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Child labour

A succession of laws on child labour, the so-called Factory Acts, were passed in Britain in the 19th century. Children younger than nine were not allowed to work, those aged 9–16 could work 16 hours per day per Cotton Mills Act. In 1856, the law permitted child labour past age 9, for 60 hours per week, night or day. In 1901, the permissible child labour age was raised to 12.[1][2]
Early 20th century witnessed many home-based enterprises involving child labour. An example is shown above from New York, USA (1912).

Child labour refers to the employment of children in any work that deprives children of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful.[3] This practice is considered exploitative by many

  • Combating Child Labor — Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor
  • A UNICEF web resource with tables of % children who work for a living, by country and gender
  • Rare child labour photos from the U.S. Library of Congress
  • History Place Photographs from 1908–1912
  • International Research on Child Labour
  • International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour International Labour Organisation (UN)
  • World Day Against Child Labour 12 June
  • Concerned for Working Children An India-based non-profit organisation working towards elimination of child labour
  • The OneWorld guide to child labour
  • The State of the World's Children – a UNICEF study
  • "United States Child Labour, 1908–1920: As Seen Through the Lens of Sociologist and Photographer Lewis W. Hine" (video)
  • Child Labour in Chile, 1880–1950 download complete text, in spanish
  • 12 to 12 community portal ILO sponsored website on the elimination of child labour
  • The ILO Special Action Programme to combat Forced Labour (SAP-FL)

External links

  • "Child Employing Industries," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol. 35, Mar. 1910 in JSTOR, articles by experts in 1910
  • Goldberg, Ellis. Trade, Reputation, and Child Labour in Twentieth-Century Egypt (2004) excerpt and text search
  • Grier, Beverly. Invisible Hands: Child Labour and the State in Colonial Zimbabwe (2005)
  • Hindman, Hugh D. Child Labour: An American History (2002)
  • Humphries, Jane; Horrell, Sara (1995). "'The Exploitation of Little Children': Child Labour and the Family Economy in the Industrial Revolution". Explorations in Economic History 32: 485–516.  
  • Humphries, Jane. Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (Cambridge Studies in Economic History) (2011) excerpt and text search
  • Kirby, Peter. Child Labour in Britain, 1750-1870 (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Meerkerk, Elise van Naderveen; Schmidt, Ariadne. "Between Wage Labor and Vocation: Child Labor in Dutch Urban Industry, 1600-1800," Journal of Social History (2008) 41#3 pp 717–736 in Project MUSE
  • Mofford, Juliet. Child Labour in America (1970)
  • Tuttle, Carolyn. Hard At Work In Factories And Mines: The Economics Of Child Labour During The British Industrial Revolution (1999)


  • Baland, Jean-Marie and James A. Robinson (2000) 'Is child labour inefficient?' Journal of Political Economy 108, 663–679
  • Basu, Kaushik, and Homa Zarghamee (2009) 'Is product boycott a good idea for controlling child labour? A theoretical investigation' Journal of Development Economics 88, 217–220
  • Bhukuth, Augendra. "Defining child labour: a controversial debate" Development in Practice (2008) 18, 385–394
  • Emerson, Patrick M., and André Portela Souza. "Is Child Labour Harmful? The Impact of Working Earlier in Life on Adult Earnings" Economic Development and Cultural Change 59:345–385, January 2011 doi:10.1086/657125 uses data from Brazil to show very strong negative effects—boys who work before age 14 earn much less as adults
  • Humbert, Franziska. The Challenge of Child Labour in International Law (2009)
  • Humphries, Jane. Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution (2010)
  • ILO, Investing in every child: An economic Study of the Costs and Benefits of Eliminating Child Labour
  • Mayer, Gerald. Child Labor in America: History, Policy, and Legislative Issues. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2013.
  • Ravallion, Martin, and Quentin Wodon (2000) 'Does child labour displace schooling? Evidence on behavioural responses to an enrollment subsidy' Economic Journal 110, C158-C175

Further reading

  • ILO Minimum Estimate of Forced Labour in the World. (2005)
  • The Cost of Coercion ILO 2009
  • International Labour Office. (2005). A global alliance against forced labour
  • Operational Indicators of Trafficking in Human Beings 2009 ILO/SAP-FL
  • Lists of indicators of Trafficking in Human Beings 2009 ILO/SAP-FL
  • Eradication of forced labour - General Survey concerning the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105) - ILO 2007
  • Forced Labour: Definition, Indicators and Measurement 2004 - ILO
  • Stopping Forced Labour 2001 - ILO


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International conventions and other instruments:

Lewis Hine used photography to help bring attention to child labour in America. He created this poster in 1914 with an appeal about child labour.

