Low wages and unemployment are mainstream concerns in Brazilian
society but their most painful sign is the exploitation of child labor.
The debate on the issue of child labor in Brazil begins with two divergent points. The
first one is the definition of child labor. The second, derived from the first, is the
question of finding out how many Brazilian children actually work and under which
conditions. Nobody knows exactly how many children work in the world, in spite of the many
research and statistical institutes in charge of studying this issue.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 73 million minors between the
ages of 10 and 14 are induced to precocious labor, which means 13% of all children in all
poor and rich countries in the world. Five percent of these young workers are Brazilian
children, according to a study by the Brazilian Geography and Statistical Institute
(IBGE). The National Domicile Sampling Survey indicates that 3.5 million children in that
age bracket were working in 1993, when the study was completed (it was published in March
1997). This figure is equivalent to the whole population of Uruguay, one of Brazil’s
partners in the Mercosul Foreign Trade Zone.
The worst part is that child labor is illegal; in Brazil, you have to be 14 to be
employed. This is what the Constitution says in its chapter VII, article 227, which
regulates social responsibility for children and adolescents. The third paragraph
establishes age 14 as the minimum age for admission to the job market and includes other
provisions such as guaranteed access to education and social security, as well as labor
The Child and Adolescent Statute, in its fifth chapter, prohibits any work by children
younger than 14, except in the position of apprentice. This is the loophole that companies
use when they want to obey the law: when the child turns 12, he/she can be an apprentice,
so he/she is hired under special conditions (specific job description in case of a
physical handicap, access to an apprentice scholarship fund, guarantee of labor rights,
etc.). It is known that only 25% of these youngsters carry the carteira de trabalho
(employment identification card) which grants them at least the social security benefits
(known to be very fragile in the Brazilian case, since they do not abide by neither law
nor ethics, as we have seen).
Last year, at the ILO assembly in Geneva, Brazilian Labor Ministry Paulo Paiva
announced that the government has decided to raise to age 15 the established minimum age
for apprenticeship, following recommendations from that organization. Since 1996, ILO has
been proposing a debate about a new child labor convention as a venue for countries to
establish procedures in situations that involve risk and also to eliminate the most
intolerable forms of child exploitation.
The United Nations Convention on Children Rights determines that all people younger
than 18 are children and have specific rights to full development, survival, health,
education, free speech, etc. Brazil was one of the signatories of that convention.
The child issue in Brazil, which is already serious, assumes in fact a much larger
dimension because it reflects (sometimes in an overdose) a regular occurrence in the
overall job market in Brazil, i.e., that informal workwork without the carteira
de trabalhodoes not discriminate on the basis of age. Just as we do not even
know exactly how many adults are actually working in the country, we have no idea of how
many children are already part of the Brazilian labor force. In spite of the lack of
statistics, there is no question about the poor conditions under which these children
work: wages, hours, vacation, breaks, all depend on the good will (or ill will) of
There is no union to protect young workers (often because it is against the law),
especially the domestic workers who have been called "new slaves" at the mercy
of their own families (for whom they wash, iron, cook and oftentimes beg in the streets)
or of whomever "hires" them as nannies, pool cleaners, car washers, gardening
helpers, guards, dog trainers, etc. Given this overall scenario, the profile of the young
Brazilian worker is still an unknown.
Official statistics (such as the Brazilian Labor Market Chart, issued by IBGE) show
that 65% of minors work longer than the legal workday and that more than 80% receive less
than minimum wage. A few years ago, IBGE published a study called Brazilian Social
Inequality Features, according to which almost 8 million children and teenagers worked
at the turn of this decade (3.6 million worked and went to school at the same time). This
figure, ILO estimates, represents some 17% of the domestic labor force. According to IBGE,
14% of those workers are children between the ages of 10 and 13, i.e., below legal age. In
northeastern Brazil, these numbers are twice higher.
Children who work lack both the time and the disposition to play. When a working child
sits in the classroom, he/she can’t pay attention. As a consequence of working, he/she is
more exposed than other children to health problems. At work, he/she is also at risk when
he/she performs tasks, which are often heavy, beyond her strength and aptitude, during
extended hours and with no protective equipment or even training for the task.
Does anyone have any questions about the kind of working hours which adolescents have
to face in the charcoal kilns of Mato Grosso do Sul, the orange harvests in São Paulo,
the sugar cane cutting in Rio de Janeiro, the extraction of salt in Rio Grande do Norte,
the ore mining in Pará, the office-boy daily routines in the huge corporate centers, the
commerce of knickknacks in the corners of the large avenues, the begging at the traffic
lights of the gigantic urban areas in Brazil?
