At the turn of the 20th century, child labor was commonplace in the West. Children from poor backgrounds could be found working in mines, factories and mills, and on street corners, selling newspapers or cleaning shoes. Sometimes working at night, minors – with their ability to handle small parts and tools – were an attractive commodity for employees who only paid them low wages for their labor.
Deprived of an education and a carefree childhood, many working children also developed serious health problems, such as stunted growth and lung diseases. Others suffered horrific injuries following accidents involving machinery. But thanks in part to the social activism of campaigners such as photographer Lewis Hine, the prevalence of child labor died out, with several governments eventually passing laws to prohibit minors from working – such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in the US.
As a reporter for the
National Child Labor Committee, Hine stirred consciences in the US and beyond with his images, which depicted children as young as six working under hazardous conditions. His photography is a reminder of a bygone age in much of the developed world, but child labor remains widespread in many countries, and even in pockets of Europe and the US. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are some 168 million children whose primary activity is work. Asia and the Pacific have the largest population of child laborers (78 million), followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (59 million). Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa also have high populations of under-age workers.
Apart from some notable and distressing examples, such as Uzbekistan – where the government has introduced a forced-labor system to get under-age workers to harvest cotton – the majority of child labor is not a product of coercion. Nor does it involve children working in dark, dangerous 19th-century-like conditions, separated from their families, says Eric V. Edmonds, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US.
Most children who are working are doing so in the family business or farm, beside their parents or other family members Eric V. Edmonds EDUCATIONAL INVESTMENTS
“Those horrific images of children stuck in a Bangladeshi factory fire [November 2012] – that’s not what most working children are doing. Most children who are working are doing so in the family business or farm, beside their parents or other family members,” says Edmonds. The US academic, who has served as an advisor on child labor for the ILO and the US government, says that in India, for example, many parents feel that their children should develop skills in the home, farm or business that they are eventually going to step into and run themselves.
“Parents are struggling to weigh up the sense that the child should be learning life skills versus the sense that the child should be in general education and accumulating those sorts of skills,” he says. The reverse is also true.
Edmonds explains that there is compelling evidence from Brazil that shows that parents face problems in preventing their offspring from leaving school to enter the labor market. “Kids tend to be more myopic and not understand the value of educational investments when young, so parents face this same problem throughout much of the world. How do you stop children from trying to assert their independence at such an early age?” he asks.
Although many children are willing workers, particularly if they come from an impoverished background, the ILO and similar organizations remain concerned for their welfare. Even though they may be working in agriculture alongside their family members, as many are, they run the risk of being exposed to chemicals or machinery without adequate protective gear or training. Preventing children from being exposed to such risks, however, is difficult.
Every country in the world, bar Somalia, has laws prohibiting minors from entering the labor market, but the public and the authorities in child labor hotspots either ignore them or are powerless to implement them. In fact, most countries have, for varying reasons, chosen to overlook elements of their own laws. The US government is one such culprit. It has decided not to enforce the laws of child employment in family farms, precipitating a bizarre situation in which 14-year-olds in Wisconsin can operate combine harvesters but still be two years away from taking their driving tests.
Child labor facts
98 million children around the world work; 54 million of them in services and 12 million in industry.
Since 2000, labor among girls has fallen by 40%; among boys, by 25%.
The International Labour Organization wants to eliminate the worst forms of child labor by 2016. These include work in dangerous environments (underground, in water or at dangerous heights); work with dangerous machinery only suitable for trained adults; and long hours of factory work.
Source: Marking progress against child labour – Global estimates and trends 2000-2012 (ILO-IPEC, 2013).
But as Edmonds says, a laissez-faire attitude to enforcement of minimum working-age regulations is actually a practical one to take. Although keen policing would provide a useful extra tool to identify and tackle abuse, most countries simply do not have the capacity to enforce their existing minimum employment regulations. And in other cases, the cost of upholding such laws far outweighs the benefits. Instead, Edmonds argues, governments should concentrate on extending education and implementing compulsory schooling laws.
“This is an under-used tool,” he says. “We have wide-scale primary school enrollment around the world, and it can be used as a way of monitoring children and identifying those who are at the start of a crisis, rather than leaving them to be eventually rescued from a factory or become a victim of human trafficking.
“Using education as a weapon in the fight against child labor would also help children who are being exploited by their families to work long hours on various domestic chores, and those who are treated harshly.” Globally, says Edmonds, primary school numbers have increased dramatically over the last 15 years, but secondary-school enrollment remains at a low level in many developing nations.
Special Gallery Portraits of child labor
Child labor continues in countries around the world. While judgment is often quick and harsh, viable alternatives have to be provided for any meaningful changes to occur.
COMPULSORY SCHOOLING IS MORE EFFECTIVE
“I expect enrollment to grow, and we should also see a decline in child labor associated with secondary school growth” he explains. And there is a historical precedent illustrating the power of education to discourage child labor.
More than a century ago, Western countries shocked into action by the likes of Hine demanded action.
The introduction of compulsory schooling laws arguably had a better effect than any laws forbidding the employment of children. Edmonds warns, however, that until education becomes more common and there is a clear black-or-white choice for families, simply taking children out of a freely chosen work environment can only be justified if there is a better alternative for them.
“I always ask myself what a child who is working in a particular job would be doing if they didn’t have that job. And I’ll tell you right now, it’s not going to be enrolling in elite private schools around the world,” Edmonds says.
“Where there are free and functioning labor markets,” he continues, “and a child in a particular job, then most of the time that child is doing that job because either the child or the parent believes the job the best possible opportunity available to the child. Sitting in my office in the US, am I in any position to know better?”