Defining child labour
Though definitions vary, child labour means work that is done by children under the age of 15 (14 in some developing countries) which restricts or damages a child’s physical, emotional, intellectual, social and/or spiritual growth.
Sometimes, work does not harm children. Work may even help them to learn new skills or to develop a sense of responsibility
"The change starts within each one of us, and ends only when all children are free to be children.” – Craig Kielburger
In the normal lives of families with steady and adequate incomes, parents go to work every day and children are left to play with friends and go to school. However, such is not the case for the 218 million child labourers the world over who daily find themselves working long hours under harsh, dangerous and exploitative conditions.
Overview and quick facts
Globally the majority of child labourers come from the poorer sections of society. Social exclusion and discrimination, a result of poverty and ethnic and gender biases, are important factors that keep children out of school and force them to work.
Ending poverty and increasing access to education are therefore crucial tools in the fight against ending child labour.
Children who work are subsequently subject to abuse, both physical and sexual, from their employers and often work under conditions that are both unhealthy and potentially fatal. This scenario cannot continue.
Why we should care?
"Our greatest natural resource is the minds of our children." – Walt Disney
Because of their unique and vulnerable position, children are denied the basic working rights and wages given to adults.
Children are most often employed in the informal and unregulated sectors of the global economy, for example in agriculture, and as a result they find themselves easy targets for abuse, intimidation and sexual exploitation.
Improving access to education and attacking poverty head-on would go a long way to solving the challenges children face. We must help them in their struggle. Child labour is an issue is closely connected with poverty, education, the distribution of world resources, socio-economic structures and gender/fertility related issues.
Most people agree that when we speak about child labour, we mean labour which is intolerable or harmful to children, or which denies them their right to fully develop, to play or to go to school. Child labour includes:
Child labour includes:
• Work performed by children under the age of 15
• Long hours of work on a regular or full-time basis
• Abusive treatment by the employer
• No access, or poor access, to education.
What is bonded labour?
Three types of bonded labour exist in practice around the world.
• The first is when a child inherits a debt carried by his or her parents.
• Another form of bonded labour occurs when a child is used as collateral for a loan. For example, a parent facing an unusually large or urgent expense would use this method to obtain necessary money.
• Finally, a child worker can enter into bondage to their employer by requesting an advance on future wages they expect to earn
• Globally, 218 million children are child labourers
• 126 million of these children are engaged in hazardous work
• 73 million working children are less than 10 years old
• Every year, 22,000 children die in work-related accidents
• The largest number of working children—122 million—are in the Asia-Pacific region
• The highest proportion of working children is in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly one third of the children aged 14 and under (48 million children) are in the labour force
• 8.4 million children are trapped in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities
The number of children involved in armed conflicts has increased to about 300,000 over the past decade.
Between 40 and 50 per cent of all forced labourers are chidren
• 1.2 million of these children have been trafficked (bought and/or sold)
Where do children work?
• Nearly 70% are in agriculture (rural children, especially girls, usually start working in this industry when they are very young, often between 5 and 7 years of age)
• 22% are in services, including wholesale and retail trade, restaurants and hotels, transport, personal services, etc
Some causes of child labour
Poor families need to keep as many family members working as possible to ensure income security and survival. This makes it very difficult for poor families to invest in their children's education. In fact, educating a child can be a significant financial burden.
In many instances "free" public education is in fact very costly to a poor family.
They are expected to purchase books, school supplies and uniforms, and sometimes even pay teachers' wages. Many poor families weigh the cost of sending their children to school against the cost of the income lost by sending their children to work.
Inadequate school facilities
Many children live in areas that do not have adequate school facilities, so they work. Many countries do not have free compulsory education for all, which is an obstacle to sending working children to school.
Poor households tend to have more children, and with large families there is a greater likelihood that children will work and have lower school attendance and completion.
Some employers hire children because they can pay them less money. They also offer poor working conditions because children are less likely to complain.
Why not make child labour illegal?
In countries all over the world, countless laws and policies against the exploitation of children already exist: the political will to enforce them however, does not. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. 191 countries (almost every country in the world) agreed to recognize the right of children to "...be protected from economic exploitation and performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."
What needs to be done?
The international community has the funds to provide free primary education—a necessary tool to combat child labour. It is merely a question of budgeting priorities. In fact, according to the World Watch Institute, the annual expenditure on perfume is $15 billion while achieving universal literacy would only need an annual investment of $5 billion.
In papers prepared for the 1997 International Conference on Child Labour, it was revealed that child labour can best be combated through:
• Better access to education
• Social awareness and activism
• The rehabilitation of child labourers
• Legislation and proper enforcement child labour laws
In turn, governments need to devote resources to education so that:
• Schooling is compulsory, of good quality and relevance, and is of little or no cost to poor families.
Success Story: In 1994, Malawi made primary education free. From one academic year to the next, enrolment increased by roughly 50 percent, and more of the new students were female than male.