Since 1991, ILO has been working on developing its International Program for the
Elimination of Child Labor, known in English as IPEC. The objective is a direct attack on
the problem in 20 countries, Brazil among them. According to the United Nations, the vast
majority of working children lives in Asia (half of the total), in Africa (a third of the
total) and in Latin America.
It is not only a poverty issue, say the experts at UNICEF, which is a United Nations
agency dealing with childhood issues. In Latin American countries, one in five children
already works. But in Eastern and Central Europe, increasing numbers of children have been
forced to start their working lives recently. In England and in the United States, as a
result of the growth in the service area and in the demand for more flexible labor laws,
employment of the very young has been growing. Gary S. Becker, Economics Nobel laureate in
1992, estimates that over 1.5 million American youngsters perform some kind of labor, even
when their families have a higher standard of living than Latin American and Third World
families who sometimes are extremely dependent on the wages of their offspring for
The United Nations, through its several departments, is committed to uncover the hidden
reality behind such scenarios. It has decided to start with the cruelest side of that
reality: types of work which are hazardous or harmful to children. One example is children
using the large knives required to cut sugar cane. Forty percent of the accidents recorded
in this activity victimize children, although these young workers represent less than 30%
of all sugar cane cutters.
The causes of child labor are often economical reasons. In the case of Latin America,
they are easily visible when we consider the crisis of the 1980s, which spread throughout
several economies in the continent and established the short-term destiny of several
developing countries: (a) government debt, which in turn led countries into recession and
unemployment and (b) World Bank and IMF demands, resulting in restrictiveor
"structural adjustment"policies imposed on debtor countries which
destroyed, among other things, their capacity to invest in education and health. All this
resulted in a drastic reduction of the supply of public services and/or the deterioration
in the quality of such services. Children are direct victims of this situation: most
government cuts affected health, food supply, food production subsidies and social
The result is that in the decade of the 1990s, when most Latin-American countries,
Brazil included, can boast a scenario of inflationary stability and resumed economic
growth, the social picture remains very poor. A survey by UNESCO, which is the United
Nations agency for issues of education, science and culture, reveals that for the past
three years the elementary schools in the 14 less developed countries in the world have
space for only four in each group of ten children. This is not the case of Brazil,
although the situation here is not much better. In Brazil, which is considered the richest
economy in Latin America, the graduation rate for elementary school is only 40%. In the
continent, it reaches 50%.
In the view of the U.N. agencies, a broad strategy to fight child labor must start with
what they consider the logical alternative: good quality schools to which families are
encouraged to send their children and which develop relevant educational programs in which
the students themselves are willing to participate. There are 140 million children between
the ages of 6 and 11 out of school and not very interested in school. An equivalent number
of children drop out of school due to lack of response or encouragement before they
complete the initial phase of the course. It is calculated that 400 million children and
teenagers up to age 18 do not attend any form of regular school. A good percentage of
these young people tries to conciliate school and work, with no good results.
In the beginning of June 1997, the global media started working on an issue which is
important for this case. ILO proposed to its 174 member countries assembled at the
International Labor Conference the adoption of measures to fight bad work
conditionsany kind of work, not only child work. A suggestion was made to create a
global community seal in order to commit world commerce to defend the rights of workers.
That is, the global economy would only accept products coming from countries that provide
basic conditions for dignified work. The market rules issued by the World Commerce
Organization (WCO) make no mention of the problem.
What ILO wants is to attempt to use the community seal to achieve the mandatory status
which is absent in its recommendationsa problem which WCO does not have, because its
recommendations are already legally enforceable. Brazil, in a still unexplained attempt to
retain its place in the global market, is opposing the seal and thus aligning itself, also
without explanation, to competitors such as China and Indonesia, which are countries known
by their use of slave labor (adult and child). All who have adopted the no-seal stance
maintain the position that they are trying to prevent imposition of new non-tariff
barriers. Maybe. The key, however, is to fight for the dignity of work and to include
child work as the priority in this fight.
Also in early June of last year the 7th International Seminar in Technology
and Employment took place in São Paulo, promoted by the Vanzolini Foundation (which has
systematically promoted discussion on the issue of child labor), among others. One of the
conclusions of that meeting was that countries like Brazil will establish their presence
better in the global market when they develop educational and research policies that allow
them to empower and train their workers. Investment in basic educationthe foremost
need of children and teenagersis one of the most effective measures among all the
measures recommended at that seminar to secure competitive entry in the world market.
Experts have been stressing for years that countries need to improve their educational
systems in order to achieve changes in their economic and social scenario. The longer and
the better the educational process is, the less chance there will be for children to be
exposed to labor, they say. That is the reason why the Convention on Children Rights
insists in the fact that elementary education must be universal and mandatory.
