Review of Earning a Life: Working Children in Zimbabwe - Institute of Development Studies

Earning a life: working children in Zimbabwe
edited by Michael Bourdillon

2001: (pp: 220) 210 x 145 mm
ISBN: 079742162

Institute of Development Studies (

What problems do working children in Zimbabwe experience? How can they best be heard and supported?

A new book draws attention to the plight of working children and suggests ways forward, while acknowledging that children's earning are essential to the livelihoods of many marginalised families. Rather than focusing on children's work as a problem, the book argues that work is usually a solution to greater problems and that, in most cases, stopping children from working would worsen their situation. Work in itself is not problematic, but rather the manner in which some children are treated when working.

Some forms of work are exploitative or dangerous. In Zimbabwe, children work in both formal and informal employment, as street vendors, prostitutes and domestic workers, and in commercial farming, mines and tea and coffee estates. While children's formal employment receives much attention and criticism, informal employment often involves longer hours and lower pay, and is sometimes concealed as work for the family under fictitious kinship ties.

Children work in a variety of contexts outside normal formal and legal structures, and these informal, sometimes hidden forms of employment are difficult to monitor or control in terms of type of work, hours and remuneration. In addition, many children do unpaid work for their families, for example, agricultural or caring work. Such work is not easily controlled and some children may be exploited and receive insufficient attention to their health and education.

Earning a Life considers immediate concerns about working children, and makes recommendations for longer-term policies. Immediate concerns include instances of violence against children, the harassment and abuse of street children, and the lack of structures to protect young domestic workers.

Research findings include:

Many Zimbabwean children do need to work, and adults should be encouraged to supply the necessary employment, and to ensure that children receive the necessary support and protection

Both practical plans of action and reflection on attitudes towards working children are needed

A child-centred approach is needed: adults must take children's views seriously concerning their reasons for working, the problems solved by working, the areas in which they feel abused or neglected, and the areas where they feel change is needed

Appropriate forums are needed where children can air their experiences and opinions. Ways forward were discussed at a workshop on working children in Zimbabwe held in Harare in 2000.

Although legislation alone will not resolve working children's problems, it can support other programmes. Existing laws protecting working children must be better publicised and their implementation monitored

Codes of conduct are needed for both formal and informal employment and unpaid work

Children need support services, for example, counselling services, education, skills training and health services

Community structures, for example, church groups, can be used to uncover and monitor hidden forms of child labour and to support children

Adults in all communities must be made aware of their responsibilities towards all children in their community

Publicity campaigns must raise awareness of children's rights and of issues concerning working children, and emphasise the need to involve children in finding solutions.

© The author/publisher

Review of Earning a Life: Working Children in Zimbabwe - Hugh Selby

Earning a life: working children in Zimbabwe
edited by Michael Bourdillon

2001: (pp: 220) 210 x 145 mm
ISBN: 079742162

Law Society Journal - The Law Society of New South Wales
October 2002, Vol. 40, No. 8
Reviewer: Hugh Selby, Law Faculty, ANU

Illegal work but it keeps children alive

AIDS has ravaged Zimbabwe with barely a family untouched. Little wonder that so many children are forced out to work to obtain the bare necessities for their survival, and that of their younger or ill family members. This is country in which more than half the population is now under twenty.

Bourdillon has studied the resilience, the plight and the aspirations of some of these working children. Fellow Zimbabweans with similar interests have added their contributions to his. The result is a book that condemns the Zimbabwe government without a word of overt criticism, that exposes the suffering caused to children when the world’s bankers apply the financial thumbscrews to an economy which is a mess, that persuasively shows why the do-gooder instincts of well-heeled ‘advocates for children’ in First World countries are at best irrelevant, and at worst murderous.

Let these children speak for themselves. Those who worked in a mining community (gold and chrome) raised these problems with their housing: lack of windows, electricity and toilets; excess of ants, fleas, and dust; roofing falling in when it is windy.

In a rural community, a lucky, and intelligent 13-year-old girl reported, ‘Working (from 4.30 a.m.) is not enjoyable … [but] I have to work because if I do not I will not be able to go to school, have uniform and food’. She has those things but she has no shoes.

Bourdillon’s introductory chapter is a gentle synthesis of a long-term disaster, one which reaches out to embrace and so degrade or destroy many times more lives than the much-publicised terrorist attacks of last year.

Of the street vendors who work from sunrise to sunset the researcher noted, ‘The life of child vendors depended on God’s mercy: none of those in my sample could afford the high costs of medicines’.

Most of the work discussed in the book offends national and international law. The children are underage; they work long hours; they work in unsafe, polluting and unhealthy environments; they miss an education; there are no written records; they have no union. But it does not help a starving child to condemn the results of his or her labour. When the market is destroyed so is the child.

Their daily toil is illegal. Their only other option is to be ‘legally’ dead, assuming there was ever a record of their birth!

© The author/publisher