Some initiatives that can be effective in combating child labour:
Improving child labour legislation and laws
Many countries have national child labour laws that establish a minimum age for work and regulate working conditions. These laws tend to be effective in combating child labour abuses in the formal sector (the sector of the economy which lawfully employs people and pays taxes) in urban areas. However legal protection for child labourers does not extend beyond the formal sector to the kinds of work children are most involved in, such as agriculture and domestic service.
In addition, labour laws in many countries do not cover factories employing less than ten people. The carpet industry in Pakistan, for example, is largely a cottage industry, deliberately organized in this way to avoid labour laws. It is, therefore, important to extend protection so that laws cover the main places where children work.
Enforcement of child labour legislation and laws
Lack of enforcement is the key obstacle to combating child labour. Laws cannot be effective if they are not enforced.
Increasing quality, relevance and access to education
Education is the key to ending the exploitation of children. If an education system is to attract and retain children, its quality and relevance must be improved as well. Children who attend school are less likely to be involved in hazardous or exploitative work. They are also more likely to break out of cycles of poverty. According to UNICEF, for every year of quality education that a child receives, their adult earning potential increases by a worldwide average of 10 per cent.
The main obstacle to achieving universal primary education is the inability and/or the unwillingness of governments to provide quality educational facilities for poor children in rural areas and in city shantytowns.
Evidence from around the world has shown that poor families are willing to make sacrifices to send their children to school when it is economically and physically accessible. With children in school, their unemployed adult relatives may take their places in the workforce.
The focus should not just be on education of children. Emphasis should also be on education programs for adults, especially women. Evidence shows that there is an inverse relationship between adult literacy rates and the incidence of child labour in the long run. Educated adults have fewer and better-educated children.
Vocational education and training for older child labourers plays an important role in combating child labour by giving them the skills to make better decisions.
Equality for women and girls
The social welfare of children is strongly linked to the social and economic position of women. A commitment to women's equality must be part of the commitment to end child labour because when a woman's income improves, so too does the situation of her children. Women need access to decent jobs and good childcare.
Women invest in their children’s food, water, housing, clothing, and schooling. This is why the campaign to abolish child labour cannot be separated from women's struggles for recognition, decision-making power, autonomy, equality with men, a fair division of paid and unpaid work, and other measures to end poverty and domestic violence.
Replace child workers with adults
Because so many families depend on their children's income to survive, long term solutions are needed that will not plunge families further into poverty. Replacing child workers with their parents (who may be unemployed) would actually increase a family’s income because adults are more highly paid.
Research carried out in the hand-made carpet industry shows that the cost of replacing children with adults in factories only adds about 4% to the price of a carpet.
Am I wearing a child’s work?
How do you know if what you are buying was made using child labour?
Consumers can keep their eyes open for labels stating that the product is union made, or watch for the labels of campaigns such as Rugmark and Fairtrade Mark These types of labels provide a guarantee that children were not involved in the production of the item. Also, if you don’t know (which is often the case)...ask! The sales staff may be able to provide you with the information you need. Then contact the company explaining your concern.
The good news
In 2006, the International Labour Organization published a report called The End of Child Labour:Within Reach. There was one very special fact noted in this report: today, there are 28 million fewer child labourers than there were four years ago! This means that the work you are doing—we are all doing—to stop child labour is truly creating positive change. But there is still much more to be done.
How you can help
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." – Mark Twain
Here are some ideas of how you can help meet the challenge and tackle the issue of child labour.
How to help your working peers
• Learn more about child labour and the laws affecting children. See resources…
• Start a Free The Children Youth in Action Group in your community and get the word out.
• Say no to work that is harmful and degrading to you.
• Organize classroom debates and activities on the topic of child labour, basic education and the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.
• Speak with your friends and people in your community about the causes of child labour and what can be done about it. Form a group and unite against the problem.
• Volunteer your time with organizations working to protect children.
• Observe World Day Against Child Labour every year on June 12. Don’t forget that it’s important to think and talk about these issues every day, not just once a year.
• Participate in campaigns, such as: our Adopt a Village campaign and especially its Brick by Brick schoolbuilding component ; a Sweat-Free Schools campaign; our Alternative Income projects that enable parents to send their children to school; or a campaign to build rehabilitation and vocational centers for freed child labourers.
• Write to companies that use child labour and demand that they stop.
• Ask your government to ratify and implement the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.
• Contact your Foreign Affairs, Industry, Trade and Labour Ministers to demand that trade be tied to human, children and labour rights.
• Lobby your government to make education for all children a top priority.
• Pledge to continue your efforts until every child enjoys the right to a childhood.
What you are already doing
You are involved if you are helping to address these challenges
• Reducing poverty so there is less need for children to work.
• Increasing adults' wages so there is less need for children to work.
• Improving working conditions so that children's health and safety are ensured.
• Reducing children's working hours so they can attend school.
• Banning hazardous and exploitative work such as bonded labour, child prostitution, military conscription, mining and all work that exposes children to toxic substances or extreme temperatures.
• Making education more attractive and relevant to children's needs.