A Voice for Child Labour

By Okeke Chibueze

So many have been written and said against child labour in many quarters but I am of the opinion that there may be some benefits of this ‘menace’ to the economy depending on the angle we look at it from. So many children in Nigerian are born into families which are not financially buoyant enough to take care of them and this leaves them at a very low social status, very low standard of living and of course an only alternative of surviving on their own. In a country like Nigeria where the citizens are forced to depend less on the government of the day, and fend for themselves; in a country like Nigeria where the government of the day does so much in the areas of generating tax from the citizens without a relative enthusiasm towards making life better for them; where the citizens have to wait for election periods to feel the temporal impact of the government. This is the reality on ground, this is the situation the average Nigerian has found himself in, and survival is a must. How are these families expected to cater for themselves and their immediate needs much less building themselves a future?

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The UNICEF defines Child Labour as follows:

“A child is considered to be involved in child labour activities under the following classification:

(a) Children 5 to 11 years of age that does at least one hour of economic activity or at least 28 hours of domestic work, and

(b) Children 12 to 14 years of age that during the week preceding the survey did at least 14 hours of economic activity or at least 42 hours of economic activity and domestic work combined.”

In a country like Nigeria where the citizens are forced to depend less on the government of the day, and fend for themselves; in a country like Nigeria where the government of the day does so much in the areas of generating tax from the citizens without a relative enthusiasm towards making life better for them; where the citizens have to wait for election periods to feel the temporal impact of the government.

What isn’t Child Labour?

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A child or adolescent participating in after school activities or work can be a positive thing for their socio and intellectual development. In some countries, farmers allow their kids to help out on their farm doing very minor work or some parents have family businesses where their kids apprentice. As long the work doesn’t interfere with the child’s education and development and it doesn’t harm the child’s health in any way, it cannot be considered child labour.

These definitions above, if juxtaposed with the harsh reality we are faced with in a country like Nigeria, appear too soft for the kind of children who we want to grow up into responsible, hardworking and industrious youths and adults.

In those days, the pride of the common Igbo man was the number of children he had, the number of wives and of course his land was his estate. From puberty, the boy is trained to be industrious, waking in the morning and heading to the farm while the girls handle the chores as well as prepare the meals to be taken to the farm for those there. The popular adage “onye no n’ulo nooro onye gara ubi, onye gara ubi gaara onye no n’ulo” (He who went to the farm went for him who is at home while who is at home is at home for him who went to the farm). Industry was the order of the day and the boys grew into men, measuring their growth by the output of their labour.

However, the advent of the industrial age and the emphasis on white collar jobs and formal education, has increased the hope that at a point one would acquire so much education that he would be qualified to have a well-paying job and be comfortable in life. With this hope and expectation, so many youngsters get into the secondary and post-secondary institutions and by the time they are done, they realize that the much-taunted well-paying job is nowhere to be found. Those who have spent all their years in the academic environment being only academic students realize that their certificates do not have the power to give them the lives they have so anticipated. Some who can get back into the academic field to upgrade themselves by going further in the field while those who cannot resort to job-hunting without minding the pay, “After all” they say, “Half Bread is better than none” “At all at all na him bad pass”. Yet, the emphasis on formal education continues; the emphasis on certificates continues; the emphasis on an elusive wonderful life after school continues.

Meanwhile, those who decide to get into some level of apprenticeship, labour, soft skills, crafts…, after some lower levels of formal education or none at all acquire the necessary skills and start hustling for themselves. They are dabbed in rags, dirty and torn cloths and footwear; they have become so used to the strokes and various forms of abuse, verbal and physical; the harsh weather combines with the economic realities on ground to thicken their skins and toughen their spirits; the only language that makes sense to them is the language of the street “Work for what you want” “You must earn it as no one is willing to give it to you on a platter”. In the course of their incubation periods, they have been taught or taught themselves to save for the future because business must not be good everyday. They gather experiences from here and there such that they can delve into any form of job when the need arises. Since the only language they understand is that of dignity in labour, they are not ashamed to roll up their sleeves, bend the knees, get dirty and earn from their sweat. The Igbo proverb “Aka ajaja n’ebute onu mmanummanu” (dirty hands bring about red lips) is their anthem and their motivation.

By the time they grow to the age of 18 or more, they had tried their hands on various business ventures and are already getting stabilized in one or two. At this age or soon afterwards, they have made or are making contacts with one or two persons who, haven seen their drive, commitment and integrity decide to commit one or two products or service into their hands as representatives of their companies, thus expanding the opportunities at their disposal. Trust is not built in one day, thus they must have taken pains in building this over time and thus endearing themselves to the hearts of would-be investors, financial or material investors, without knowing it. There are mistakes that may be forgiven a child or teenager but not an adult. Thus, these ones, through series of mistakes while growing up and still within the shelter of a boss, make series of mistakes without having to bear the consequences thereof because they are learning. As they grow older, the lessons from those mistakes remain with them and they will thus not have to repeat them. Taking risks is no longer new to them as they are known to always delve into new grounds to make profits and expand their business. All this while, their counterparts in the academic sector may still be dependent on parents and sponsors for their fees, personal expenses and upkeep, at the same time, not seeing the need to save or invest, they spend whatever is sent to them because they have the hope that they will always get more money when the need arises.

While these ones grow to take up their future in their hands and thrive on whatever they have or can get for themselves, the others expect so much from the government of the day, their parents or relatives or their environment and society. They expect so much from everyone except themselves like the world owes them anything.

Examples abound of men who are millionaires to day and employers of labour because they got into the much-vilified child labour

In conclusion, there is a need for us to understand the need for a balanced society. Everyone cannot be an academia neither can everyone be a builder of businesses or employer of labour. The emphasis on formal education should also be replicated on vocational and technical trainings in crafts and entrepreneurial skills. We should expend the same vigour and strength on encouraging our children and youths to become financially responsible for themselves from a very early age. Child labour should not be vilified the way it is in our society today as it is not every family that has the resources or the opportunity to send their children to acquire formal education. These ones should have the alternative of encouraging their children/wards to put their hands into entrepreneurial ventures without having to be made to feel inferior.

Provisions should be made by those who can to train these children in various crafts and skills while team spirit is inculcated into them to see how great businesses can be built from such network or convergence. As they acquire the necessary skills, they may as well be taught some basics of formal education basically for the purpose of communication in the world outside their horizon and for the purpose of their businesses. With the contributions of policy makers and already established business owners, there could be a lot of great benefits of child labour to our society and the economy of the country.

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