Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail – Rethinking Our Response to Child Labour

Posted on August 08, 2016

June 12th, 2016 marked the celebration of Anti-Child Labour day across the globe.  Governments, human rights organizations and activists came together to unite against the exploitation of youth and unequivocally denounce child labour.  At the periphery of the conversation, however, was the short film Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail.   The story explores the complex issue of child labour from the perspective of a 13-year-old garment maker in Morocco.  Fathima, the fictional subject of the film, is an amalgamation of the experiences of several child workers at a pyjama-making factory documented by a 1998 child employment study in Morocco.  Researchers followed the “pyjama trail” left behind by these young workers when they lost their jobs at the hands of foreign interveners.   Fathima serves as a representative for millions of working children whose opinions and experiences remain unacknowledged by the enactors of child protection policy.  The film exposes the systemic barriers that affect millions of child workers in developing nations and fuel their desire or need to join the workforce.  The perspectives emphasized in Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail seek not to condone child labour, but rather to provide a contextual view of the issue that has been absent from the legislative assemblies, classrooms, and dinner tables of the developed world.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), an agent of the United Nations, there are approximately 168 million working children, with 85 million of those children being employed in hazardous workplaces.  Many children around the world face the seemingly insurmountable barriers of systemic inequality and poverty.  The depth and pervasiveness of these social ills have permeated the history of the Global South and continue to shape its present state.  In an effort to alleviate their poverty, many children work to support their families and to develop practical life skills.  Stuck between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”, children in the world’s poorest communities have accepted the reality of working under the age of 14 years.  In order to curb the number of child workers, federal legislation, international conventions, and corporate mandates have evolved to create child labour free spaces and qualified minimum age standards.  Yet the effectiveness of these measures may not be absolute.   The methods designed to protect children may, in fact, victimize or criminalize them.  Prohibition of employment can deny these children an income in spite of their dire economic position, or force them into exploitative labour.  The experiences of the young workers on the Pyjama Trail, capture the inconsistency between commonly held perceptions of child protection and the circumstances of children in the developing world.

Fathima, like many other young girls, struggled to find independence amidst the constant balance of domestic duties and education.  When her family encountered a financial crisis, her father reluctantly agreed to Fathima’s proposal to forgo her education in pursuit of work in Morocco’s booming garment industry.  It was legal in Morocco for a child between 12 and 15 years old to work as an apprentice, building practical skills that they would employ in future careers.  This practice was particularly attractive to young women who were facing bleak graduation statistics that ultimately lead to limited job prospects.  For young girls in particular, generating their own income allowed them to resist traditional gender roles.  In fact, Fathima turned down an arranged marriage during the time of her apprenticeship because of her newfound independence.  She was also celebrated in her community for supporting her family in their time of need.  Amidst this optimism, the realities of Fathima’s employment challenged her resolve.  Fathima’s hours were extended but her training did not progress.  She was not granted job security or taught specialized skills.  But Fathima had no choice but to continue as her family was now reliant on her income.  Furthermore, she would lose her newly realized independence if she abandoned her position. 

Foreign journalists eventually descended on the garment factory, producing a scathing exposé on their use of child workers.  Despite the fact that Fathima was working within the laws of her own government, European purchasers pressured her employer to remove her at the risk of having their own contracts terminated.  At no stage in the process were the young workers consulted about the conditions in which they worked or the reasons that they pursued employment.  Prohibited from the garment factory, she returned to the domestic duties of her home as she could not afford to enroll back in school.  In this domestic role she had no opportunity to learn new skills or explore future job prospects and her family was once again resigned to their poverty.  Fathima also suffered a loss of dignity as a result of being completely excluded from the decisions that directly affected her and her family.  Analyzing Fathima’s story before, during and after her apprenticeship, reveal the complexities facing working children.  Exploring the choices made by each party involved, including Fathima, her family, the government, media, foreign purchasers and her employer, provides a glimpse into the range of factors that must be addressed in the creation of enduring child protection policy.

Recent national and international legislation has taken aim at child labour across the developed and developing world.  These regulations impose child labour bans across a growing list of occupations, with some bodies calling for blanket minimum age standards devoid of any exceptions.  Current child employment bans in services across developing nations are epitomized by the “raid and rescue” missions taking place in factories and workshops.  These missions, characterized by a blitz into workplaces that are suspected to employ children, gloss the television and computer screens of the developed world.  Taking aim at the employers and families that enable child workers, these raids also subject working children to the juvenile justice system.  Rehabilitation may include institutionalization, home care, and mandatory education.  Without appropriate follow-up support and a lack of flexibility, these rehabilitation programs have been found wanting.  In fact, these programs have bred distrust amongst working children, who now actively evade institutional workers and the police.  Even if a child is successfully entered into school or a rehabilitation program, he or she (and their family) are still at the mercy of the systemic poverty that led them to seek employment in the first instance.

Anti-child labour campaigns have permeated not only the legislature, but the markets as well.  Much like free trade coffee or organically grown produce, commodities certified as child worker free have entered the market to empower consumers as responsible purchasers.  Many corporations have pledged to boycott companies in their supply chain that utilize child workers, and some countries have created transparency requirements for businesses contracting with those that may employ children.  Furthermore, the media is extremely critical of companies that employ young workers, creating another push for child-free supply chains.  This scrutiny pressures corporations into age restrictions and boycotts, whether out of their own moral mandate or to preserve their public image.  In the film, the actions taken to remove Fathima from her apprenticeship were a direct result of media and consumer pressure that came despite the legality of her employment.  These corporate or consumer driven boycotts ensure that there is no reprieve for working children, even within their country’s laws.

