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Child labor could affect almost 6 million children in Brazil

The practice, which is illegal in Brazil, is underreported and occurs even online

Mariana Zanetti

“Many of my students no longer have fingerprints because they started working on semiprecious jewel production at such a young age. This is only discovered when they apply for their Brazilian ID card.” The report by a public-school teacher in Limeira, São Paulo State, was the catalyst for Sandra Gemma, from the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), to start researching the semiprecious jewelry and costume jewelry production process in Limeira, which is known as Brazil’s “plated jewelry capital.” “While the sector provides economic advantages and jobs in the city, it is blighted by serious problems with child labor, in addition to other external costs, such as the environmental impacts,” says Gemma.

Brazilian law prohibits children under the age of 14 from working. After turning 14 they can work as apprentices, as long as they are directly supervised, not exposed to risks or unsafe working conditions, and the role does not hinder their physical, psychological, or intellectual development. The Brazilian Household Sample Survey (PNAD) of 2019 found that 1.8 million children and teenagers were working in Brazil—21% of whom were aged between 5 and 13. “The issue is severely underreported and in reality these numbers should be higher, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, which deepened social inequalities in the country,” says Zéu Palmeira Sobrinho, a labor judge and law professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte (UFRN).

In Limeira, there is an additional element: working from home. “When production processes were outsourced, the assembly, welding, and setting stages, for example, were transferred to the workers’ homes, in improvised conditions,” says Gemma. “Children were then included in these production processes as a way of increasing family income, with many losing their fingerprints due to the use of chemicals and friction of constantly working with the jewelry, among other consequences.”

The UNICAMP specialist’s studies began in 2009 and lasted a decade, resulting in a book released last year. In 2016, Gemma, Marcia Cristina da Silva Vendramini, and Andreia Silva da Mata asked students from nine public schools in Limeira to fill out a questionnaire. Of the 8,000 children aged 6 to 18 at these educational institutions, 741 were given permission to take part in the survey by their guardians. The results showed that 213 of 569 participants aged 7 to 13, equivalent to 37%, had to work to help their family—of these, 51 (28%) were involved in semiprecious jewelry production. Others offered manicures, collected recyclable materials, or worked in civil construction. “The children reported working for between two and more than eight hours a day,” continues Gemma. One particular detail caught the attention of the researchers: of the total of 741 respondents, 235 answered that they had siblings younger than 14 years old who worked at home. “This indicates that the number of children working at an age prohibited by law may be much higher in Limeira,” explains Gemma.

Brazil is one of the few countries that collects accurate data on child labor

Who to ask?
“Uncertainties about child labor figures affect the formulation and direction of public policies,” says Guilherme Lichand, an economist from São Paulo working at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. In collaboration with American psychologist Sharon Wolf of the University of Pennsylvania, USA, he carried out a study in Côte d’Ivoire, which together with Ghana accounts for 50% of world cocoa production. It is estimated that 1.6 million children work on cocoa farms across the two African countries. Based on data collected in 2018 and 2019, the two researchers compared reports from children and their guardians with the conclusions of a certifier that uses satellite images to determine the extent of child labor on farms in Côte d’Ivoire.

In an article published on the preprint server SSRN this year, the researchers showed that more than 60% of parents omitted the fact that their children worked. According to Lichand, the possible reasons for this include a fear of punishment, such as losing custody of their children, or a fear of reduced income if the company were to be fined by the country’s regulatory bodies. “The official data released by institutions such as the International Labour Organization, the World Bank, and UNICEF [United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund] are obtained exclusively from interviews with guardians. But as our study reveals, reports from children are more accurate,” says Lichand. “In other words, global child labor figures are likely to be underestimated.”

The pair used the interviews in Côte d’Ivoire to develop a statistical model. To learn more about the situation worldwide, they then tested their model on data from 97 countries and compared the results with the World Development Indicators (WDI) released by the World Bank in 2015. The simulation revealed that globally, child labor may have affected 373 million children aged 7 to 14 that year. The number is almost three times higher than the WDI estimate of 136 million.

One of the countries with the greatest discrepancy between official data and the findings of the model was India, where child labor was 1.7% according to the WDI, but 36.3% as estimated by the researchers. In Brazil, the predicted figure is seven times greater than determined by the WDI. Instead of 2.5% of 7- to 14-year-olds working as the World Bank suggested, it would be 19.15%. That would mean around 5.6 million children and teenagers were working in the country in 2015.

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The numbers obtained by the simulation for Brazil were compared to data from the Basic Education Assessment System (SAEB) on students from the 2nd, 5th, 9th, and 12th years of school. “Thanks to SAEB, Brazil is one of the few places in the world where data on child labor exists, with information on employment and use of time reported directly by children. In 2019, 15% of students in school year 5 reported working outside the home. If we add the 2% of children aged 6 to 17 who were not enrolled at school, the total would be 17%, much closer to our estimate,” explains Lichand.

Cruel face
Domestic work performed by children in their own homes is one of the most underreported forms of labor, says Laura Souza Fonseca, a pedagogue from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS). “I am not referring to work as an educational principle, when a child does chores based on their age, such as washing the dishes or making the bed—tasks that should be encouraged. I am referring to working long, exhausting hours, usually by girls, to enable the parents to work outside the home. This includes taking care of younger siblings, for example, and does not appear in the statistics because it is usually defined as ‘helping out,’” points out Fonseca, who has been investigating the subject for three decades.

According to the specialist, the situation reflects the precarious living conditions of many Brazilian families in peripheral areas, especially in large cities. “There are not enough daycare centers, for example. The result is that older children take on the role of an adult. This has a series of implications for schooling and later has repercussions on efforts to enter the labor market, reinforcing the cycle of poverty.” Rosana Baeninger, a retired professor at UNICAMP’s Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences (IFCH) and a researcher at the institution’s Elza Berquó Center for Population Studies (NEPO), agrees. “Child labor exposes the most perverse and cruel face of social inequality in our country,” she says.

