I have just made a quick survey among my friends: when did you have your first job? My first job experience that felt as such was at the age of 13 at boarding school. One day the principal showed up in class and explained that he was looking for volunteers. A quick “you, you, and you!” took care of that problem. The roof of the building, a majestic baroque structure overlooking the Inn valley, had to be renewed. Rubble and bricks had to be taken away. To this end, they gave us tin salad buckets, and this is how we set out on a few days’ work. We did not get paid.
Was that child labour? No, and calling it that would trivialise real child labour. However, this and other “first job” stories from my colleagues show how differently work is experienced. Some of it is also reflected in the discussion about child labour.
It starts with the basic question of what work or labour actually is. Some colleagues regard washing their car or gardening as work. Others, while having engaged in this activity, do not define it as work. To them, it was a nice childhood memory with a touch of workout. This is surely based on the question of whether the work was optional, whether everyone was joining in, whether it was paid work, and whether it left time for fun and community experience.
The age at which colleagues had encountered their work experience was also very widely scattered. While some had had their first work experience in primary school, others experienced their first job at ages 10 through 14. This group brought up stories that I would regard as “real” work. Most often they would be set in the tourism or agricultural industry. The common element was mainly that the work happened within a family context. An element that also comes up in classic child labour.
The largest part of people I asked had had their first “work” experience at 14 or 15 – which is by definition no child labour. Many had to do a required internship as part of their training. Most commonly, those were experienced as badly paid and involuntary. This clearly shows that asymmetric relationships can be experienced as unfair despite payment.
What is the conclusion? Some of us had to work “properly” prior to the age of 14. However, none of the people I asked would define it as child labour. Child labour robs children of their childhood, potential, and dignity and harms them physically and mentally. This definition indicates the problems of child labour, but it does not provide us with a check list that would help identify child labour everywhere and without a doubt.