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ARGENTINA | 17-04-2024 11:56

An X-ray of child labour in Argentina

Neatly 15% of those aged between 5 and 17 are affected by child labour in Argentina, with huge disparities when it comes to socio-economic level, gender and location.

Child labour affects at least 15 percent of the population aged between 5 and 17 years of age in Argentina, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally: there are huge disparities in play when it comes to the socio-economic level, gender and location of each kid.

Statements made earlier this month La Libertad Avanza deputy Alberto ‘Bertie’ Benegas Lynch have re-awakened a debate about an issue that is increasingly relevant in Argentina. Stating that the decision to send children to school should be “the parents’ responsibility,” he suggested the state should not intervene. 

“Many times it can happen, and especially in Argentina, that you can’t afford the luxury of sending your child to school because you need him in the workshop with his father. How is the state going to decide about the boy? I can’t think of anything more invasive,” were the controversial remarks that ignited a social media firestorm. 

Access to full-time education is certainly a luxury many children and teenagers cannot afford. 

According to recent statistics produced by the Barómetro de la Deuda Social de la Infancia (“Childhood Social Debt Barometer”)of the Universidad Católica Argentina (UCA), child labour in intensive domestic activities and the market affects nearly 15 percent of the population aged 5 to 17 (6.9 percent in domestic work and 9.2 percent in economic work).

There are recent documents which help rebuild a more current and complex outlook about child labour in Argentina. The same UCA institution prepared another report (“Human and social development deficit indicators in Argentine children 2004-2023”) which showed that from 2007 to 2019, child labour increased almost exponentially. 

The Covid-19 pandemic delivered an abrupt fall due to enforced isolation, but after that, pre-pandemic levels started coming back.

Naturally, the impact is not the same depending on the socio-economic conditions of the family group of the child or teenager. 

During the period of the UCA study (2007-2023), the propensity to domestic work for children and teenagers between 5 and 17 years old from the lowest-earning sectors peaked at 13.4 percent in 2011, whereas for middle and upper sectors that figure was 2.2 percent. 

In 2019 and during the pandemic, the propensity to domestic work of the first group dropped to 10.6 percent, whereas for the second one it was 3.1 percent. 

As for non-domestic work, something similar happened: in 2010, when there was peak, child labour reached 23.7 percent for those from the lowest socio-economic level, while for the upper level that percentage was 7.6 percent.

Looking at data from 2019, children from poorer homes had a higher propensity to work (11.4 percent, 7.5 in the highest sectors), but after that year there was a steep dive: it went down to 3 percent in the former and 2.1 percent in the latter. 

In the periods during which child labour dropped, the gap between those with fewer and more resources is also reduced.

By 2023, intensive domestic work was performed by 5.5 percent of children and teenagers in a more vulnerable economic situation and 1.9 percent of the sectors in households with higher incomes. As for non-domestic or economic work, the year closed out with figures of 12.8 percent and 6.4 percent respectively.

The problem with these gaps is the high probability that they have of becoming permanent. Access to quality education is highly influenced by child labour, whether by dropping out of school or a lower performance. On the other hand, unequal access to education conditions the ability to get quality work in the future.

“Between 2007 and 2023, there is a positive trend in the schooling of children aged three to five [years of age]. During the period, the schooling deficit was reduced by 16.5 percentage points. Even though it deteriorated during the pandemic, the recovery was remarkable, and 2023 arrived with a 22.8-percent deficit, the lowest incidence in the series,” stated the UCA body in its report.

However, the experts also explained that the inequality gap widened. In 2023, a child aged three to five from the upper-middle sector was 3.5 times more likely to go to an educational institution or centre compared to their peers in the lowest sector. In the case of teenagers, this probability difference rises to five.

Data from the National Child and Adolescent Labour Observatory (Observatorio de Trabajo Infantil y Adolescente, OTIA), although less up-to-date, can help clarify some points within this general outlook. 

The latest national data, from the year 2021, shows that the impact of child labour is higher in the North-West and North-East of Argentina, as well as in rural areas, where the attendance by children between 5 and 15 years of age doubles compared to urban regions and other provinces in the country.

The gender gap also kicks in at an early age. While girls earn an average salary that is 22 percent lower than boys, in the case of teenagers this gap rises to 40 percent in urban areas and 58 percent in rural areas.

“Boys mainly perform activities for the market and personal consumption, whereas girls and teenage girls are more involved in intensive domestic activities, thus revealing a division of work by sex based on gender stereotypes that begin at an early age,” states the OTIA report.

On the other hand, “educational paths are more strongly affected among children and teenagers who conduct market-oriented activities (nearly 45 percent) than in those who perform intensive domestic activities (37.6 percent).”

In rural areas, the OTIA explained “the main activities among teenagers are growing or harvesting products for sale (15.1 percent), helping out in shops or businesses (12.4 percent), construction or housing repair (9.5 percent), brick production (8.9 percent) and milking and taking care of farm animals (8.6 percent).”

As they grow up, minors progress from activities aimed at helping out their family –“67.7 percent of urban children and 65.2 percent of their rural counterparts” – to “precarious wage relationships (39.3 percent for urban teenagers and 29.9 percent for rural ones),” the report warns.

Yet there are more alarming realities behind the numbers reflected in this report. “Among children and teenagers, unfavourable work conditions are evidenced: around one in every three are tired by their activity; nearly one in every three pointed out feeling cold or hot at work; and one out of every four urban children perform their activity in the street or transport.”

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Agustina Bordigoni

Agustina Bordigoni

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