Baeninger is one of the coordinators of the child labor atlas released last year by NEPO and Brazil’s Public Prosecutor for Labor (MPT). She explains that the publication by the two institutions aims to establish a timeline of child labor in twenty-first-century Brazil using data from the nation as a whole, the state of São Paulo, the São Paulo Metropolitan Area, and the municipalities of Sorocaba and Campinas. The initiative covers the first decade of this century. “Between 2000 and 2010, the number of children and adolescents working in Brazil fell by 13% due to two factors: increased oversight, especially in rural areas, and a falling birth rate,” says Baeninger. “On the other hand, the number of Black, multiracial, and Indigenous children working in the North, Southeast, South, and Midwest regions of the country has grown.” According to the 2019 PNAD survey, 66% of child workers in Brazil are Black or multiracial.

In the early twentieth century, children represented almost 40% of the factory workforce in São Paulo

The atlas also shows that child labor for self-consumption nearly doubled in that period, rising from 238,000 children in 2000 to 458,000 in 2010. “Self-consumption means the children worked on farms, raised animals, or fished not to sell a product, but to feed their own families. This shows that without eliminating poverty, it will be practically impossible to eradicate child labor in its various forms,” emphasizes Baeninger.

There is evidence of child labor in Brazil since colonial times. In the early twentieth century, for example, children represented almost 40% of the factory workforce in São Paulo. “Child labor is normalized in our culture and even today there is a belief that it is beneficial for children and teenagers, but this idea only seems to apply to the poorest people,” says Palmeira Sobrinho, one of the founders of the Center for Child Labor Studies (NETIN) at UFRN. Born in Paraíba, he worked in sales and as an office boy during his childhood. “Many of my friends at the time who also had to work got sick because they had to do such strenuous work,” he recalls.

“Child labor damages the physical and mental health of children and adolescents. The consequences of working at such a young age often only appear later, during adulthood,” says psychologist Valdinei Santos de Aguiar Junior, who wrote a book on the subject in partnership with pediatrician Luiz Carlos Fadel de Vasconcellos of the Department of Human Rights, Health, and Cultural Diversity at FIOCRUZ. According to Aguiar Junior, public health can play a significant role in combating the exploitation of children for work. “The SUS [Brazil’s public healthcare system] has a great reach and can thus even help children who are not in school. In some cases, when children are injured at work, families lie about what really happened to avoid punishment. Health professionals need to be attentive and welcoming to children and their families, ensuring protection if needed.”

One belief about child labor is that it keeps children and teenagers away from the world of crime. But this is not shown in data from research being carried out at the Foundation for Child Development (FUNDAC), located in the city of João Pessoa, Paraíba. In addition to undergraduate and graduate psychology students, 20 teenagers serving court ordered socio-educational measures at FUNDAC have participated in the project—led by psychologist Maria de Fatima Pereira Alberto, from the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB)—over the past five years. With funding from the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), those involved acted as interviewers. “Of the 250 questionnaires and interviews carried out so far, more than 80% of the teenagers serving socio-educational measures were working below the legal age limit,” reports Alberto, head of the Center for Research and Studies on Childhood and Adolescent Development (NUPEDIA) at UFPB.

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The research resulted in a book organized by Alberto and Rafaela Rocha da Costa, a psychology professor at the State University of Minas Gerais (UEMG). According to Alberto, 70% of the interns started working between the age of 10 and 14, in a range of jobs, from mechanics to couriers. “Many start out in legal activities and then migrate to drug dealing, which pays better, but is high-risk,” says the expert.

Child labor online has been on the rise since the middle of last decade, particularly in one specific role, the child digital influencer: children and adolescents who produce social media content. “The social profile is varied. It ranges from lower to upper middle-class children, with a prevalence of girls,” says Renata Tomaz, from the School of Communication, Media, and Information at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (ECMI-FGV), author of O que você vai ser antes de crescer? Youtubers, infância e celebridade (What are you going to be before you grow up? Youtubers, childhood, and celebrity; Edufba, 2019), the result of her PhD at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).

“Children under 13 are not allowed to create accounts on some platforms, but they do so anyway,” points out lawyer Thais Roberta Rugolo, from the Children and Consumption Program at Instituto Alana, a children’s rights organization that has produced a brochure about the topic. “When they stand out and gain an audience, they can earn money from the platforms themselves or through being hired by companies for advertising aimed at other children online.” Of course, very few achieve this level of visibility. “Only a small minority manages to earn money from it, and then their families live off their income,” reports Tomaz. “It is a job that demands responsibility, energy, and time. Child influencers need to create content and interact with their followers to ensure engagement.”

According to Rugolo, it is a form of artistic work, a category that encompasses occupations such as models and actors. “Brazilian legislation allows children under the age of 16 to perform these roles provided that they have judicial authorization, known as a permit, generally provided by the contracting party. This ensures the Judiciary is able to assess the impacts on the child, but it is rarely utilized in artistic works online,” says the lawyer. In 2020, France passed a law regulating the activity of YouTubers under the age of 16. The legislation establishes the need for a permit and limits working hours, among other measures. It also establishes that income above a certain threshold must be deposited in a bank account that can only be accessed after the child turns 18. “Brazil could use this legislation as inspiration,” concludes Rugolo.

Work in jewelry manufacturing in Limeira, São Paulo (nº 14/25829-0); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Sandra Francisca Bezerra Gemma (UNICAMP); Investment R$26,141.50.

Scientific article
LICHAND, G. & WOLF, S. Measuring child labor: Whom should be asked, and why it matters. sept. 14, 2022.

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