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Problematising the Concept of Child Labour in a Capitalist and Heteronormative Society

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Discussions around child labour are incredibly complex, especially because the concept of childhood has been re-examined in recent years. This paper will explore how the Western concept of childhood is instrumental in a capitalist and heteronormative society, and how this limited concept of childhood informs legislature on child labour. It will discuss how this legislature currently harms a great number of children while perpetuating capitalism and heteronormativity.

James and Prout (1990:2) note that in the past few decades, scholars have begun to problematize the notion of ‘the child’ and the adult/child dichotomy. Stephens (1992:7-8) relates this to a recent explosion of media coverage around child abuse, which has challenged the idea of children being carefree, naïve and protected. James and Prout (1990) assert that childhood is a social construct. They argue that “the immaturity of children is biological fact, but the ways in which this immaturity is understood and made meaningful is a fact of culture,” (James & Prout, 1990:7). Because of this, the meaning of childhood changes from culture to culture.

In recent decades, organisations and governments have a great amount of legislature with the express purpose of protecting children. A notable example of this is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been globally ratified

. In light of the fact that childhood is socially constructed and a concept informed by cultural context, one single piece of legislature cannot assume a universal understanding of what is meant by a ‘child’. If we are to impose one single notion of ‘the child’ onto the whole world without exploring the nuances of childhood, a certain group of children will be catered to while others will be marginalized (Stephens, 1992:35). For this reason, it’s imperative that we take a close look at the social structures implicit in the construction of the idea of childhood in order to explore the issues with current child labour laws.

Firstly, Stephens argues that the construction of the child/adult dichotomy is instrumental in upholding capitalism in Westernised countries (1992:7). The child/adult dichotomy runs parallel to the private sphere/public sphere dichotomy. Children are relegated to the domestic sphere – the home – while adults are expected to participate in the public sphere. The private sphere is seen as a place for so-called ‘childish’ behaviour, such spontaneity, freedom, emotion and play. The public sphere, on the other hand, is a place for ‘adult’ behaviour: discipline, work, routine (Stephens, 1992:6).

Stephens argues that capitalism relies on the construction of work being relegated to the public domain. It also relies on the idea that work and productivity is necessary; it is simply what is done when one is an adult. Thus, constructions of childhood in the West lend themselves to supporting capitalist ideologies. Children who participate in the public sphere – including through work, which this essay focuses on – are met with moral condemnation (Stephens, 1992:9).

I would go a step further and say that children are an integral tool in heteronormativity. Heteronormativity refers to the propagation of heterosexual norms through various social, political and cultural institutions, including religion, culture, law and politics. These institutions present heteronormativity as normal and acceptable, as well as privileged. It also enforces certain types of ‘acceptable’ heterosexual behaviour, and thus not all heterosexual relationships are heteronormative (Berlant et al, 1998:548).

Heteronormativity posits that only certain kinds of sex are acceptable. Sex which is not done for reproductive purposes is not acceptable. Thus, children are seen as the desirable result of sexual relations, and an integral part of the family. The idea of the ‘nuclear family’ is an extension of heteronormativity. Many queer theorists posit that heteronormativity governs not only sexual relations, but familial relations as well: heteronormativity upholds the idea that certain kinds of families are acceptable and those who fall outside of the norm are not (Rubin, 1984:154-158).

Certain legislature intended to protect children can sometimes perpetuate heteronormative values. A key example is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the preamble of which describes the family as “the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and well-being of all its members,” (Stephens, 1992:37).

The Convention seems to assert that biologically based relations – particularly those between parents and children – are more important than any other relationship. The Convention thus can serve to marginalize some same-gender couples as well as familial structures in some marginalized, including African families (Stephens, 1992:37). There is a plethora of papers that demonstrate that the concept of the ‘nuclear family’ – and indeed, heteronormativity – is a Western intrusion (Rubin, 1984:154-158).

If much of the discourse around ‘childhood’ is heteronormative, capitalistic and deeply influenced by Western ideology, it is imperative that we consider how this discourse affects children who don’t come from heteronormative families, live in Western societies, and are poor. The topic of child labour is particularly complex and demonstrates the need for a deconstruction of the ‘naturalised’ idea of the child.