See also

All Children ('000s)
Economically Active Children ('000s) Economically Active Children (%) Child Labour ('000s) Child Labour (%) Children In Hazardous Work ('000s) Children In Hazardous Work (%)
Ages 5–11 838,800 109,700 13.1 109,700 13.1 60,500 7.2
Ages 12–14 360,600 101,100 28.0 76,000 21.1 50,800 14.1
Ages 5–14 1,199,400 210,800 17.6 186,300 15.5 111,300 9.3
Ages 15–17 332,100 140,900 42.4 59,200 17.8 59,200 17.8
Boys 786,600 184,100 23.4 132,200 16.8 95,700 12.2
Girls 744,900 167,600 22.5 113,300 15.2 74,800 10.5
Total 1,531,500 351,700 23.0 245,500 16.0 170,500 11.1

Number of children involved in ILO categories of work, by age and gender in 2002


The ILO estimates that 38.7 million children ages 5–17 are in worst forms of child labour.[143] The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour launched a project titled Tackling child labour through education (TACKLE) along with the European Commission with the aim of eliminating child labour in 12 countries across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific group of states (ACP).[144]

Action against Child Labour in Africa

India has legislation since 1986 which allows work by children in non-hazardous industry. In 2013, the Punjab and Haryana High Court gave a landmark order that directed that there shall be total ban on the employment of children up to the age of 14 years, be it hazardous or non-hazardous industries. However, the Court ruled that a child can work with his or her family in family based trades/occupations, for the purpose of learning a new trade/craftsmanship or vocation.[142]

Child maid servant in India. Child domestic workers are common in India.

Action against Child Labour in India

From 2008 to 2013, the ILO operated a program through International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) titled " Combating Abusive Child Labour (CACL-II) ". The project, funded by the European Union, contributed to the Government of Pakistan by providing alternative opportunities for vocational training and education to children withdrawn from the worst forms of child labour.[141]

The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), founded in 1992, aims to eliminate child labour. It operates in 88 countries and is the largest program of its kind in the world.[140] IPEC works with international and government agencies, NGOs, the media, and children and their families to end child labour and provide children with education and assistance.[140]

According to Thomas DeGregori, an economics professor at the University of Houston, in an article published by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank operating in Washington D.C., "it is clear that technological and economic change are vital ingredients in getting children out of the workplace and into schools. Then they can grow to become productive adults and live longer, healthier lives. However, in poor countries like Bangladesh, working children are essential for survival in many families, as they were in our own heritage until the late 19th century. So, while the struggle to end child labour is necessary, getting there often requires taking different routes—and, sadly, there are many political obstacles.[139]

"Fifty years ago it might have been assumed that, just as child labour had declined in the developed world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, so it would also, in a trickle-down fashion, in the rest of the world. Its failure to do that, and its re-emergence in the developed world, raise questions about its role in any economy, whether national or global."[137]

British historian and socialist E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class draws a qualitative distinction between child domestic work and participation in the wider (waged) labour market.[18] Further, the usefulness of the experience of the industrial revolution in making predictions about current trends has been disputed. Social historian Hugh Cunningham, author of Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500, notes that:

According to Milton Friedman, before the Industrial Revolution virtually all children worked in agriculture.[136] During the Industrial Revolution many of these children moved from farm work to factory work. Over time, as real wages rose, parents became able to afford to send their children to school instead of work and as a result child labour declined, both before and after legislation.[137] Austrian School economist Murray Rothbard said that British and American children of the pre- and post-Industrial Revolution lived and suffered in infinitely worse conditions where jobs were not available for them and went "voluntarily and gladly" to work in factories.[138]

Concerns have often been raised over the buying public's moral complicity in purchasing products assembled or otherwise manufactured in developing countries with child labour. However, others have raised concerns that boycotting products manufactured through child labour may force these children to turn to more dangerous or strenuous professions, such as prostitution or agriculture. For example, a UNICEF study found that after the Child Labour Deterrence Act was introduced in the US, an estimated 50,000 children were dismissed from their garment industry jobs in Bangladesh, leaving many to resort to jobs such as "stone-crushing, street hustling, and prostitution", jobs that are "more hazardous and exploitative than garment production". The study suggests that boycotts are "blunt instruments with long-term consequences, that can actually harm rather than help the children involved."[61]

Different forms of child labour in Central America, 1999.
Child labour in a coal mine, United States, c. 1912. Photograph by Lewis Hine.

Eliminating child labour

Primark continued to investigate the allegations for three years,[132] concluding that BBC report was a fake. In 2011, following an investigation by the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee, the BBC announced, "Having carefully scrutinised all of the relevant evidence, the committee concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, it was more likely than not that the Bangalore footage was not authentic." BBC subsequently apologised for faking footage, and returned the television award for investigative reporting.[133][134][135]

As a result of the BBC report, Royal Television Society awarded it a prize, and Primark took immediate action and fired three Indian suppliers in 2008.[131]

In 2008, the BBC reported[130] that the company Primark was using child labor in the manufacture of clothing. In particular, a £4 hand-embroidered shirt was the starting point of a documentary produced by BBC's Panorama programme. The programme asks consumers to ask themselves, "Why am I only paying £4 for a hand embroidered top? This item looks handmade. Who made it for such little cost?", in addition to exposing the violent side of the child labour industry in countries where child exploitation is prevalent.


