Standing at McDonald’s today, waiting impatiently for my order to arrive, I was shocked by the teenage boy (no older than 15) handing me my brown paper bag order. Standing next to him in a grey apron was an even younger child, perhaps no more than 12 years old, whispering worriedly in his elder’s ears.
What the hell… was my first thought.
I felt completely outraged. How could a child work for a living!! I wanted to spring into action. First, I was going to ask the boy for his age, indicating that there is a problem here. Second, I would loudly make a scene with the manager to see if other people at the store would support my outrage. Third, perhaps even post the issue on Facebook to get public opinion behind the problem. I mean, after all, that would be the right thing to do, this is after all child labor, which is morally and legally just WRONG.
Child labor is a global issue that has haunted politicians since the 1800s. A 2016 ILO report estimated the number of children (between the ages of 5 -17) in labor as 152 million globally, of which, 73 million were in hazardous work. However, not all of these children were employed in morally questionable circumstances frowned upon by the International community.
But then it hit me. Had I asked the boy about his age, he would’ve probably lied …
Why would he do that, you ask? Because there is a chance he WANTS to be there.
As I observed his behavior more closely I noticed he obviously relied on his older friend for some advice. They were there together, perhaps even siblings. And if they were indeed related, could this job be a method of earning a living for a family that was struck by some sort of misfortune where the kids have to bring in cash instead of the parents? Maybe his parents are sick, or disabled somehow.
Of course, there is a chance also that he DOESN’T want to be there, that his family is made of a drug addict father who is using his kids to fuel his unemployed filthy habit.
The point is, I didn’t know his circumstances, and shouting loudly at the manager was not going to give me the answers I wanted. But that got me thinking about the validity of the whole “child labor” moral objections we as a society have been programmed to believe in. After all, the child was really in more danger than he would face helping his mother cook in her kitchen.
The child obviously comes from a poor family, and even if he goes to school regularly and attends university, he would be lucky to find a job in an economy where unemployment was 10%, and where unemployment of holders of an intermediate, university and higher degrees reached 87.7 percent of the total labor force.
What if this situation could be viewed as an apprenticeship. The situation actually gives the child valuable experience that he could later build on for the rest of his life. After all, he would have his foot in the industry, and perhaps one day he could open his own restaurant. I had recently come from a trip to Assiut where I interviewed three 19 years old teenagers who started operating their own cafe’s relying on nothing more than the experience they gained while working in similar vocations.
So I started to wonder, is all form of child labor illegal?
Turns out it wasn’t. According to the ILO, there are various categories of child labor, some of which was permitted legally. Children in employment is defined as a broader measure comprising both child labor and permitted forms of employment involving children of legal working age. There is also the definition of children in light work, where national laws or regulations may permit the employment or work of persons from 13 years of age (or 12 years in countries that have specified the general minimum).
Child Labor, on the other hand, excludes children in employment who are in permitted light work and those above the minimum age whose work is not classified as the worst form of child labor, or, in particular, as “hazardous work.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the “nasty” forms of child labor. They are children in the worst forms of child labor, defined as children working in slavery, prostitution, illicit activities, or work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children. Children in hazardous work are those involved in any activity or occupation that, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm their health, safety, or morals.
So a kid working in MacDonald’s clearly fell in the first group of child employment, provided his age was no less than 13 or 12 years old. The kid was doing light work, after school hours (it was 5:00 pm when I saw him), and was not engaged in any shady or dangerous work. He was actually permitted by international conventions to be exactly where he was. As far as I am concerned, he reminded me of the bygone “apprentice” term, where kids at all ages would be permitted to shadow an older person in a vocation of their choice, in order to learn much needed skills that was not offered by conventional education.
So yaa I am all for it, but I wanted to learn more about child labor and apprenticeship history. Why did child labor get outlawed in the first place, and what happened to the apprenticeship mentality? That however, is the subject of another article…