If governments would honor their legal commitments in the educational arena,
occurrences of children being exploited for labor would be significantly limited, UNICEF
studies reveal. If there was political will, the funds to create good schools would be
raised and all the innovative ideas springing up all over the world would succeed in
rehabilitating educational systems everywhere. Successful programs are showing results all
over the world.
The Brazilian Constitution says that education is a universal right and the duty of the
State and the family and that it must be promoted and encouraged with cooperation from the
whole society. The Federal Government is supposed to dedicate at least 18% of its fiscal
revenue (25% in the case of state and local governments and the Federal District) to
promote education (maintenance and growth). If this is in fact happening, and if it is
enough, is something that no one can prove when they look at the status of working
children in Brazil.
Minister of Education Paulo Renato Souza has said recently that the technical school
model adopted so far in Brazil favors primarily the middle and upper classes. He promised
to announce a national plan for financing the training of teachers to work in professional
technical schools. The plan, he says, is to meet the new needs of the Brazilian
population. This project should receive funds from the Interamerican Development Bank
(IDB), in the order of $ 500 million.
Entities such as the Brazilian federations for commerce, industry and agriculture have
been developing major technical school programs which are administered through the
National Learning Services for Commerce (Senac), Industry (Senai) and Agriculture (Senar)
and are considered to be the most advanced programs in the field, with centers located
throughout the country. Sesi and Sesc deal with basic education only. Several courses
taught by Senac and Senai schools have been officially recognized as "third
level" education (community college level in the U.S.) The initiative announced by
Minister Paulo Renato Souza should be able to perfect the system and increase the supply
of classroom space for adolescents and young adults interested in training and
Working children and working teenagers value education, declare the specialists.
"Young workers who have completed 2nd level education (high school) boast
an average salary advantage of 14% over their workmates who have completed 1st
level only and 91% over those without 1st level. Young workers who have
completed 1st level, on the other hand, make 67% more money than their friends
who are below that level", says Elenice M. Leite, Senai’s Department for Research,
Studies and Evaluation, in her study "Minors in the Population and Workforce of the
State of São Paulo", 1987.
For the past several years, the São Paulo State Government has been conducting the
Pacto dos BandeirantesBandeirante Pact(Bandeirante = Brazilian historical
explorer), with the purpose of eliminating child labor in rural and urban areas through
programs recommended by multidisciplinary chambers (uniting both government and the
business community) and providing encouragement to stay in school. Several conventions
were created, such as the agreement between the Labor Relations State Secretary and
industry leaders like Abecitrus (orange juice exporting conglomerate) to stop child
exploitation in the orange harvests and to decrease the drop-out rate in the schools, with
support from the companies themselves. Other examples are same-type agreements signed with
footwear industry unions and associations in the metropolitan area of Franca, state of
According to the São Paulo Sugar and Alcohol Industry Chamber of Commerce, which has
signed the pact, there are no more children working in the 200 cities located within that
sugar-alcohol industrial pole, the largest of its kind in Brazil.
Many children left fieldwork but not all have returned to the classroom. According to
the São Paulo State Federation of Agriculture Workers (Fetaesp), there are still some
cooperatives linked to the citrus industry who are employing 8 thousand children up to age
10. This pact is directly led by Walter Barelli, São Paulo Secretary for Employment and
Labor Relations. According to Barelli, the solution to this problem is forthcoming.
A bill was introduced in the São Paulo City Legislature for a law which will
supplement the income of those families who keep their children in schoola pioneer
idea implemented by the local government of the Federal District (capital city of
Brasília).This is related to one of the sections in the pact, which stresses that without
this extra income it is impossible to foresee the effective elimination of child labor in
Brazil. Another section relates to professional training for teenagers in order to prepare
them to enter the job market later.
The Secretariat for Child Well Being has created a "right to family and community
life" program, which fights child labor indirectly by allowing the family of origin
to keep their children. Each family of origin receives $50 to keep its children in school.
The funds are donated by businesses and various agencies (domestic or not, such as the
Associazione dei Bambini, an Italian association for children).