In 2010, a German news investigative report claimed that in silk weaving industry, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had found up to 10,000 children working in the 1,000 silk factories in 1998. In other places, thousands of bonded child labour were present in 1994. After UNICEF and NGOs got involved, after 2005, child labour figure is drastically lower, with the total estimated to be fewer than a thousand child labourers. The released children were back in school, claims the report.[129]

A 2003 Human Rights Watch report claimed children as young as five years old were employed and worked for up to 12 hours a day and six to seven days a week in silk industry.[127] These children, HRW claimed, were bonded child labour in India, easy to find in Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.[128]

Silk weaving

H&M said it "does not accept" child labour and "seeks to avoid" using Uzbek cotton, but admitted it did "not have any reliable methods" to ensure Uzbek cotton did not end up in any of its products. Inditex, the owner of Zara, said its code of conduct banned child labour.[126]

In December 2009, campaigners in the UK called on two leading high street retailers to stop selling clothes made with cotton which may have been picked by children. Anti-Slavery International and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) accused H&M and Zara of using cotton suppliers in Bangladesh. It is also suspected that many of their raw materials originates from Uzbekistan, where children aged 10 are forced to work in the fields. The activists were calling to ban the use of Uzbek cotton and implement a "track and trace" systems to guarantee an ethical responsible source of the material.

H&M and Zara

In 2007, The New York Times reported that GAP, after the child labour discovery, created a $200,000 grant to improve working conditions in the supplier community.[125]

GAP's policy, the report claimed, is that if it discovers child labour was used by its supplier in its branded clothes, the contractor must remove the child from the workplace, provide it with access to schooling and a wage, and guarantee the opportunity of work on reaching a legal working age.

A 2007 report claimed some GAP products had been produced by child labourers. GAP acknowledged the problem and announced it is pulling the products from its shelf.[124] The report found Gap had rigorous social audit systems since 2004 to eliminate child labour in its supply chain. However, the report concluded that the system was being abused by unscrupulous subcontractors.


In early August 2008, Iowa Labour Commissioner David Neil announced that his department had found that Agriprocessors, a kosher meatpacking company in Postville which had recently been raided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, had employed 57 minors, some as young as 14, in violation of state law prohibiting anyone under 18 from working in a meatpacking plant. Neil announced that he was turning the case over to the state Attorney General for prosecution, claiming that his department's inquiry had discovered "egregious violations of virtually every aspect of Iowa's child labour laws."[122] Agriprocessors claimed that it was at a loss to understand the allegations. Agriprocessors' CEO went to trial on these charges in state court on 4 May 2010. After a five-week trial he was found not guilty of all 57 charges of child labour violations by the Black Hawk County District Court jury in Waterloo, Iowa, on 7 June 2010.[123]


Small-scale artisanal mining of gold is another source of dangerous child labour in poor rural areas in certain parts of the world.[119] This form of mining uses labour-intensive and low-tech methods. It is informal sector of the economy. Human Rights Watch group estimates that about 12 percent of global gold production comes from artisanal mines. In west Africa, in countries such as Mali - the third largest exporter of gold in Africa - between 20,000 and 40,000 children work in artisanal mining. Locally known as orpaillage, children as young as 6 years old work with their families. These children and families suffer chronic exposure to toxic chemicals including mercury, and do hazardous work such as digging shafts and working underground, pulling up, carrying and crushing the ore. The poor work practices harm the long term health of children, as well as release hundreds of tons of mercury every year into local rivers, ground water and lakes. Gold is important to the economy of Mali and Ghana. For Mali, it is the second largest earner of its export revenue. For many poor families with children, it is the primary and sometimes the only source of income.[120][121]

BBC, in 2012, accused Glencore of using child labour in its mining and smelting operations of Africa. Glencore denied it used child labour, and said it has strict policy of not using child labour. The company claimed it has a strict policy whereby all copper was mined correctly, placed in bags with numbered seals and then sent to the smelter. Glencore mentioned being aware of child miners who were part of a group of artisanal miners who had without authorisation raided the concession awarded to the company since 2010; Glencore has been pleading with the government to remove the artisanal miners from the concession.[118]

In 2008, Bloomberg claimed child labour in copper and cobalt mines that supplied Chinese companies in Congo. The children are creuseurs, that is they dig the ore by hand, carry sacks of ores on their backs, and these are then purchased by these companies. Over 60 of Katanga's 75 processing plants are owned by Chinese companies and 90 percent of the region's minerals go to China.[116] An African NGO report claimed 80,000 child labourers under the age of 15, or about 40% of all miners, were supplying ore to Chinese companies in this African region.[117]

Children engaged in diamond mining in Sierra Leone.

