Reaching out with the toolkit

McGill professor tackles child labour by co-opting health sector

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The issue of child labour has traditionally been broached through setting a minimum age to work, and conditional cash transfer programs, which give families small amounts of money on the condition that children attend school or get vaccinations. However, Anne Andermann, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and an associate member in the Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, along with her coworkers in an international research collaboration called the Child Labour Evidence to Action Research Group (CLEAR), have decided to co-opt frontline health workers in combating hazardous child labour.

According to Andermann, “[frontline health workers] are trusted members of the community with privileged access to information about work-related harm. In addition to providing care, support, and referral for children who are at risk of harm, frontline health workers can also act as a whistleblower. They would be able to collect data on the rates of harm to children relating to work and advocate for larger social and policy change within the community and at a national level.” By developing an educational toolkit for frontline health workers, CLEAR aims to provide them with the knowledge and skills to ask about child labour in a non-threatening way, to educate child labourers and their families about work-related harm, and to promote supportive environments that protect young people from harm.

Recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the Grand Challenges Canada program, the project seems to have potential. This grant will enable a first phase of research, where Andermann and her collaborators will use a participatory approach to develop an educational toolkit by interviewing child labourers themselves, their parents, people working within the health system, and local community leaders and NGOs about how frontline health workers could contribute and make a change for children who are engaged in hazardous work.

Child labour was chosen as the focus point for this project since it’s at the heart of the intergenerational cycle of health inequities in many low- and middle-income countries. Andermann explained that the children who are working, especially when they’re not able to go to school, tend to have poorer opportunities for employment when they become adults and start families of their own. Their children are, therefore, also more likely to work, thus perpetuating the cycle.

The research collaboration has already begun conducting preliminary research on factors like family instability, which may influence at which age children start working. In Brazil, which is one of the four research sites alongside Niger, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the team has already identified one of the main struggles that they’ll face in implementing this project. Andermann shared that “some of the children in the worst forms of child labour might not be accessing the mainstream health system. Those are, of course, the children you would like to help the most. The ones for instance, in Brazil, who are involved in drug trafficking and in other places – human trafficking – are the most difficult ones to reach.”

The toolkit aims to protect children. It promotes alternatives to hazardous work and to create safe environments where they will no longer be obligated to partake in this kind of work. Andermann hopes that this project will contribute to reducing global health inequities in the long term.