetie Roelen discusses the importance of child-sensitive social protection to effectively reduce exploitative forms of child labour, as well as move away from criminalisation and stigmatisation of benign forms of child work.

It is therefore crucial to be aware of how we define ’work’, especially across children’s life cycles, so that we can clearly reflect the experiences of children who are involved in work in order to best inform policy.