Mining in Africa

[115][114][113] In 2001, a voluntary agreement called the

The cocoa industry was accused of profiting from child slavery and trafficking.[108] The European Cocoa Association dismissed these accusations as "false and excessive"[108] and the industry said the reports were not representative of all areas.[109] Later the industry acknowledged the working conditions for children were unsatisfactory and children's rights were sometimes violated[110] and acknowledged the claims could not be ignored. In a BBC interview, the ambassador for Ivory Coast to the United Kingdom called these reports of widespread use of slave child labour by 700,000 cocoa farmers as absurd and inaccurate.[109]

Malian migrants have long worked on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast, but in 2000 cocoa prices had dropped to a 10-year low and some farmers stopped paying their employees.[105] The Malian counsel had to rescue some boys who had not been paid for five years and who were beaten if they tried to run away.[105] Malian officials believed that 15,000 children, some as young as 11 years old, were working in the Ivory Coast in 2001. These children were often from poor families or the slums and were sold to work in other countries.[102] Parents were told the children would find work and send money home, but once the children left home, they often worked in conditions resembling slavery.[100] In other cases, children begging for food were lured from bus stations and sold as slaves.[106] In 2002, the Ivory Coast had 12,000 children with no relatives nearby, which suggested they were trafficked,[100] likely from neighboring Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo.[107]

In 1998, [104]

Cocoa production

Child labour incidents

Child labor was a particular target of early reformers. William Cooke Tatlor wrote at the time about these reformers who, witnissing children ar work in the factories, thought to themselves: 'How much more delightful would have been the gambol of the free limbs on the hillside; the sight of the green mead with its spangles of buttercups and daisies; the song of the bird and the humming bee...' But for many of these children the factory system meant quite literally the only chance for survival. Today we overlook the fact that death from starvation and exposure was a common fate before the Industrial Revolution, for the pre capitalist economy was barely able to support the population. Yes, children were working. Formerly they would have starved. It was only as goods were produced in greater abundance at lower cost that men could support their families without sending their children to work. It was not the reformer or the politician that ended the grim necessity for child labor; it was capitalism.

"The Incredible Bread Machine" a book published by "World Research, Inc." in 1974 stated:

These scholars suggest, from their studies of economic and social data, that early 20th century child labour in Europe and the United States ended in large part as a result of economic development of formal regulated economy, technology development and general prosperity. Child labour laws and ILO conventions came later. Edmonds suggests, even in contemporary times, incidence of child labour in Vietnam has rapidly reduced following economic reforms and GDP growth. These scholars suggest economic engagement, emphasis on opening quality schools rather than more laws, and expanding economically relevant skill development opportunities in the third world. International legal actions, such as trade sanctions increase child labour.[90][95][96][97]

Nepali girls working in brick factory.

Other scholars suggest that these arguments are flawed, ignores history and more laws will do more harm than good. According to them, child labour is merely the symptom of a greater disease named poverty. If laws ban all lawful work that enables the poor to survive, informal economy, illicit operations and underground businesses will thrive. These will increase abuse of the children. In poor countries with very high incidence rates of child labour - such as Ethiopia, Chad, Niger and Nepal - schools are not available, and the few schools that exist offer poor quality education or are unaffordable. The alternatives for children who currently work, claim these studies, are worse: grinding subsistence farming, militia or prostitution. Child labour is not a choice, it is a necessity, the only option for survival. It is currently the least undesirable of a set of very bad choices.[93][94]

Child labour in Bangladesh.

Some scholars suggest any labour by children aged 18 year or less is wrong since this encourages illiteracy, inhumane work and lower investment in human capital. Child labour, claim these activists, also leads to poor labour standards for adults, depresses the wages of adults in developing countries as well as the developed countries, and dooms the third world economies to low-skill jobs only capable of producing poor quality cheap exports. More children that work in poor countries, the fewer and worse-paid are the jobs for adults in these countries. In other words, there are moral and economic reasons that justify a blanket ban on labour from children aged 18 years or less, everywhere in the world.[91][92]

Scholars disagree on the best legal course forward to address child labour. Some suggest the need for laws that place a blanket ban on any work by children less than 18 years old. Others suggest the current international laws are enough, and the need for more engaging approach to achieve the ultimate goals.[90]

More laws vs. more freedom

Similarly, in 1996, member countries of the European Union, per Directive 94/33/EC,[8] agreed to a number of exceptions for young people in its child labour laws. Under these rules, children of various ages may work in cultural, artistic, sporting or advertising activities if authorised by competent authority. Children above the age of 13 may perform light work for a limited number of hours per week in other economic activities as defined at the discretion of each country. Additionally, the European law exception allows children aged 14 years or over to work as part of a work/training scheme. The EU Directive clarified that these exceptions do not allow child labour where the children may experience harmful exposure to dangerous substances.[87] Nonetheless, many children under the age of 13 do work, even in the most developed countries of the EU. For instance, a recent study showed over a third of Dutch twelve-year-old kids had a job.[88]

In 2004, the United States passed an amendment to the Fair Labour Standards Act of 1938. The amendment allows certain children aged 14–18 to work in or outside a business where machinery is used to process wood.[86] The law aims to respect the religious and cultural needs of the Amish community of the United States. The Amish believe that one effective way to educate children is on the job.[6] The new law allows Amish children the ability to work with their families, once they are past eighth grade in school.

