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Child labor: ecological perspective

Given the strong development of democracy and child right protection, the problem of child labor is still one of the main challenges for the world community. According to UNICEF definition (2011), child labor is ―the work that exceeds a minimum number of hours, depending on the age of a child and on the type of work‖. A child is considered as a ―laborer‖ when he/she is ―economically active‖. Although it is thought that most rich nations have overcome this problem, and that it is the problem of developing countries only, the US government estimates that approximately 2.3 million adolescents ages 15 to 17 worked in all kinds of jobs in the US in 2008. It has to be noted that this estimate excludes children under age 14 who work in agriculture (Human Rights Watch, 2010). 

According to the International Labor Organization , 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work in developing countries, and at least 50% of them work on a fulltime basis [1]. In developing countries, child labor is not considered as a flaw of society, and is seen as a way of survival for the family. But, despite that, child labor is one of the negative factors that deprive children from childhood, when the basis for their future is laid [2]. A well-known fact that childhood is the time for shaping values, which influence her/his future life positively or negatively, based on experience the child has had [3]. One of the main negative consequences of child labor, noted by Weisbrot, Naiman and Rudiak , is the denial of education and destruction of the basic principles of child development that leads to the economically and politically unprivileged future life. In addition, the hazardous work, done by children in many countries damages their health and increases child mortality [4]. Furthermore, some authors describe child labor as a form of child abuse. Basu and Vang claim that the phenomenon arises due to desires of employers to find a cheap labor and of parents ―to enjoy leisure‖ while their children work. According to Smith, employers do not refuse to use child labor because there is no strong punishment for it [2, 2]. For instance, a typical fine for violating child labor laws in the US in 2000s was only 275 USD. However, the penalty was increased to 11,000 in 2010 [5]. In developing countries, the penalty for using child labor is either minimal or there are no any really acting rules on child labor field.

Kyrgyzstan, a former Soviet Union republic, is a developing agricultural country located in Central Asia. The country‘s population is about six million people and is relatively young; almost 30% of its population are children under age of 15. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (2009) gives the 2007 official statistic data, which indicate that more than 40 percent of children under 14 in Kyrgyzstan were working. UNICEF estimates that 4% (40,000 children) of the school-age population were not in schools regularly or at all, while local NGOs stated that 120,000 children were out of school. Many reasons contribute to child labor in Kyrgyzstan. In available reports that were found in the topic of child labor in Kyrgyzstan, a Report on Child Labor in Kyrgyzstan of ILO (2001) identify poverty caused by a family‘s low income and high rate of unemployment among adults as the main factors that impact child labor utilization. However, the level of child labor does not always depend on a family‘s economic situation. Edmonds (2004) points out that cultural norms and parental preferences also have a significant role with respect to child labor and that income level has no decisive importance.

According to Baland and Robinson, while many surveys and research on estimation of number of children involved in child labor exist, only a handful of studies theoretically discuss the roots, reasons, and consequences of this phenomenon [6]. Kyrgyzstan is not an exception: the country has a few child labor research that are primarily aimed for statistical purposes. Thereby, this paper explores child development in light of the child labor in Kyrgyzstan applying ecological perspectives.

As Anderson and Carter point out, ecosystem is defined as ―an organized whole made up with components that interact in a way distinct from their interaction with other entities and which endures over some period of time‖ [7]. Thus, applying the ecological model, we analyze a child‘s behavior and development through intersecting and interdependent systems, which can explain the reasons for child labor, and the needs and the consequences of child labor utilization as it pertains to education and human capital [8]. According to Bronfenbrenner, these systems exist in four levels microsystems being on the first step, meso-, exo-, and macrosystems [9]. It is worth noting they are interdependent on each other, no matter what level they are in the model [10]. For this reason, using ecological theory to understand the issue of child labor not only considers the problem in the aforementioned levels, but also places a child in the heart of the whole system that impacts his/her behavior, development and life course.

Microsystem, the first part of ecological system, which includes the relationships and interactions a child has with one‘s immediate surroundings (family, workplace, school, and peer groups). [11]. Family plays a very important part in the determining a child‘s early life course as parents can decide if a child will go to work or study – a decision that is defined by the family‘s immediate needs [8]. A deeper look into the situation of families with working children in Kyrgyzstan shows that these families are in severe financial need, and live in extreme poverty. According to State Statistics Committee of Kyrgyz Republic, about 50% of population lives under the poverty line. According to Ranjan [12], the long term needs of educational attainment that can contribute to family‘s future well-being becomes possible to reach when family members have sufficient sources to at least satisfy their basic needs. Even when Kyrgyzstan was part of the Soviet Union, children helped parents or relatives by working in tobacco and cotton plantations and were valued for their work. However, at the time, child labor aimed to provide children with skills that would prepare them for adult life; and utilization of child labor was less prevalent then when compared to current situation.

Bronfenbrenner states that while the family, as a microsystem, most influences a child development, it is only one of the many interdependent factors in which progress or regress can and do occur [9]. Mesosystem embraces a set of microsystems, such as family, school, peer group, neighborhood or workplace, and provides connections between them [11]. The examination of interactions between microsystems gives integrated vision of the causes and dynamics of child labor as children usually affected by the interplay of microsystems such as family, school, workplace, and peer group [13]. The education system in Kyrgyzstan is indifferent to the education of Kyrgyz children. According to the presentation of Social Research Center of American University in Central Asia, the Kyrgyz children showed the worst results among 65 countries in the knowledge assessment conducted in the frame of OECD program. Unfortunately, there is no tendency to improve this situation because of dozens factors which results in a very poor education of children. In given situation with Kyrgyz education system, it is difficult to say that children will prefer to go to study rather than work and start adult life. Interestingly, a relationship seems to exist between educational level and labor participation: children with lower level of education have higher preferences to work, and the more children are working, the less their education level. Consequently, according to Germain and Bloom, in nearest future it conducts to personal and social difficulties in an environment that permanently demands educated and skillful persons for adequate participation in socio-economic life [14]. Finally, Shapiro and Crowley points that the early start of adult life by children, associated with support of family by making money, invariably leads to a lower level of education and, consequently, to lower expectations about high-paid work [15].

