Childhood is perceived to be a time for learning and ‘growing up’. In rich countries, this implies that the life of children and youth is built around school and leisure time. Both are seen to be essential to ensuring skills development and learning.
Work is introduced, usually part-time, as children become older. This introduction is often controlled by laws, such as compulsory full-time education until the age of 16 and minimum age legislation.
In poorer countries, where not all children have access to schooling, work may be introduced into children’s lives at a much earlier age. It may be the principal arena for learning and skills development. Work that takes place in a safe environment can serve as an introduction to the adult world. It can even provide skills leading to better job opportunities.
However, work of a hazardous and exploitative nature, often called ‘labour’, can be disruptive to children’s education and wider learning. The International Labour Organization estimates that 246 million children are engaged in labour. This means that many children and societies are missing out on immense resources for development.
What is child labour?
‘Child labour’ is the generic term used to describe a phenomenon which occurs throughout the world, in both rich and poor countries, in both rural and urban areas, and in a variety of workplaces. The term has different meanings in different contexts and to different people, but the International Labour Organization refers to work that is:
- Under the minimum age specified in national legislation for that kind of work. It includes any economic activity by a child under the age of 11 and any economic activity that is not ‘light work’ for children between the ages of 12 and 14.
- Hazardous or harms the physical, mental or moral well-being of any child under the age of 18.
- An unconditional worst form of child labour: internationally defined as slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour; forced recruitment for use in armed conflict; prostitution and pornography; and illicit activities.
How big is the problem?
It is estimated that the working child population aged between 5 and 17 years old is 352 million children. Of these, 246 million children are engaged in child labour. 73 per cent are believed to be engaged in the worst forms of child labour: hazardous work and the unconditional worst forms. This amounts to one child in every eight in the world.
Of the 171 million children engaged in hazardous work, nearly two-thirds are under 15. Over eight million children worldwide are trapped in the unconditional worst forms of child labour. These forms of child labour include:
- trafficking (1.2 million)
- forced and bonded labour (5.7 million)
- armed conflict (0.3 million)
- prostitution and pornography (1.8 million)
- illicit activities (0.6 million)
In Sub-Saharan Africa, almost one child in three below the age of 15 is economically active. However, the Asian-Pacific region harbours the largest number of child workers in the 5-14 age category: 127.3 million in total. Rich countries have the lowest numbers of child workers.
What are the risks to learning?
Learning can be affected by child labour in different ways. Children who work may have limited access to schooling and thus to skills such as literacy or numeracy. On the other hand, certain labour activities can enhance educational learning. For example, street traders have better maths skills than children their age in formal schooling.
Child labour can also hinder learning through exposure to environmental hazards and consequent ill health, injury, or disability. For example, children working in mines can develop chest infections or get caught in explosions. Children who weave carpets may develop problems with eye strain or from breathing chemical fibres.
Child labour can affect children’s confidence and self-esteem. They may feel stigmatised compared to children who are able to go to school full-time. Child domestic workers talked to me about how embarrassed they are to go to school, because they are much older than others in their class, as they have missed so much school. Others said that their clothes are too poor and this makes them ashamed.
Some children who labour, however, say that they also gain confidence and self-esteem. This is particularly true for those who are able to take part in organised apprenticeship schemes.
Why do children engage in labour instead of going to school?
This is a complex question to answer and different children have different reasons. Generally speaking, however, these are the reasons most often given by children, their communities and experts:
- Lack of universal primary education: there is a direct correlation between countries without universal primary education and high levels of child labour. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have the highest proportion of child labourers, as well as the lowest levels of universal primary education.
- Difficulties combining work and school: children may be tired or have health problems caused by their work. They can be stigmatised by other children or may be unable to take time off work during school hours.
- Lack of quality, accessible, affordable formal schooling: this may put children and their families off schooling as a way of developing a career. Work may be seen as a better economic investment, especially if fees or the cost of travel, uniforms and stationery are beyond the budget of a poor family. Lack of teachers is a problem in many rural areas. In Malawi, for example, three teachers are dying from AIDS every day which has a dramatic impact on schooling.
- Gender and other inequalities: girls are at particular risk of exclusion from school and comprise around 60 per cent of the children worldwide who do not attend primary school. Children may also be unable to attend school due to their background. This may include ethnic minority children, children with disabilities, those of low caste and the poorest children.
- Poor enforcement of labour legislation: lack of labour inspectors and social workers to monitor child labour and push children into schooling.
- Need for a family income: children who have been orphaned or whose parents are unable to work may need to work to support their family. This is a big problem in countries that have been affected by war or that have been ravaged by AIDS.
What can we do?
There are no simple solutions. Each child engaged in labour is different. She has a unique background, individual aspirations, and a distinct workplace. Many organisations and individuals are doing different things, at different levels, to support these children and their families.
For example, through the fair trade movement, parents are paid a decent wage for their work, so they can afford to send their children to school. The Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt relief has helped reduce the debt of some national governments. This allows them to invest more in education. International organisations, such as Save the Children, Anti-Slavery International and the International Labour Organization, support local organisations who provide alternatives to child labour, in many countries. You can read about these by following the links in the further reading section.
Initiatives that tackle international trade and labour standards need to go hand in hand with immediate support for the learning and skills development of this generation of child and youth labourers. We also need policy changes to ensure future generations have access to a quality, formal education system. Such a system needs to be responsive to the short and long-term needs of children and the labour market. Only by taking such a holistic approach can the inter-generational cycle of child labour be broken.
International Labour Organization
Save the Children
Global March Against Child Labour
Ethical Trading Initiative
UN Global Compact
Understanding Children's Work