Exceptions granted

Targeted child labour campaigns were initiated by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in order to advocate for prevention and elimination of all forms of child labour. The global Music against Child Labour Initiative was launched in 2013 in order to involve socially excluded children in structured musical activity and education in efforts to help protect them from child labour.[85]

In addition to setting the international law, the United Nations initiated International Program on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in 1992.[84] This initiative aims to progressively eliminate child labour through strengthening national capacities to address some of the causes of child labour. Amongst the key initiative is the so-called time bounded program countries, where child labour is most prevalent and schooling opportunities lacking. The initiative seeks to achieve amongst other things, universal primary school availability. The IPEC has expanded to at least the following target countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Nepal, Tanzania, Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Philippines, Senegal, South Africa and Turkey.

The United States has passed a law that allows Amish children older than 14 to work in traditional wood enterprises with proper supervision.

In 1999, ILO helped lead the Worst Forms Convention 182 (C182),[83] which has so far been signed upon and domestically ratified by 151 countries including the United States. This international law prohibits worst forms of child labour, defined as all forms of slavery and slavery-like practices, such as child trafficking, debt bondage, and forced labour, including forced recruitment of children into armed conflict. The law also prohibits use of a child for prostitution or the production of pornography, child labour in illicit activities such as drug production and trafficking; and in hazardous work. Both the Worst Forms Convention (C182) and the Minimum Age Convention (C138) are examples of international labour standards implemented through the ILO that deal with child labour.

195 countries are party to the Convention; only two nations have not ratified the treaty, Somalia and the United States.[81][82]

Under Article 1 of the 1990 Convention, a child is defined as "... every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier." Article 28 of this Convention requires States to, "make primary education compulsory and available free to all."[4]

...Parties recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from 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.[4]

The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, which was subsequently ratified by 193 countries.[80] Article 32 of the convention addressed child labour, as follows:

According to ILO minimum age convention (C138) of 1973, child labour refers to any work performed by children under the age of 12, non-light work done by children aged 12–14, and hazardous work done by children aged 15–17. Light work was defined, under this Convention, as any work that does not harm a child's health and development, and that does not interfere with his or her attendance at school. This convention has been ratified by 135 countries.

Almost every country in the world has laws relating to and aimed at preventing child labour. International Labour Organisation has helped set international law, which most countries have signed on and ratified.

Child labour laws and initiatives

Child Labour in a quarry, Ecuador.

Biggeri and Mehrotra have studied the macroeconomic factors that encourage child labour. They focus their study on five Asian nations including India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. They suggest[76] that child labour is a serious problem in all five, but it is not a new problem. Macroeconomic causes encouraged widespread child labour across the world, over most of human history. They suggest that the causes for child labour include both the demand and the supply side. While poverty and unavailability of good schools explain the child labour supply side, they suggest that the growth of low paying informal economy rather than higher paying formal economy is amongst the causes of the demand side. Other scholars too suggest that inflexible labour market, sise of informal economy, inability of industries to scale up and lack of modern manufacturing technologies are major macroeconomic factors affecting demand and acceptability of child labour.[77][78][79]

Macroeconomic causes

Agriculture deploys 70% of the world's child labour.[13] Above, child worker on a rice farm in Vietnam.
Child labour in Brazil, leaving after collecting recyclables from a landfill.

In European history when child labour was common, as well as in contemporary child labour of modern world, certain cultural beliefs have rationalised child labour and thereby encouraged it. Some view that work is good for the character-building and skill development of children. In many cultures, particular where informal economy and small household businesses thrive, the cultural tradition is that children follow in their parents' footsteps; child labour then is a means to learn and practice that trade from a very early age. Similarly, in many cultures the education of girls is less valued or girls are simply not expected to need formal schooling, and these girls pushed into child labour such as providing domestic services.[15][72][73][74][75]

Cultural causes

Young girl working on a loom in Aït Benhaddou, Morocco in May 2008.

Lack of meaningful alternatives, such as affordable schools and quality education, according to ILO,[15] is another major factor driving children to harmful labour. Children work because they have nothing better to do. Many communities, particularly rural areas where between 60–70% of child labour is prevalent, do not possess adequate school facilities. Even when schools are sometimes available, they are too far away, difficult to reach, unaffordable or the quality of education is so poor that parents wonder if going to school is really worth it.[14][71]

International Labour Organisation (ILO) suggests poverty is the greatest single cause behind child labour.[15] For impoverished households, income from a child's work is usually crucial for his or her own survival or for that of the household. Income from working children, even if small, may be between 25 to 40% of the household income. Other scholars such as Harsch on African child labour, and Edmonds and Pavcnik on global child labour have reached the same conclusion.[14][69][70]

Primary causes

Causes of child labour

Maplecroft Child Labour Index 2012 survey[68] reports 76 countries pose extreme child labour complicity risks for companies operating worldwide. The ten highest risk countries in 2012, ranked in decreasing order, were: Myanmar, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Burundi, Pakistan and Ethiopia. Of the major growth economies, Maplecroft ranked Philippines 25th riskiest, India 27th, China 36th, Viet Nam 37th, Indonesia 46th, and Brazil 54th - all of them rated to involve extreme risks of child labour uncertainties, to corporations seeking to invest in developing world and import products from emerging markets.

