Extending Social Protection to Combat Child Labour- The Case for Vulnerable Child Migrant Labourers

June 12, 2014

A single cramped room “housed” six migrant workers from Myanmar – women and children, not immediate family relations. Tucked inside a crowded area dubbed “little Burma” in an industrial town close to Bangkok –a hub for Thailand’s seafood processing – I talk to a girl, who is clearly fatigued and weary. She tells me she is 15.

A girl studies at a temporary school in the Baan Mai Nai Soi refugee camp in Mae Hong Son Province near the Myanmar border. © UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1873/Robert Few, Thailand, 2006

A girl studies at a temporary school in the Baan Mai Nai Soi refugee camp in Mae Hong Son Province near the Myanmar border. © UNICEF/NYHQ2006-1873/Robert Few, Thailand, 2006

She describes working long hours, peeling and deveining shrimp at a primary seafood processing unit that often entails work at night. She is illiterate. And when she is not at work, she attends to several young migrant children in the area, as their mothers worked in factories and had no other options for child care. These children do not go to the local school. As per the national education policy, schools are supposed to open their doors to migrant children 15 and under, irrespective of their legal status in Thailand. But when fear, obstacles to access, gender roles, discrimination, and economic vulnerability converge, the result is often a life of child labour.

Across the Gulf of Thailand, in a suburb of Jakarta, a girl works as a domestic labourer. She is barely 13 years old, yet works 18 hours a day, has only studied for 4 years altogether, and is also a migrant, albeit a migrant within her own country. From South Sulawesi, she moved to Jakarta to work. Returning to school, and to her friends, is a dream that cannot be pursued. Her heart and head is set on working, so that her parents and siblings suffer less back in their home village. By law, she is supposed to be in school, and back home, education and healthcare schemes for families and children vulnerable like her are starting to take shape. But, it’s too late for her now. And while similar schemes also exist for the poor and vulnerable in the area where she now works, she cannot avail of these services even if she wanted to. Being a migrant, she is ineligible, even though she is in her own country and it is her right.

Whether in-country or cross-border migrants, children repeatedly cite similar reasons for these life choices (or lack thereof) leading them into child labour. Ailing family members who cannot access or afford healthcare, siblings that could not afford school, food insecurity, unemployed parents, and no maternity benefits or protections, are some of these reasons. Migration in search of work to cope with these very real vulnerabilities is common, even if the children are supposed to be in school and not in labour by law. If any existing social protection schemes exist, they miss these extremely vulnerable children too often.

Today marks the World Day Against Child Labour. The theme is very apt – Extend Social Protection: Combat Child Labour! Indeed, had social protection been extended to these girls and their families at both their home villages and work destinations, they would probably have had a better chance to resist shocks to meet basic needs, and deal with uncertainties. ILO Convention 182 on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour makes a clear call for ratifying member states to undertake urgent actions to protect some of the most vulnerable, particularly girls. All ASEAN member states have ratified this convention, yet many children still remain out of school, in child labour, and without any social protection extended to them or their families.

The personal hardships of the two migrant girls indicate a broader socio-structural problem in relation to extending social protection as a means to ending child labour. Migration is an irreversible reality within and across borders in the ASEAN region, as in most other parts of the world. Both Thailand and Indonesia often receive praise for their expansive efforts on social protection for their nationals, and much has been achieved to the benefit of many vulnerable households. But, while these initiatives are expansive, they are not always inclusive. The two migrant girls engaged/trapped in child labour signify lamentable and real examples of the inadequacy of social protection measures, both in their home area and in their new place of work far from home.

In recent years, social protection has emerged as a major new focus in efforts to reduce poverty around the world. Social protection can be understood as a set of public actions which address not only income poverty and economic shocks, but also social vulnerability, thus taking into account the inter-relationship between exclusion and poverty. Through income or in-kind support and programmes designed to increase access to services (such as health, education and nutrition), social protection helps realize the human rights of children and families. Social protection strategies are also a crucial element of effective policy responses to adverse economic conditions, addressing not only vulnerabilities caused or exacerbated by recent crises but also increasing preparedness to future uncertainty.

Making social protection more child-sensitive has the potential to benefit not only children, but also their families, their communities and national development as a whole. Child- sensitive social protection systems mitigate the effects of poverty on families, strengthen families in their child care role, and enhance access to basic services for the poorest and most marginalized. Since many at-risk children live outside family care, child-sensitive social protection systems must be responsive to this vulnerable group, as well as to children facing abuse or discrimination at home.

So, how is social protection a means towards ending those vulnerabilities that lead to child labour?
The ILO, a member of UNGEI, suggests the following ways:

Cash and in-kind transfer programmes enhance income security for families and facilitate access to education and health care, to help prevent child labour, and promote enrolling children in schools, taking children for health check-ups.

Public employment programmes provide jobs for adults to build and improve public and civic infrastructure, to ensure that it is adults who are at work and not children.

Social health protection ensures access to health care and financial protection in case of sickness, and can deter households from sending children to work when a member of the household falls ill.

Maternity benefits protect pregnant women and recent mothers and allow caring for new-born children, have a key impact on improving the health of mothers and children, and help prevent older children from having to work to replace the mothers’ lost income.

Social protection for people with disabilities and those who suffer from employment-related injuries or diseases prevents households from resorting to child labour.

Income security in old age, such as providing pensions to older people, would help protect younger generations by contributing to the economic security of the household as a whole.

Unemployment protection provides adults with at least partial income replacement, reducing the need to rely on the income of working children when facing job loss.

The ILO’s 2013 World Report on Child Labour (Economic vulnerability, social protection and the fight against child labour) emphasises the importance of addressing the underlying economic and social vulnerabilities that can force families to resort to child labour. Key priorities are:

• The need for more information about which social protection instruments help in fighting child labour, in which circumstances, and why, to guide future action.

• Building national social protection floors in line with the ILO Recommendation No.202 on social protection floors. Health care and income security, combined with access to education and other essential services, can prevent child labour.

• Ensuring that social security systems are “child sensitive” – addressing the unique social disadvantages, risks and vulnerabilities children may be born into or acquire later in childhood due to external circumstances.

• Designing social protection programmes that are child-sensitive, and in particular, child labour-sensitive, to maximise their impact on child labour.

• Ensuring social protection systems reach especially vulnerable groups of children, including children orphaned or affected by HIV&AIDS, migrant children, children from marginalised ethnic minorities and indigenous groups and other economically and socially excluded groups

There is still a long way to go in ending child labour – with 168 million children in child labour, nearly half of them in the Asia region.

Social protection, extended evenly and particularly to vulnerable children and their families no matter their physical location, certainly holds potential for shaping a future free of child labour.

Lend your support to this urgent call for action to “Extend Social Protection: Combat Child Labour” this World Day Against Child Labour.

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Simrin Singh is Senior Specialist on Child Labour in the ILO’s Decent Work Technical Support Team for East and South-East Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand.

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