A great number of scholars and theorists have explored how Western development experts and organisations have oversimplified ideas around childhood and child labour, to the detriment of children (Nieuwenhys, 1996:242-246). The condemnation of child labour means that children are not allowed to participate in the public sphere by working.

This is not only rooted in a concern for child welfare, but a need to protect the wages and positions of adults: many theorists have pointed out that trade unions and social norms alike aim to protect the economic welfare of adults by excluding children from the labour market (Myers, 1999:15). This reinforces the aforementioned idea that children need to be relegated to the private sphere while adults must participate in the public sphere.

There is a strong link between heteronormative ideals and the preservation of children as passive and economically dependent. Nieuwenhys argues that the points out that laws aiming to eliminate child labour are rooted in a standard based on the ‘sanctity of the nuclear family’ (1996:242). The condemnation of child labour means children are expected to be passive and are made dependent on their family and state.

Nieuwenhys argues that “the need to direct children into [economically useless] activities is linked to a system of parental authority and family discipline that was instrumental in preserving established bourgeois social order,” (1996:247). Indeed, children are expected to be dependent on their parents until they’re old enough to work and soon thereafter, old enough to have their own families. This dependence on parents reinforces the heteronormative notion that children are the property of – and thus subordinate to – adults. This centres the notion of the family as vital to social life and marginalizes those without families. The position of family as pivotal to one’s social life is thus heteronormative.

Legislation such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child enforce the idea that the (biological) parents of a child are expected to care for the child before the state is, which makes a heteronormative assumption about the familial situation of the child. The assumption here is that a) children have adult parents that will care for them and b) that those adults are willing and able to financially support them, and for this reason, children shouldn’t have to participate in child labour in order to survive. This marginalizes children from poor and non-heteronormative familial structures, who are thus meant to depend on the state.

As Nieuwenhys notes, there is a discrepancy between the care a child is expected to have, and the care the state usually provides for a child (1996: 238). The result of this is growing child poverty. Anthropologists have pointed out the link between child poverty and child labour – poor children are often forced to work in order to survive (Nieuwenhys, 1996:238-240). Later, the paper will discuss the case of children working on wine farms in the Western Cape, which will demonstrate the link between child poverty and child labour.

By perpetuating the view of children as passive and unable to participate in the economy, we are reinforcing the notion that children cannot be economically productive. However, in a number of cultures around the world, children are expected to perform labour. This ‘labour’ is usually invisibilised as it is considered play, education, socialisation or training. In these instances, children are expected to perform labour but gain no economic dependency from it. Some anthropologists have pointed out that compulsory schooling systems could be considered a form of child labour, especially those that are particularly strenuous (Stephens, 1992:15-16).

Anthropologist Mélanie Jacquemin explored the issue of young domestic workers in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. In a great number of communities in Abidjan, it is common practice for young girls to be engaged in economic activities in order for them to support themselves and their families. A common form of labour for young girls is domestic work. It is common for young girls to live far away from their homes, with (wealthier) extended family members, and to perform domestic work for their family in exchange for being cared for (Jacquemin, 2006:390-392). However, as Jacquemin points out, a great number of girls are expected to work for around 11 hours a day with very little compensation (Jacquemin, 2006:398).

Most of these girls are below the age of 15, which is the legal age to begin working. Because of the laws surrounding child labour, these girls are not protected by regular labour laws (Jacquemin, 2006:398-402). Although they are performing strenuous work, it is invisibilized and seen as a cultural tradition rather than work – much like other children all over the world are expected to work at school. Jacquemin points out that this work is ‘invisibilized’ because most Western organisations and experts render this domestic work as ‘familial work’, and thus don’t consider it to be labour (Jacquemin, 2006:401).

This stems from a misunderstanding of kinship ties in non-Western cultures (Jacquemin, 2006:401-402). The heteronormative, Westernised notion of ‘family’ is thus imposed onto marginalized cultures without nuance, to the detriment of the children. While the girls are performing labour, they are still rendered economically dependent. Thus, child labour laws contribute to their exploitation, not their protection.