Accurate present day child labour information is difficult to obtain because of disagreements between data sources as to what constitutes child labour. In some countries, government policy contributes to this difficulty. For example, the overall extent of child labour in China is unclear due to the government categorizing child labour data as “highly secret”.[64] China has enacted regulations to prevent child labour; still, the practice of child labour is reported to be a persistent problem within China, generally in agriculture and low-skill service sectors as well as small workshops and manufacturing enterprises.[65][66]
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor issued a List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor where China was attributed 12 goods the majority of which were produced by both underage children and indentured laborers.[67] The report listed electronics, garments, toys and coal among other goods.

A boy repairing a tire in Gambia.

Child labour accounts for 22% of the workforce in Asia, 32% in Africa, 17% in Latin America, 1% in US, Canada, Europe and other wealthy nations.[62] The proportion of child labourers varies greatly among countries and even regions inside those countries. Africa has the highest percentage of children aged 5–17 employed as child labour, and a total of over 65 million. Asia, with its larger population, has the largest number of children employed as child labour at about 114 million. Latin America and Caribbean region has lower overall population density, but at 14 million child labourers has high incidence rates too.[63]

Contrary to popular beliefs, most child labourers are employed by their parents rather than in manufacturing or formal economy. Children who work for pay or in-kind compensation are usually found in rural settings, than urban centers. Less than 3 percent of child labour aged 5–14 across the world work outside their household, or away from their parents.[14]

Child labour is still common in many parts of the world. Estimates for child labour vary. It ranges between 250 to 304 million, if children aged 5–17 involved in any economic activity are counted. If light occasional work is excluded, ILO estimates there were 153 million child labourers aged 5–14 worldwide in 2008. This is about 20 million less than ILO estimate for child labourers in 2004. Some 60 percent of the child labour was involved in agricultural activities such as farming, dairy, fisheries and forestry. Another 25 percent of child labourers were in service activities such as retail, hawking goods, restaurants, load and transfer of goods, storage, picking and recycling trash, polishing shoes, domestic help, and other services. The remaining 15 percent laboured in assembly and manufacturing in informal economy, home-based enterprises, factories, mines, packaging salt, operating machinery, and such operations.[59][60][61] Two out of three child workers work alongside their parents, in unpaid family work situations. Some children work as guides for tourists, sometimes combined with bringing in business for shops and restaurants. Child labour predominantly occurs in the rural areas (70%) and informal urban sector (26%).

An eight-year-old boy making his livelihood by showing a playful monkey in a running train in India in 2011.
Incidence rates for child labour worldwide in 10-14 age group, in 2003, per World Bank data.[57] The data is incomplete, as many countries do not collect or report child labour data (colored gray). The color code is as follows: yellow (<10% of children working), green (10–20%), orange (20–30%), red (30–40%) and black (>40%). Some nations such as Guinea-Bissau, Mali and Ethiopia have more than half of all children aged 5–14 at work to make ends meet.[58]

21st century

There were even Verdingkinder auctions where children were handed over to the farmer asking the least amount of money from the authorities, thus securing cheap labour for his farm and relieving the authority from the financial burden of looking after the children. In the 1930s 20% of all agricultural labourers in the Canton of Bern were children below the age of 15. Swiss municipality guardianship authorities acted so, commonly tolerated by federal authorities, to the 1960s, not all of them of course, but usually communities affected of low taxes in some Swiss cantons[55] Swiss historian Marco Leuenberger investigated, that in 1930 there were some 35,000 indentured children, and between 1920 and 1970 more than 100,000 are believed to have been placed with families or homes. 10,000 Verdingkinder are still alive.[55][56] Therefore, the so-called Wiedergutmachungsinitiative was started in April 2014. In April 2014 the collection of targeted at least authenticated 100,000 signatures of Swiss citizens has started, and still have to be collected to October 2015.

As in many other countries, child labour in Switzerland affected among the so-called Kaminfegerkinder ("chimney sweep children") and chidren working p.e. in spinning mills, factories and in agriculture in 19th-century Switzerland,[52] but also to the 1960s so-called Verdingkinder (literally: "contract children" or "indentured child laborers") were children who were taken from their parents, often due to poverty or moral reasons – usually mothers being unmarried, very poor citizens, of GypsyYeniche origin, so-called Kinder der Landstrasse,[53] etc. – and sent to live with new families, often poor farmers who needed cheap labour.[54]


Other European countries

Out of former Soviet Union republics Uzbekistan continued and expanded the program of child labour on industrial scale to increase profits on the main source of Islam Karimov's income, cotton harvesting. In September, when school normally starts, the classes are suspended and children are sent to cotton fields for work, where they are assigned daily quotas of 20 to 60 kg of raw cotton they have to collect. This process is repeated in spring, when collected cotton needs to be hoed and weeded. In 2006 it is estimated that 2.7 million of children were forced to work this way.[51]