For children that must generate income, employment bans force them to pursue illegal employment out of necessity.  The invisible nature of this work renders children powerless in the negotiation of hours and wages.  The checks and balances in place to ensure non-exploitative employment (such as the police or government) become unavailable to children that hold prohibited positions.  Furthermore, to compensate for this shortfall in income, families require more of their children to seek employment in order to maintain the household.  The consequences of the labour ban, and subsequent unregulated work, is therefore not only the exploitation of working children, but also an increase in their number.

The persistence of working children, despite government and corporate intervention, has spurred organizations across globe to facilitate the participation of children in the national and international conversations that affect them.  The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is an internationally binding scheme that sets out the rights of youth under 18 years old around the world, irrespective of race, gender or ability.  Article 12 of the UNCRC empowers children to have their voices heard in administrative proceedings that address the restrictions and freedoms which are imposed or afforded to them.  Yet the presence of working children has been denied at proceedings across the globe.  The film Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail, and stories like it, are therefore needed to raise awareness about the children’s perspective.

Working children’s unions, including the Bhima Sangha of southern India and the MOLACNATS of Latin America, note that current legislative strategies are aimed at managing issues that are secondary to systemic failures in their communities.  These organizations assert that the reasons behind child employment are unacknowledged by the creators and enforcers of legislation.  Child employment, justice system engagement, and poor health are all byproducts of poverty and inequality.  Until these underlying issues are addressed, there will consistently be a need for children to join the workforce.  To quote a member of the Bhima Sangha, current child labour strategies are akin to “removing the scum from the top of a boiling pot, without doing anything about the fire underneath”.  Legislative strategies and foreign interveners must acknowledge that using superficial measures to manage symptoms will ultimately fail to eradicate the disease.

Article 32 of the UNCRC recognizes that children must be protected from economic exploitation and hazardous work.  More specifically, the article articulates that work is prohibited where it interferes with education, or disrupts health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.  The United Nations have carefully crafted this article in a manner that protects a child’s right to safe employment, while simultaneously recognizing the necessity for education.  Countries spanning the developed and developing world have ratified this convention, in a move that speaks to the universality of child protection and empowerment.  We have a tendency, however, to synonymize the words employment and exploitation when discussing developing countries, yet fail to make the same connection with our own child workers.  This double standard belittles the true problems underlying child employment in developing nations and patronizes working children.  Furthermore, international child employment policies and laws may not transplant perfectly onto a range of economically and socially diverse nations.  A decentralized approach to employment policy may be better equipped to identify the cultural considerations, educational trends, and economic realities that have such broad implications on child employment.  A recognition of the similarities and differences between developed and developing countries will greatly contribute to the creation of legislation that working children deserve.

In the film, Fathima’s turmoil was not exclusively a product of unfair wages and long hours, and was not solved when her employment was terminated.  Her underlying poverty was aggravated by a disappointing education system and an absence of effective rehabilitation programs.  Until systemic changes address these ills, children like those represented in Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail will continue to seek out employment regardless of its legality.  Many children turn to employment in order to save their families from homelessness, illness or poverty.  This is a bravery and a burden of which the economically privileged have the luxury of never experiencing.  We can attempt to reconcile our distaste for employing a 13 year old worker by ensuring that the child is safe, fairly compensated and properly educated.  An ideology that is in touch with global realities should be reflected in the conventions of our governments and international bodies.  These are the policies that will inform our corporate mandates and media judgment.

Now is the time to take stock of the differences between countries in the first and third world. The social and economic climate of developing countries may not lend itself to the discrete measures of child employment prohibition that are advocated for by international bodies and corporations.  Applying this scrutiny to the circumstance of child workers in developing nations has revealed a grim reality that frustrates the mandate of blanket working children bans.  How do we reconcile our perception of child workers with the modern realities of the developing world?  Are there legitimate forms of work exposure, including employment, apprenticeships and vocational training, in which young people develop practical skills and contribute to their family’s well being?  It is certainly a conversation worth having.  As long as products from a child’s hands reach the shelves of Europe and North America, the developed world must also acknowledge their complicated role in the persistence of child work.  This includes taking a hard look at the steps we have taken thus far and the collateral damage that has accompanied them.  With so many factors and complexities, the battle against child labour will not be easily won and the method by which the fight is taken bears some thought.  Concerns such as those raised in Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail are not an attack on anti-child labour campaigns nor are they an endorsement of such labour.  Imparting governments and corporations with perspective is pivotal to ensuring that we become aware of our means, and not just our ends.  If you choose to support a ban on child employment or to engage in corporate boycotts, know that your choices will affect a child on the other side of the globe; so be aware, be understanding, and most importantly, be informed.

Madori Sakamoto

Further Reading:


1.  The Bhima Sangha are a child workers union located primarily in Bangalore, India.

2. The Movimiento Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Ninas, Ninos y Adolescentes Trabahadores have movements across South America, including Argentina and Ecuador.

3. Child Labour Perspectives, a discussion paper by The Concerned for Working Children.


4.  Prashant Bharadwaj, Leah K. Lakdawala & Nicholas Li, NBER Working Paper Series: “Perverse Consequences of Well Intentioned Regulation: Evidence From India’s Child Labor Ban”.

5.  International Working Group on Child Labour (1998) “Forgotten On the Pyjama Trail: A Case Study of Young Garment Workers in Méknès (Morocco) Dismissed from their Jobs Following Foreign Media Attention.”


6.   “Forgotten on the Pyjama Trail” was released by The Concerned for Working Children.

7. “Banned-Aid” by The Concerned for Working Children

8.  “Taking Destiny in Their Hands” by The Concerned for Working Children

Tag Words: ILO 138, child labour, strategy, UN CRC