Peer groups that impact a child‘s decision to start work and leave school, are another example of how the microsystems interact [9]. It is important to note that peer influence is proportional to distancing the child from the family [16], that is, it has direct relationship with the family ties and family stability. External forces, for instance, parents‘ absence because they forced to do extra-work to or a sense of guilt experienced by children when they see peers earning money and helping their families, motivate children to look for ways to make money and leave school. Children often do not understand the consequences of making decisions that narrows the opportunities for their development. Additionally, many scholars point out the intergenerational implications of early child labor and leaving school. According to Marshall, ―the less fully [the children's] facilities are developed, the less will they realize the importance of the facilities for their children‖ [17, 12].

Though exosystem – the third level of systems that interact – do not necessary include children, this level could have a significant impact on them as it affects the individuals who interface directly with children [11, 18]. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost all factories and plants in Kyrgyzstan were closed. The collapse led to mass unemployment that intensified after the two revolutions and inter-ethnic armed conflict in 2010. Most men, considered as the main breadwinners of the family, were forced to leave for Russia to look for work. The older children, especially boys, take the role as breadwinners and work to support their families. According to Dickson-Gomes, early children's responsibility for their families well-being often lead to profound insecurity, basic mistrust and identity crises among children [18]. This often results in high level of committing suicide, crime, as well as developing mental issues among children.

Kyrgyz national legislation for child labor is based on the main documents on child labor established by the international community, which includes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the ILO Convention Concerning the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment, and the ILO Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. According to these conventions, use of child labor the age of under 14 is prohibited, however, child labor utilization remains. Moreover, the number of children involved in child labor becomes higher than ever before. Weisbrot et al. claim that the economic situation of most developing countries is too bad to activate the existing laws [4]. The authors express that the effectiveness of programs to reduce child labor would be much effective with the support and cooperation of economically developed countries.

The ecological theory, finally, considers macrosystem – the highest level of ecosystem. The basic component of this level include the traditions, customs, culture, ideology, norms and values that impact on particular issue. Recent history of Kyrgyzstan shows a noticeable gradually changing of societal values regarding child labor. During the USSR government, the main priority of society was education. It was compulsory to go to school; attendance and performance were the main indicators of a child‘s success. Child labor then was limited to public work such a collecting paper and a scrap metal, and the duties to ensure purity of educational buildings and the surrounding area. Child care system was organized so that the entire system – community, schools, parents, and neighbors – were involved in child rearing and collective solution of children‘s problems. Now, values have dramatically changed and child labor is no longer considered as something shameful or forbidden. As mentioned above, the child labor in developing countries, especially in Central Asia, has become the main labor force in agriculture. Social stigma towards parents, whose children are working, decreased as ―the proportion of people violating the norm became high‖ [19, 3]. Given this situation, the interconnection of different levels of ecosystem is obvious; the changes in macrolevel impact on individuals‘ behavior. In its turn, individuals‘ behavior form macrolevel factors such as values and cultural norms. Altogether, this process shapes positive or negative perception of child labor as phenomenon [11]. .

It should be noted, however, that child labor is not always seen as a negative phenomenon [8]. According to Patrinos and Psacharopoulos, there are two perspectives on child labor: The first suggests that society needs to ban all forms of child labor, as it creates the preconditions that perpetuate poverty [20]. Another perspective implies that child labor can produce positive results as the desire to become financially independent and support parents are economically poor. It raises self-esteem and reinforces the sense of belonging to a family [8]. Sometimes, it helps children to overcome the arbitrariness of parents and society.

Unfortunately, Kyrgyszstan has no study of the widespread in the south of country phenomenon called "shaqirtchilik." Children, aged 6-8, are matched with fixed for a masterprofessional who teaches the children a particular profession. Typically, these children do not attend school or attend only primary school while they work as an apprentice until they are 1516, after which they may start their own business. Although, the efficacy of this set-up remains unstudied, the author observes that many of these children appear to be more successful in business life opposed to those who have obtained higher education.

In applying the perspective to the issue of child labor in Kyrgyzstan, one must closely consider the strength and limitation of the model. According to Ungar, unlike other theories, the ecological approach pays great attention to the interconnectedness of transactions between systems, and emphasize that all the existing elements are equal in maintaining of balance in the ecosystem [21]. The theory is useful in the study of child labor as it reveals the roots of the problem in all levels of children‘s ecosystem. Additionally, the theory helps explain how each level impact a child. In its turn, this gives an opportunity to create strategies and approaches to create more effective programs to address child labor by taking into account interconnectedness and interdependence of all factors contributing the issue. At the same time, the strength of the theory can be seen as its limitation. The model has a tendency to ignore personal changes. In other words, though the theory tries to explain how immediate surroundings can influence children‘s behavior, the theory unable to explain the different behavior of children, considering personal traits such as temperament, character or other personal qualities [7]. Another weakness of theory is that systems theory assumes the constant balance within and between the different parts of system. This gives a large distortion in the application of this theory to the problem as the model does not take into account both risk and protective factors, which are very important in developing of the child life trajectory.



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  3. Masten A.S., Coatsworth J.D. The development of competence in favorable and unfavorable environments: Lessons from research on successful children // American Psychologist. – 1998. 53(2).
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