From the 1950s on, the students were also used for unpaid work at schools, where they cleaned and performed repairs.[48] This practice has continued in the Russian Federation, where up to 21 days of the summer holidays is sometimes set aside for school works. By law, this is only allowed as part of specialized occupational training and with the students' and parents' permission, but those provisions are widely ignored.[49] In 2012 there was an accident near city of Nalchik where a car killed several pupils cleaning up a highway shoulder during their "holiday work" as well as their teacher who was supervising them.[50]

Although formally banned since 1922, child labour was widespread in the Soviet Union, mostly in the form of mandatory, unpaid work by schoolchildren on Saturdays and holidays. The students were used as a cheap, unqualified workforce on kolhoz (collective farms) as well as in industry and forestry. The practice was formally called "work education".[47]

Soviet Union and Russia

Proposals to regulate child labour began as early as 1786.[46]

In southeast Asian colonies, such as Hong Kong, child labour such as the Mui Tsai (妹仔), was rationalised as a cultural tradition and ignored by British authorities.[43][44] The Dutch East India Company officials rationalised their child labour abuses with, "it is a way to save these children from a worse fate." Christian mission schools in regions stretching from Zambia to Nigeria too required work from children, and in exchange provided religious education, not secular education.[37] Elsewhere, the Canadian Dominion Statutes in form of so-called Breaches of Contract Act, stipulated jail terms for uncooperative child workers.[45]

Beyond laws, new taxes were imposed on colonies. One of these taxes was the Head Tax in the British and French colonial empires. The tax was imposed on everyone older than 8 years, in some colonies. To pay these taxes and cover living expenses, children in colonial households had to work.[40][41][42]

Systematic use of child labour was common place in the colonies of European powers between 1650 to 1950. In Africa, colonial administrators encouraged traditional kin-ordered modes of production, that is hiring a household for work not just the adults. Millions of children worked in colonial agricultural plantations, mines and domestic service industries.[37][38] Sophisticated schemes were promulgated where children in these colonies between the ages of 5–14 were hired as an apprentice without pay in exchange for learning a craft. A system of Pauper Apprenticeship came into practice in the 19th century where the colonial master neither needed the native parents' nor child's approval to assign a child to labour, away from parents, at a distant farm owned by a different colonial master.[39] Other schemes included 'earn-and-learn' programs where children would work and thereby learn. Britain for example passed a law, the so-called Masters and Servants Act of 1899, followed by Tax and Pass Law, to encourage child labour in colonies particularly in Africa. These laws offered the native people the legal ownership to some of the native land in exchange for making labour of wife and children available to colonial government's needs such as in farms and as picannins.

Colonial empires

Percentage children working
in England and Wales[36]
Census Year % Boys aged 10–14
as child labour
1881 22.9
1891 26.0
1901 21.9
1911 18.3
Note: These are averages; child labour in
Lancashire was 80%
Source: Census of England and Wales

Home-based manufacturing operations were active year round. Families willingly deployed their children in these income generating home enterprises.[32] In many cases, men worked from home. In France, over 58 percent of garment workers operated out of their homes; in Germany, the number of full-time home operations nearly doubled between 1882 to 1907; and in the United States, millions of families operated out of home seven days a week, year round to produce garments, shoes, artificial flowers, feathers, match boxes, toys, umbrellas and other products. Children aged 5–14 worked alongside the parents. Home-based operations and child labour in Australia, Britain, Austria and other parts of the world was common. Rural areas similarly saw families deploying their children in agriculture. In 1946, Frieda Miller - then Director of United States Department of Labour - told the International Labour Organisation that these home-based operations offered, "low wages, long hours, child labour, unhealthy and insanitary working conditions."[10][33][34][35]

Factories and mines were not the only place where child labour was prevalent in the early 20th century. Home-based manufacturing across the United States and Europe employed children as well.[10] Governments and reformers argued that labour in factories must be regulated and the state had an obligation to provide welfare for poor. Legislation that followed had the effect of moving work out of factories into urban homes. Families and women in particular preferred it because it allowed them to generate income while taking care of household duties.

Household enterprises

In 1910, over 2 million children in the same age group were employed in the United States.[29] This included children who rolled cigarettes,[30] engaged in factory work, worked as bobbin doffers in textile mills, worked in coal mines and were employed in canneries.[31] Lewis Hine's photographs of child labourers in the 1910s powerfully evoked the plight of working children in the American south. Hines took these photographs between 1908 and 1917 as staff photographer for the National Child Labor Committee.

An estimated 1.7 million children under the age of fifteen were employed in American industry by 1900.[28]

Children as young as three were put to work. A high number of children also worked as prostitutes.[27] Many children (and adults) worked 16-hour days. As early as 1802 and 1819 Factory Acts were passed to regulate the working hours of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day. These acts were largely ineffective and after radical agitation, by for example the "Short Time Committees" in 1831, a Royal Commission recommended in 1833 that children aged 11–18 should work a maximum of 12 hours per day, children aged 9–11 a maximum of eight hours, and children under the age of nine were no longer permitted to work. This act however only applied to the textile industry, and further agitation led to another act in 1847 limiting both adults and children to 10-hour working days.