There are several other examples. One is the Somar Project, in existence for three
years, sponsored by two corporations in the region of Matão, in the interior of the state
of São Paulo, which provides care for rural area children, ages 5 to 15, who come from
families who live off fieldwork and the harvest of oranges. Rita Ferrari Magalhães
explains that the primary challenge of her program is to stop parents from profiting from
their children’s labor. The program looks at education in its search for alternative
Along these lines, very important work has been done by the Program for Solidary
Community, directed by Ruth Cardoso (the Brazilian First Lady). She has been insisting in
the concept of exchanging the labor of the child for the permanence of that child in
school, with some form of remuneration for each family who succeeds in doing so. It could
be the way out. In May 1997, for example, the program signed conventions with eight city
governments in the state of Rio de Janeiro by which the eight Mayors committed to
eradicate child labor by paying half a minimum monthly salary (about $50) to each family
who takes their child away from work and keeps him/her at school. There will be
inspections, specially in the Rio sugar cane region. According to ILO, 20% of the workers
in that region are children. Later this year, similar conventions are expected to be
signed by this program with the mayors of the so-called lakes region, where the salt
extraction industry employs many children.
In the sugar cane plantations in northern Rio de Janeiro state, children and teenagers
represent approximately one fifth of the overall work force employed by the 12 mills in
the region. In Pernambuco, estimates from the State Secretary for Labor and Social Action
reveal the existence of 40 thousand dropout children working in sugar cane plantations.
The Bolsa Escola (School Scholarship) program, initiated by the federal government, wants
to solve the problem by paying $50 a month to families of children who attend at least 75%
of the regular class schedule. The plan is good, but the Pernambuco Federation of
Agriculture Workers (Fetape) says it has been progressing at snail’s pace.
The case of the footwear industry in Franca, SP, is exemplary. The Footwear and Apparel
Industry Workers Union of Franca and Surrounding Region, in a joint effort with CUT
(Central Única dos Trabalhadores, a huge Brazilian workers union) and the Inter-Union
Department for Statistics and Socio-Economic Studies (Dieese), with support from agencies
such as UNICEF and ILO, wrote a study which revealed that more than 70% of the children
who live in the city work in the so-called production benches (shoe shops outsourced by
the regional footwear factories) did not have the proper work registration and suffered
from various health problemsheadaches, dizziness, eyesight difficulties (due to
prolonged exposure to shoe glue), cuts, injuries, muscle pain and back problems. Half of
these little workers had repeated a grade at school.
The industry union was called in to discuss the matter and the result was the creation
of the Business Institute for Support for Child and Adolescent Development
(Pró-Criança), founded by a joint initiative involving the same footwear union, the
Franca Commerce Association (Acif) and other entities, for the purpose of stopping child
labor and decreasing the school dropout rate. The Institute launched the Pro-Child Seal,
printed onto the packaging of the shoes, which identifies those factories that do not
utilize child labor in their manufacturing process. Fifty of the 360 footwear industries
in that region are already using the seal.
The charcoal kiln industries in Mato Grosso do Sul present a very similar case. In a
large region surrounding the towns of Água Clara, Ribas do Rio Pardo, Três Lagoas,
Brasilândia and Santa Rita do Pardo, children ages 7 to 14 are utilized to work the kilns
in which the wood is burned to be transformed into charcoal (calcification). This labor
involves daubing the oven doors with mud and collecting the charcoal, still very hot. In
1994, according to data from the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (Land Pastoral Commission),
2.5 thousand children under the age of 14 worked these kilns, along with their families.
As it happened in Franca, the community decided to take action. With support from the
local government, the Citizenship Voucher was created. It is a monthly stipend of $50 paid
to one thousand children who have returned to school "but for whom there is still
much to be done", admits João José de Souza Leite, special programs coordinator for
the state of Mato Grosso do Sul.
Among all initiatives to fight child labor in Brazil, the pioneer and the one with the
most extensive scope is probably the Abrinq Foundation for the Rights of Children, which
was initially an association of Brazilian toy manufacturers. This foundation has created a
community program, which also works as a true marketing tool for businesses. It is called
Empresa Amiga da Criança (something like Big Sister Company) and it consists of a
sealwhich can also be used in advertisingwhich qualifies those companies that
can prove that they do not employ children in any of their production stages and that they
do not use suppliers who employ children.
The program has already enrolled 300 businesses and it also requires some type of
community project, to be provided by the businesses and their owners, such as financial
adoption of day care centers, orphanages and community centers. Approximately 200 thousand
children have been helped through this seal. The Foundation’s goal for 1998, says its
president Oded Grajew, is to launch a campaign to convince the consumer to only purchase
products from companies that sport the "Big Sister" seal in their packaging.
This article was originally published in Portuguese by magazine Problemas
Brasileiros, which you can read on line at http://188.8.131.52/sesc/revistas
Translated from the Portuguese by Tereza d’Ávila Braga. Tereza is a
professional free-lance translator accredited by the American Translators Association. She
specializes in technical and legal translation, as well as simultaneous interpretation,
for corporations doing business with Brazil. Tereza came to the U.S. in 1984 as Trade
Promotion Officer with the Consulate of Brazil in Dallas, where she served for nine years.
She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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