Child Labor: Frequently Asked Questions

 

WHAT IS "CHILD LABOR"?

"Child labor" is, generally speaking, work for children that harms them or exploits them in some way (physically, mentally, morally, or by blocking access to education).

BUT: There is no universally accepted definition of "child labor". Varying definitions of the term are used by international organizations, non-governmental organizations, trade unions and other interest groups. Writers and speakers don’t always specify what definition they are using, and that often leads to confusion.

Not all work is bad for children. Some social scientists point out that some kinds of work may be completely unobjectionable — except for one thing about the work that makes it exploitative. For instance, a child who delivers newspapers before school might actually benefit from learning how to work, gaining responsibility, and a bit of money. But what if the child is not paid? Then he or she is being exploited. As Unicef’s 1997 State of the World’s Children Report puts it, "Children’s work needs to be seen as happening along a continuum, with destructive or exploitative work at one end and beneficial work - promoting or enhancing children’s development without interfering with their schooling, recreation and rest - at the other. And between these two poles are vast areas of work that need not negatively affect a child’s development." Other social scientists have slightly different ways of drawing the line between acceptable and unacceptable work.

International conventions also define "child labor" as activities such as soldiering and prostitution. Not everyone agrees with this definition. Some child workers themselves think that illegal work (such as prostitution) should not be considered in the definition of "child labor." The reason: These child workers would like to be respected for their legal work, because they feel they have no other choice but to work. .

To avoid confusion, when writing or speaking about "child labor," it’s best to explain exactly what you mean by child labor — or, if someone else is speaking, ask for a definition. This website uses the first definition cited in this section: "Child labor" is work for children under age 18 that in some way harms or exploits them (physically, mentally, morally, or by blocking children from education).

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WHO IS A "CHILD"?

International conventions define children as aged 18 and under.

Individual governments may define "child" according to different ages or other criteria.

"Child" and "childhood" are also defined differently by different cultures. A "child" is not necessarily delineated by a fixed age. Social scientists point out that children’s abilities and maturities vary so much that defining a child’s maturity by calendar age can be misleading. For a discussion, see Jo Boyden, Birgitta Ling, William Myers, "What Works for Working Children" (Stockholm: Radda Barnen and Unicef, 1998), pp 9-26.

WHO ARE CHILD LABORERS? AND HOW MANY ARE THERE?

In 2000, the ILO estimates, "246 million child workers aged 5 and 17 were involved in child labor, of which 171 million were involved in work that by its nature is hazardous to their safety, physical or mental health, and moral development. Moreover, some 8.4 million children were engaged in so-called 'unconditional' worst forms of child labor, which include forced and bonded labor, the use of children in armed conflict, trafficking in children and commercial sexual exploitation."

Unicef’s State of the World’s Children Report says only that although the exact number is not known, it is surely in the hundreds of millions.

More information about who child laborers are, where they live, and new statistics on the total number can be found on www.ilo.org; also, the US Dept. of Labor’s By The Sweat and Toil of Children, Vol. VI: An Economic Consideration of Child Labor.

For more information about individual child laborers, see stories produced by Child Labor and the Global Village: Photography for Social Change.

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WHERE DO CHILD LABORERS LIVE?

61% in Asia, 32% in Africa, and 7% in Latin America, 1% in US, Canada, Europe and other wealthy nations In Asia, 22% of the workforce is children. In Latin America, 17% of the workforce is children. The proportion of child laborers varies a lot among countries and even regions inside those countries. See Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable, Geneva, 1998, p. 7; and other ILO publications.

"In Africa, one child in three is at work, and in Latin America, one child in five works. In both these continents, only a tiny proportion of child workers are involved in the formal sector and the vast majority of work is for their families, in homes, in the fields or on the streets." -- Unicef’s 1997 State of the World’s Children Report

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IS THERE CHILD LABOR IN THE UNITED STATES?

Yes, if you are talking about "child labor" as defined by the US law. The Fair Labor Standards Act sets the minimum working age as 15, with some exceptions.

In the United States: An estimated 290,200 children were unlawfully employed in 1996. Some — it’s not clear how many — were "older teens working a few too many hours in after-school jobs." About 59,600 were younger than age 14, and some 13,100 worked in garment sweatshops, according to an Associated Press series on child labor published in December 1997. (Available on www.igc.org, by searching for "child labor" on IGC sites and IGC member sites.)

Unicef’s 1997 State of the World’s Children Report says "The growth of the service sector and the quest for a more flexible workforce in industrialized countries, such as the United Kingdom and the US, have contributed to an expansion of child labour."

"Hundreds of thousands" of children work in US agriculture, according to a report by Human Rights Watch published in June 2000.

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WHAT DO CHILD LABORERS DO?

Work ranges from taking care of animals and planting and harvesting food, to many kinds of small manufacturing (e.g. of bricks and cement), auto repair, and making of footwear and textiles. (See a list in US Dept. of Labor, By the Sweat & Toil of Children, Vo. V: Efforts to Eliminate Child Labor, Appendix C. http://www.dol.gov

A large proportion of children whom the ILO classifies as child laborers work in agriculture.

See Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable (1998) "Every Child Counts" (2002) and other ILO publications (http://www.ilo.org).

More boys than girls work outside their homes. But more girls work in some jobs: for instance, as domestic maids. Being a maid in someone’s house can be risky. Maids typically are cut off from friends and family, and can easily be physically or sexually abused by their employers.

Note: Less than 5% of child laborers make products for export to other countries. Sources for this statistic include Unicef’s State of the World’s Children Report 1997.