We can draw a similar conclusion from exploring the more local example of children working in wine farms in South Africa. In South Africa, it is illegal for people under the age of 15 to engage in paid work. This, however, does not prevent children in rural vineyard towns from engaging in work; rather, it makes children more vulnerable to exploitation in their workplace. Susan Levine points out that child labour laws fail to protect children – particularly poor coloured and black children – from being exploited (Levine, 1999:139). A great number of the children in Levine’s research need money in order to support themselves and their families, and for this reason, they feel that they need to work on vineyards.

A great number of children also participate in this kind of labour because they feel it gives them value and a sense of self-worth. Levine mentions that a certain child, Noluthando, felt inferior to her peers who consistently worked on vineyards (Levine, 1999:147). This is not an uncommon reaction to childhood unemployment – a great number of poor children feel a sense of self-esteem and independence when they are able to work. Niewenhys argues that this is linked to a capitalist mindset which posits that a person’s value is linked to their productivity. Without money and economic value in a capitalist society, it is difficult to feel valuable and worthy (Nieuwenhys, 1996:248).

In Rawsonville in the Western Cape, vineyard workers and their families are given ‘free’ housing by their employers. Their employers expect the women and children to perform labour for them in return. The labour of the children is viewed as training or a social reciprocation, and as such the child labour is invisibilized (Levine, 1999:141). A great number of these children are exploited, not only because they are overworked and unpaid, but because they are abused and intimidated by their employers, who view it as ‘disciplining’ the children (Levine, 1999:150). Children are particularly vulnerable to exploitation as they are not protected by labour laws because their work is rendered illegal as they are children (Levine, 1999:142).

Levine points out that child labour contributes majorly to the wine industry in the Western Cape, and indeed, to the local economy (Levine, 1999:142-149). However, children are still rendered economically dependent and vulnerable to exploitation. By criminalizing labour for people under the age of 15, child labour legislature drives child workers underground, leaving them without access to protective laws and trade unions.

Both Levine and many of the child labourers she spoke to believed that eliminating child labour would not eliminate poverty; two child labourers argued that “making child labour illegal would cause greater insecurity for poor children and their families,” (Levine, 1999:150-152). Because poverty and child labour are mutually reinforcing, we can conclude that criminalizing child labour paradoxically ensures that there is a constant source of cheap labour for vineyard farmers, thus forming a part of the capitalistic economic system. Levine concludes that criminalizing child labour perpetuates economic inequality, rather than eliminating it (Levine, 1999:143).

Tom O’Neill’s research on young carpet weavers is a case study which highlights issues with the assumption that children have no agency (O’Neill, 2013:93-94). The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child uses a fixed age to specify when certain rights and entitlements apply to people. This has been criticised as scholars have argued that maturity isn’t dependent on a fixed age, but on a nu,ber of cultural and individual variables.

As a result, certain children are arbitrarily assumed to have no agency at all (O’Neill, 2013:94). By examining the lived experiences of these young carpet weavers, O’Neill shows that the topic of children’s agency needs to be explored with more nuance. The assumption that children lack agency reinforces heteronormative notions: by acknowledging children’s agency, we would be challenging the notion that children are inferior to, and the property of, adults – an idea which is crucial to heteronormative social and familial order (Rubin, 1984:154).

Through various case studies, we can see how criminalizing child labour is currently failing to protect children. A great reason for this is because legislature – including the nearly-globally ratified UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – fails to take cultural context into account, and instead relies on a Western construction of ‘childhood’ that is informed by both heteronormativity and capitalism.

Child labour laws, in their current form, do less to protect children and more to protect heteronormativity and capitalism. Certain children – specifically, the ones capitalism and heteronormativity marginalise: the poor and those from ‘dysfunctional’ families – are most hurt by these laws. Paradoxically, child labour laws in their current form do more harm to children than good.

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Problematising the Concept of Child Labour in a Capitalist and Heteronormative Society. (2019, February 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 20, 2021, from
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