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Child Labour in Ethiopia: A Moral Imperative and Structural Challenge

Child Labour Ethiopia
Photo : Food for the Hungry Canada

By Addisu Tsegaye


Child labour is a pervasive issue in numerous developing nations, and Ethiopia is no exception. This socially constructed phenomenon is shaped by cultural, economic, and legal factors that influence society’s perceptions and rationalizations of child labour. Children often engage in work to support their families, with reasons deeply rooted in local customs and economic necessities. The perception of this issue varies across different contexts. While political and legal discourses primarily rely on age as the criterion for distinguishing between child and adult labour, it is important to note that child labour is a socially constructed reality subjected to varying interpretations and implications. 

The term ‘child labour’ is a bit complex and problematic to define. I shall define child labour as a situation where children are engaged in non-domestic economic activities that are often perceived in both the policy and public discourses as inapt, has the potential to put children at risk. 

Personal Observation

Child labour is often rooted in poverty and underdevelopment, compelling young children to join the workforce at a very early age. My awareness of this issue heightened when I observed a young boy, around 12 or 13 years old, working alongside a mason. This child was part of a substantial group of children aged 5 to 14, constituting 25.3% of the population in the country, as reported by the US Department of Labour in 2021.

I first noticed him in the morning while taking my son to kindergarten. At the time, I assumed he was merely playing with sand while accompanying his father. It wasn’t until I returned to pick up my son at 3:30 in the afternoon that I realized this child had been working tirelessly throughout the day. Witnessing him again had a profound impact on me, sparking an unprecedented level of interest and concern in my life. This situation ignited my curiosity not only due to my role as a social scientist tasked with elucidating the underlying causes and context of child labour, but also because of the moral imperative that compels me to bring this matter to the readers’ attention.

The Paradox

Child labour in Ethiopia is a multifaceted issue, entangled with moral dilemmas and structural problems. The heart of the matter lies at the intersection of moral responsibility and structural violence, with communities viewing child labour differently. Some consider it a necessary means of survival amidst economic hardships, while others view it as a clear violation of children’s rights.

The boy, amidst the harsh realities of child labour, finds himself in an incredibly tough situation. Under the relentless sun, he carries out tasks far too demanding for his tender age. His youthful innocence, which should be his defining feature, is overshadowed by the arduous work he is compelled to do. In solitude, he illustrates a narrative of adversity, each stroke of his shovel representing a piece of his stolen childhood. His burden extends beyond the physical realm, for he carries not only construction materials but also the weight of a world that has abandoned its most vulnerable.

In his arduous duties, the boy fetches water, sustains the mason’s ambitions, all while unknowingly perpetuating his own subjugation. He shoulders a load of cement, symbolizing the vast chasm that separates the powerful from the powerless. The boy’s perspiration, a testament to his unspoken suffering, mingles with the tears of countless others who share his fate. This serves as a poignant reminder that the exploitation of child labour transcends economic necessity, delving into the realms of societal indifference, moral neglect, and systemic injustice.

Statistics related to child labour are alarming. According to the 2015 National Child Labour Survey (NCLS), child labour is pervasive, with a significant number of children engaged in work to support their subsistence and families. Surprisingly, by the age of 11, nearly 60% of children are already working, and school enrollment drops significantly as they grow older. This underscores the strong link between child labour and limited access to education, leading to severe age-grade distortion among child labourers.

The consequences of child labour are dire, including low and unstable incomes, extended working hours, and exposure to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Many children who migrate from rural areas to cities face limited support networks, making them even more vulnerable to exploitation while having less knowledge about their rights.

Child Labour as an Unrecognized Form of Alienation: A Bit of Theory

Analyzing child labour in Ethiopia through the lens of Karl Marx’s concept of alienation is thought-provoking. Marx’s notion of alienation refers to a state of estrangement, detachment, or separation that people feel from society, their jobs, themselves, or the fruits of their labours. It is a condition that causes people to feel isolated or cut off from many facets of their lives, which frequently leaves them feeling frustrated, helpless, and unfulfilled.  Although Marx used the notion of alienation with adult industrial workers, I believe that it is equally applicable to explain the experiences of children engaged in labour in contemporary society. Contemporary in a sense, I am referring to post-industrial society.

These young labourers are alienated from their childhood, deprived of the basic joys, education, and social interactions that should define this formative period. Moreover, they are estranged from their labour, subjected to monotonous and physically demanding tasks over which they have no control, perpetuating feelings of detachment and helplessness. 

Marx’s concept of “species-being” is relevant in this context, as these children’s labour does not foster the full development of their talents, creativity, and cognitive abilities. Consequently, Ethiopia misses out on harnessing their full potential. 

Furthermore, child labourers are alienated from the products of their work. The buildings they help construct, for instance, rarely improve their own living conditions or prospects, exacerbating their sense of isolation.

Social isolation is another facet of this alienation, as child labour often leads to children working in exploitative and isolated environments, removing them from healthy social interactions and community life.

Lastly, child labour deprives these children of their fundamental rights, including education, health, and leisure. The limited access to education and skills development restricts their future prospects, effectively perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

The story of the young boy labouring under the scorching sun without the opportunity for play, learning, or the carefree joys of childhood serves as a stark example of the profound alienation experienced by child labourers. The burden they carry, not just in terms of physical labour but also the weight of a society that neglects its most vulnerable members, underscores the depth of their alienation. This analysis underscores the urgent need for comprehensive measures to address child labour and its associated alienation in Ethiopia and beyond.

Conclusion: How much longer must we maintain our silence?

Child labour in Ethiopia represents a deeply rooted and complex issue. It is essential to find a balance between the moral obligation to safeguard these young lives and dealing with the intricate socio-economic complexities involved in addressing this problem. To address the paradox of child labour in Ethiopia, a comprehensive approach that combines moral responsibility, legal measures, and socio-economic interventions is crucial. The aim should be to break the cycle of child labour and mitigate its devastating consequences.

Child labour continues to be a challenge that tests both our moral values and our societal conscience. With a united and persistent effort, the possibility of bringing about positive change remains within reach. This requires a comprehensive approach, not limited to the enforcement of anti-child labour laws, but also addressing root causes such as poverty and limited access to education. By doing so, we can empower these young lives and liberate them from the constraints of exploitation and alienation.

In the face of this complex and deeply moral challenge, it is of utmost importance that we speak up and advocate for these children. We must ensure that their suffering is not only heard but also acted upon, as silence in the face of their plight only perpetuates the cycle of injustice. Our collective voices can make a significant difference in the lives of these vulnerable children.

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of 


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