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