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WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

Many children in hazardous and dangerous jobs are in danger of injury, even death.

Beyond compassion, consider who today’s children will become in the future. Between today and the year 2020, the vast majority of new workers, citizens and new consumers — whose skills and needs will build the world’s economy and society — will come from developing countries. Over that 20-year period, some 730 million people will join the world’s workforce — more than all the people employed in today's most developed nations in 2000. More than 90 percent of these new workers will be from developing nations, according to research by Population Action International. How many will have had to work at an early age, destroying their health or hampering their education?

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HOW CAN ORDINARY PEOPLE HELP REDUCE CHILD LABOR?

Learn about the issue. Support organizations that are raising awareness, and providing direct help to individual children.

HOW WAS CHILD LABOR REDUCED IN TODAY’S DEVELOPED COUNTRIES?

Four main changes took place:

  1. economic development that raised family incomes and living standards
  2. widespread, affordable, required and relevant education
  3. enforcement of anti-child labor laws (along with compulsory education laws)
  4. changes in public attitudes toward children that elevated the importance of education

Sources of information about the history of include Hugh Cunningham and Pier Paolo Viazzo, eds, Child abour in Historical Perspective, 1800-1985: Case Studies from Europe, Japan and Columbia (Florence: Unicef, 1996). Other sources of information about history — and controversies about which of the four elements were most important, are listed on the site www.childlabor.org.

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WHAT ARE SOME "MYTHS" OR MISUNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT CHILD LABOR?

Unicef lists four "myths":

  1. It is a myth that child labor is only a problem in developing countries. "But in fact, children routinely work in all industrialized countries, and hazardous forms of child labour can be found in many countries. In the US, for example, children are employed in agriculture, a high proportion of them from immigrant or ethnic-minority families. A 1990 survey of Mexican-American children working in the farms of New York state showed that almost half had worked in fields still wet with pesticides and over a third had themselves been sprayed."
  2. It is a myth that child labor will only disappear when poverty disappears. Hazardous labor can, and should be eliminated by even the poorest countries.
  3. It is a myth that most child laborers work in sweatshops making goods for export. "Soccer balls made by children in Pakistan for use by children in industrialized countries may provide a compelling symbol, but in fact, only a very small proportion of all child workers are employed in export industries - probably less than 5 per cent. Most of the world’s child labourers actually are to be found in the informal sector - selling on the street, at work in agriculture or hidden away in houses – far from the reach of official labour inspectors and from media scrutiny."
  4. It is a myth that "the only way to make headway against child labour is for consumers and governments to apply pressure through sanctions and boycotts. While international commitment and pressure are important, boycotts and other sweeping measures can only affect export sectors, which are relatively small exploiters of child labour. Such measures are also blunt instruments with long-term consequences that can actually harm rather than help the children involved."

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WHAT CAUSES CHILD LABOR TODAY?

Poverty is widely considered the top reason why children work at inappropriate jobs for their ages. But there are other reasons as well -- not necessarily in this order:

  1. family expectations and traditions
  2. abuse of the child
  3. lack of good schools and day care
  4. lack of other services, such as health care
  5. public opinion that downplays the risk of early work for children
  6. uncaring attitudes of employers
  7. limited choices for women

"The parents of child labourers are often unemployed or underemployed, desperate for secure employment and income. Yet it is their children - more powerless and paid less - who are offered the jobs. In other words, says UNICEF, children are employed because they are easier to exploit," according to the "Roots of Child Labor" in Unicef’s 1997 State of the World’s Children Report.

The report also says that international economic trends also have increased child labor in poor countries. "During the 1980s, in many developing countries, government indebtedness, unwise internal economic policies and recession resulted in economic crisis. Structural adjustment programmes in many countries accentuated cuts in social spending that have hit the poor disproportionately. " Although structural adjustment programs are being revised to spare education from deep cuts, the report says, some countries make such cuts anyway because of their own, local priorities. In many countries public education has deteriorated so much, the report declared, that education itself has become part of the problem — because children work to avoid going to school. This conclusion is supported by the work of many social scientists, according to Jo Boyden, Birgitta Ling, and William Myers, who conducted a literature search for their 1998 book, What Works for Working Children (Stockholm: Radda Barnen, Unicef, 1998).

Children do some types of low-status work, the report adds, because children come from minority groups or populations that have long suffered discrimination. " In northern Europe, for example, child labourers are likely to be African or Turkish; in Argentina, many are Bolivian or Paraguayan; in Thailand, many are from Myanmar. An increasingly consumer-oriented culture, spurring the desire and expectation for consumer goods, can also lead children into work and away from school."

Other sources: Child Labor: Targeting the Intolerable, published by ILO, Geneva, 1998. ILO information available using: www.ilo.org.

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WHAT ARE SOME SOLUTIONS TO CHILD LABOR?

Not necessarily in this order:

  1. Increased family incomes
  2. Education — that helps children learn skills that will help them earn a living
  3. Social services — that help children and families survive crises, such as disease, or loss of home and shelter
  4. Family control of fertility — so that families are not burdened by children

The ILO’s International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) has explored many programs to help child laborers. See IPEC documents on the www.ilo.org site.

The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child calls for children to participate in important decisions that will affect their lives.

Some educators and social scientists believe that one of the most important ways to help child workers is to ask their opinions, and involve them in constructing "solutions" to their own problems. Strong advocates of this approach are Boyden, Myers and Ling; Concerned for Working Children in Karnataka, India; many children’s "unions" and "movements," and the Save the Children family of non-governmental organizations.

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