Child Labor in Developing Countries

Exploitation of working children in developing countries has been reported since the 1800s. However, political awareness of the effects of working on children's physical and psychological well-being has gained substantial momentum in the international community only since the start of the 1990s.

Child Labor in International Law

The UN CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD (1989) was a landmark in international law. It became an unprecedented success as it reached almost universal acceptance with 190 state ratifications in less than ten years. Although the question of child labor was dealt with in only a few of the convention's provisions, the massive political support for CHILDREN'S RIGHTS, as such, also enhanced the commitment to working children. In international law, labor issues have been reserved for the International Labour Organization (ILO). In the traditional perspective of the ILO, child labor must be eradicated from the labor market. Hence, from its establishment, the ILO strategy to combat child labor was to secure international agreements on a minimum working age for children. During the 1920s and 1930s a series of international treaties covering different sectors urged states to set a minimum working age. In 1973 these instruments combined into the Convention concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment. The overall aim, as stated in Article 1, was to "ensure the effective abolition of child labour."

Parallel to the endeavors to regulate the (adult) labor market, the League of Nations and later the United Nations (UN) strived to abolish slavery and forced labor. Children were not dealt with specifically until the UN's Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery (1956), which included children "delivered … to another person … with a view to the exploitation of the child" in a list of slavery-like practices (Article 1). Ten years later children were mentioned in one of the fundamental UN human rights treaties, the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), which obliges state parties to criminalize employment of children under conditions "harmful to their morals or health" (Article 10). The perspective of the human rights treaties of the UN differed from that of the ILO: the former addressed the well-being and development of the child, and thus adopted the protective approach that had long prevailed in philanthropy and welfare legislation throughout the industrialized world.

With the Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989 a child-centered approach became popular. In line with the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, it demands protection of the child against economic and social exploitation (Article 32). Furthermore, the 1989 convention included new aspects of protection against sexual and other forms of exploitation (Articles 34 and 36) and against recruiting children to any form of war activities (Article 38).

The tremendous support for the children's rights convention influenced the approach to child labor. In the ILO the traditional trade union perspective was gradually revised to correspond more closely with the protective orientation. In 1999 the ILO adopted for the first time a purely child-oriented treaty: the Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour. The new strategy and instrument proved to be the greatest success in the history of the organization, with more than 130 states ratifying the treaty in three and a half years.

Child Labor in Practice

The overall figures of children at work show a decreasing trend; the ILO provides a very cautious benchmark of 1995 with approximately one out of four children, ages five to fourteen, working, against one out of five in 2000. In its more detailed analysis the ILO refers to three categories of child labor: nonhazardous work, hazardous work, and unconditional worst forms of child labor. Their estimates, from 2000, are that 186 million children under fifteen years of age undertake nonhazardous work. The definition of this category allows up to fourteen hours of work per week for children over five and below twelve years of age, and up to forty-three hours of work per week for children age twelve years and above. Hazardous work includes working hours that exceed these figures, or work that has or leads to adverse effects on the child's health or moral development. The estimate is that 111 million children fall under this category, almost 60 percent of economically active children (estimated to include 211 million children ages five to fourteen). More boys fall within these two categories than girls. The unconditional worst forms of child labor include forced and bonded labor, armed conflict involvements, prostitution, pornography, and illicit activities. A conservative calculation by the ILO estimates that eight million children below eighteen years of age are involved in these types of activities.

The largest single group of working children are those active in their parent's business, farm, workshop, or other endeavor. They are not represented in any of the statistics above and are rarely included in macro studies.

Even with a narrower focus on children employed in paid labor, research is still difficult and relatively scarce for the developing world. The growth of children's rights movements from the 1990s, however, has facilitated new research institutions and programs, such as the Innocenti Research Centre, which operates under the auspices of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Distribution and conditions of child labor vary from region to region. Comparative studies based on rather large samples from the World Bank household or living standard surveys around 1990 indicate that children, and in particular boys, in some countries contribute substantially to their families' income: one-third of household earnings in Ghana, one-fourth in Pakistan, and only one-tenth in Peru, in families in which children were working and not attending school. Such families are highly dependent on their working children and thus vulnerable to reduction in their children's access to jobs.

In families in which children are going to school in addition to working, the families are generally better off and less dependent on the child's income. There seems to be no clear relation, however, between child labor and school attendance. In some regions the prevailing tradition is that children combine work and school, whereas in other regions girls in particular do neither–generally because they are busy with domestic duties. Latin American countries most markedly have children in the former category, Asian countries the latter, with African countries placed in between.

Socioeconomic factors that influence the rate of child labor include economic growth (though not always with a decreasing effect on child labor); the adult labor market (for women in particular); parents' level of education; access to school as well as other community facilities; and household composition. Culturally, it is widely accepted in the developing world that children engage in work. Taking a share in the family income generation or in household duties is not only vital for survival or comfort but also an integral aspect of the child's moral and physical education.

Children's health is influenced by their work in many ways. Statistics in this field are most often poor or lacking, and in macro studies it is not possible to point to clear and unambiguous relationships. Work may have positive effects on children's health in some situations, for the poorest children by contributing to the mere means of subsistence. On the other hand, children are more sensitive to influences of noise, heat, certain chemicals, and toxics, and they are more prone to ACCIDENTS than adults. Furthermore, children tend to work in the most unsafe sectors. By far the largest group, over two-thirds, of economically active children is found within primary production, particularly in agriculture. Manufacture, trade, and domestic services are less hazardous but also count a smaller proportion of laboring children, with a total share of one-fourth. Children employed in construction, transportation, and mining are exposed to very high health and safety risks, but the proportion of children in these business sectors is relatively small, below 10 percent. The unpaid work that most children undertake within the family does not generally appear to be safer or more favorable to their health than paid work. Finally, although long-term effects of child labor cannot be clearly identified, there seems to be a correlation between inferior health standards in adulthood and child labor, particularly for women.

Combating Child Labor

Among the major international agents in the field, in particular the ILO, UNICEF, and the World Bank, a consensus has been reached to focus efforts to curb the worst forms of child labor. All three organizations assist governments in developing policies and strategies, and they also support implementation programs.

Though only a very small share of working children is involved in export businesses, trade mechanisms including sanctions are prominent in the public debates on the issue. In the World Trade Organization (WTO), however, binding statutes against trade involving child labor are being strongly opposed, particularly by developing countries that see protectionism as the underlying motive.

There is a broad consensus that trade sanctions are a double-edged instrument that may have adverse effects on children. Collaborative initiatives between the human rights and business sectors are on the other hand a fast-expanding field. In 2000 the UN launched a program, Global Compact, to work directly with companies, with "effective abolition of child labour" as one of the nine goals.

Regionally, under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) there is a mechanism to monitor labor rights within member countries. The United States has a long tradition of unilaterally applying certain labor standards, encompassing prohibition of child labor, to trade agreements. In the early 2000s, both the United States and the European Union (EU) have a so-called General System of Preferences granting trade benefits to countries that live up to certain labor standards. While the U.S. system focuses solely on import goods, the EU system, installed in 1998, also focuses on applicant state policy to abolish child labor more broadly.

Other measures to combat child labor have been developed by individual companies as well as business sectors, often in cooperation with nongovernmental organizations. These initiatives include the promotion of investment and trade principles, demands on suppliers in developing countries, and the labeling of products.

Despite these efforts, given the many and complex interests embedded in child labor issues, strategies to combat the adverse effects of child labor must operate at many different levels and include all stakeholders, including children themselves.

See also: Child Labor in the West; ; International Organizations; Work and Poverty.


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