In the early 20th century, thousands of boys were employed in glass making industries. Glass making was a dangerous and tough job especially without the current technologies. The process of making glass includes intense heat to melt glass (3133 °F). When the boys are at work, they are exposed to this heat. This could cause eye trouble, lung ailments, heat exhaustion, cut, and burns. Since workers were paid by the piece, they had to work productively for hours without a break. Since furnaces had to be constantly burning, there were night shifts from 5:00 pm to 3:00 am Many factory owners preferred boys under 16 years of age.[26]

Arthur Rothstein, Child Labor, Cranberry Bog, 1939. Brooklyn Museum

Early 20th century

Children also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or selling matches, flowers and other cheap goods.[20] Some children undertook work as apprentices to respectable trades, such as building or as domestic servants (there were over 120,000 domestic servants in London in the mid-18th century). Working hours were long: builders worked 64 hours a week in summer and 52 in winter, while domestic servants worked 80 hour weeks.

In coal mines, children would crawl through tunnels too narrow and low for adults.[25]

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade.
Children working in home-based assembly operations in United States (1923).

Karl Marx was an outspoken opponent of child labor,[22] saying British industries, "could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood too," and that U.S. capital was financed by the "capitalized blood of children"[23][24]

The Victorian era became notorious for employing young children in factories and mines and as chimney sweeps.[19] Child labour played an important role in the Industrial Revolution from its outset, often brought about by economic hardship. Charles Dickens, for example worked at the age of 12 in a blacking factory, with his family in debtor's prison. The children of the poor were expected to help towards the family budget, often working long hours in dangerous jobs for low pay,[20] earning 10–20% of an adult male's wage. In England and Scotland in 1788, two-thirds of the workers in 143 water-powered cotton mills were described as children.[21] In 19th-century Great Britain, one-third of poor families were without a breadwinner, as a result of death or abandonment, obliging many children to work from a young age.

Children going to a 12-hour night shift in the United States (1908).

Victorian era

During the Industrial Revolution, children as young as four were employed in production factories with dangerous, and often fatal, working conditions.[18] Based on this understanding of the use of children as labourers, it is now considered by wealthy countries to be a human rights violation, and is outlawed, while some poorer countries may allow or tolerate child labour. Child labour can also be defined as the full-time employment of children who are under a minimum legal age.

Industrial Revolution

Child labourers, Macon, Georgia, 1909



  • History 1
    • Industrial Revolution 1.1
    • Victorian era 1.2
    • Early 20th century 1.3
      • Household enterprises 1.3.1
    • Colonial empires 1.4
    • Soviet Union and Russia 1.5
    • Other European countries 1.6
      • Switzerland 1.6.1
    • 21st century 1.7
  • Causes of child labour 2
    • Primary causes 2.1
    • Cultural causes 2.2
    • Macroeconomic causes 2.3
  • Child labour laws and initiatives 3
    • Exceptions granted 3.1
    • More laws vs. more freedom 3.2
  • Child labour incidents 4
    • Cocoa production 4.1
    • Mining in Africa 4.2
    • Meatpacking 4.3
    • GAP 4.4
    • H&M and Zara 4.5
    • Silk weaving 4.6
    • Primark 4.7
  • Eliminating child labour 5
    • Action against Child Labour in India 5.1
    • Action against Child Labour in Africa 5.2
  • Statistics 6
    • Number of children involved in ILO categories of work, by age and gender in 2002 6.1
  • See also 7
  • Notes 8
  • References 9
  • Further reading 10
    • History 10.1
  • External links 11

The incidence of child labour in the world decreased from 25% to 10% between 1960 and 2003, according to the World Bank.[16] Nevertheless, the total number of child labourers remains high, with UNICEF and ILO acknowledging an estimated 168 million children aged 5–17 worldwide, were involved in child labour in 2013.[17]

In developing countries, with high poverty and poor schooling opportunities, child labour is still prevalent. In 2010, sub-saharan Africa had the highest incidence rates of child labour, with several African nations witnessing over 50 percent of children aged 5–14 working.[12] Worldwide agriculture is the largest employer of child labour.[13] Vast majority of child labour is found in rural settings and informal urban economy; children are predominantly employed by their parents, rather than factories.[14] Poverty and lack of schools are considered as the primary cause of child labour.[15]

Child labour was employed to varying extents through most of history. Before 1940, numerous children aged 5–14 worked in Europe, the United States and various colonies of European powers. These children worked in agriculture, home-based assembly operations, factories, mining and in services such as newsies. Some worked night shifts lasting 12 hours. With the rise of household income, availability of schools and passage of child labour laws, the incidence rates of child labour fell.[9][10][11]

[8][7][6] children, and others.indigenous American common among child work children, some forms of Amish These laws do not consider all work by children as child labour; exceptions include work by child artists, supervised training, certain categories of work such as those by [5][4]

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