Adrienne Henck

Adrienne Henck (Backward Society Education - BASE): Adrienne graduated from New York University with a Master’s degree in International Education. After her graduation, Adrienne worked at PCI-Media Impact, an NGO that uses creative media and story-telling to mobilize people and communities in sexual and reproductive health. Adrienne also taught English for three years with the J.E.T. Program. When she undertook her fellowship, Adrienne was preparing to pursue a Ph.D. at Penn State University. After her fellowship, she wrote: “I know that (this) experience is going to have a lasting impact on my academic and professional career. I loved Nepal and plan to return as soon as possible. I definitely have a newfound appreciation for how much we have in America."

What is Child Labor?

28 Jul

What is child labor?  Is it the village children sold out of desperation by their poor families to be domestic workers in Nepal’s urban centers?  Sure.  Is it the thousands of children who are trafficked to India to work in various sectors including prostitution?  Absolutely.  The kids bonded to landlords?  Laboring in quarries, brick factories, mines, factories and construction sites.  You bet.

How about…

the boy waiting on customers at the tea shop


the boy selling ice cream?

What about the swarms of children ubiquitous on any Nepali highway, hawking bottled water, snacks and other treats to travelers?  Children like:

the corn sellers, earning some extra cash for school supplies,


the bottled water seller, who only works during the one-month summer vacation.

Probably, maybe, perhaps, and possibly.

And then there’s the Tapa children who, alongside their parents, are busy bees serving customers at the family-run Sithal restaraunt.

Are they really child laborers?

It depends.

Why all the ambiguity, you ask? 

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the term “child labor” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.  It refers to work that is:

– mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and

– interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school, obliging them to leave school prematurely, or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

However, the definition of “child”, while guided by international norms, is largely left to national interpretation.  The Children’s Act of Nepal, 1992, established that a child is any person below the age of 16 years.  According to the policy, though, anyone under 16 engaged in economic activity is a not child laborer.  There are two primary reasons for this incongruity.

First, labor is only legally restricted to those below 14 years.  For those in the 14 to 16 age bracket, labor is fair game as long as it abides by certain restrictions.  Following Nepal’s ratification of the ILO’s Minimum Age Convention (No. 138), the Child Labor Act, 1999, which amended the Labor Acts of 1992 and 1993, enlisted specific occupations as hazardous work and prohibited the use of children below 16 from such activities.  In addition, the Act stipulated working hour restrictions, stating that children from 14 to 16 may not work between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

And second, there is a distinction between labor and work that permits child workers. While many recognize child labor as wrong, societal norms underpin a culture of indifference to child workers.  Most Nepalis just don’t think anything of it when they see a child working, especially if it is a poor child. 

The distinction holds that children, regardless of their age, working by their own free will and under non-exploitative conditions that protect their rights, are legally permitted to work.  BASE, for example, defines children who go to school and also work (e.g. help with family business or work temporarily during summer vacation) as child workers.  While these children should not be required to work more than is appropriate for their physical and mental capacity, they aren’t child laborers. 

BASE also incorporates an interesting assumption into their operational definition of child labor:  any child not receiving an education is a child laborer.  Because a child not attending school is at high risk of becoming a child laborer, BASE conceptualizes these children as child laborers and similarly targets them with their anti-child labor initiatives.  This critical assumption is underpinned by BASE’s emphasis on education.

So given all these international and national regulations, variable definitions and assumptions, the child labor question remains.  What exactly constitutes child labor?  Every night as I eat dahl bhat at my favorite dinner spot, Sithal restaraunt, I am reminded of the ambiguity.  Sarita, 16, always eager to read my Nepali-English phrasebook, serves food to customers; Sithal, 13, the namesake of the restaurant, washes dishes; and Bobina, 8, recent karate brown belt-recipient, chops vegetables.  Sujendra, 14, the only boy and unofficial comedian of the establishment, has the daily responsibility of making the roti, that delicious South Asian flatbread staple. 

Sithal and Sujendra

Bobina, Sarita and Sithal

The role of these children in the economic profitability of the restaurant is undeniable.  But they are attending school, and even extra-curricular activities.  They laugh, play and seem generally happy.  I still wonder, though, if they are missing out on their childhood and how a childhood with more work than play will affect their development.  Every handful of dahl bhat that I shovel into my mouth is accompanied by the aftertaste of this big, moral dilemma.  Is this child labor?  Am I supporting it by patronizing Sithal restaurant?  And even further, am I now part of the larger-scale social problem that perpetuates the system of child labor in Nepal?  Swallow.

I don’t have all the answers to the child labor question.  But I do know that instead of asking, what is child labor?, perhaps we should be asking, who is in school?

Posted By Adrienne Henck

Posted Jul 28th, 2010

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