There’s a boy asleep in my English class. Ok, so learning verb tenses is not the most riveting, but I’m definitely trying to make it as lively as I can. I’m teaching teenagers aged between 15 and 17 years, who are all Myanmar migrants living in Thailand. Most seem fairly engaged, except for this young lad, who’s maybe just not interested, I surmise. A few weeks later, I am reading letters these students have written me telling about themselves, their families, their hopes and dreams. The sleepy lad’s letter is coherent and descriptive, revealing how most evenings (after he has taken two buses and from school and attended six classes), he works until midnight helping to tap rubber on his family’s plantation. While he is sometimes plagued by tiredness, he always has a gigantic grin slapped across his face, showing perpetual joy at having the opportunity to attend school.
Globally, there are around 168 million children (or 11% of all children) who work, with over half of these engaged in work which is harmful to their health and well-being. Many (68%) of these children are working unpaid, assisting family with care-giving, household tasks or helping in family businesses. In Ranong, where I was teaching, children often work in fish or charcoal factories, on fishing boats or construction sites. While many of us probably helped out around the home as children, according to the International Labour Organisation, child labour is defined as dangerous (physically, morally, socially or mentally) AND interferes with school. Work could prevent children from ever attending school, stopping school after a certain age or, like my sleepy student, combining work and school together. None of my childhood tasks would therefore have been categorised as child labour per se.
Back in Australia, this week I shared my sleepy student’s story with similar aged students here. While many of these students had part time jobs such as sports coaching and working in takeaway food outlets; the stark comparison of this story to their own lives was useful in their study of the ethical issues associated with child labour.
The United Nations believes children’s rights should include education, play, leisure, cultural activities, access to information, freedom of thought and conscience and religion, as well as living lives free of exploitation, neglect and abuse. Using this platform, the Australian students and I discussed the ethical dilemma in the sleepy student’s situation. The rights of having play, leisure and education seem to be compromised against working to help his family of six struggle to survive on the sale of natural rubber in a volatile global market. Would the education be worth it, they wondered, to help lift his family out of poverty? Hopefully in this case, the long, slow education process will be fruitful for him and his family. As to whether child labour could exist in Australia, the students weren’t so sure.
Ethically, there is something wrong with a society which prevents children from being children. Many countries have progressed so as to effectively eradicate child labour. However, with such conflicts still present in our world today, how do we change society to enhance children’s well being and reduce exploitation? As a global society, we need to be a force for good, not just in our own neighbourhoods and countries, but elsewhere, where children are not always guaranteed the freedom of being a child.