In General Knowledge for the Family, Physical & Mental Health

An Overview of Domestic and International Child Labor

Child labor refers to work that prevents a child between the ages of 5-17 from attending school; sometimes these conditions are hazardous or illegal. Each year 2.7 million children are lost to underage labor. Most of these children are unskilled and unable to handle work designated for qualified adults.

Causes of Child Labor

Child labor is caused by:

  • Lack of affordable healthcare to care for impaired family members
  • Attitudes of adults and government that devalue the dangers of juvenile labor
  • Minimal employment and educational resources for women

History of Child Labor in America

Child laborers have existed throughout American history. The Victorian era of child labor was well known for frequently using underage labor in factories, and it set the foundation for the Industrial era. The Industrial era gave rise to factories since children were considered cheaper labor. Children were paid 10%-20% of a regular wage and worked under deplorable conditions for long hours.

As opposition rose to child labor in the Northern states, factories relocated to the South. In 1832, the New England Association of Farmers, Mechanics and Workingmen stated, “Children should not be allowed in the factories from morning till night, without any time for healthy recreation and mental culture, for it endangers their . . . well-being and health”[i]

In 1836, the National Trades Union Convention makes the first step by introducing minimum age law for factory work. It would take various laws and another 102 years before the Fair Labor Standards Act was established is 1938. Here are a few landmark legislations that took place before the FLSA:

  • 1836: The first law that required children younger than 15 to attend school a few months out of the year passed.
  • 1883: Children are banned from cigar manufacturing in tenements. This was a major win for New York State unions.
  • 1936: The Walsh-Healy Act required federal purchases over $10,000 to contain this agreement on the part of the contractor to follow all guidelines. One guideline was to employ no man younger than 16 and no woman younger than 18.
  • 1937: Franklin D. Roosevelt implemented additional provisions to the Jones-Constigan Act, which eliminated underage labor in the sugar beet and sugar cane markets.
  • 1938: Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) eliminated any child younger than the age of 18 from performing dangerous jobs. Children younger than 16 could not work during school hours. This resolved any legalities the southern states had with underage employment.

International Child Labor

Even though child labor laws were passed that prohibit underage labor, poverty is one of the main reasons minors work. In Sub Saharan Africa, the AIDS virus kills or incapacitates parents, forcing children to work in order to survive. More than ¼ of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty. Reform is slower to stop underage labor because of lucrative profits offered to business owners by international companies. The competition between corporations is stiff and cheap labor is appealing.

According to the Childlaborphotoproject, 61% of child laborers live in Asia, 32% in Africa, 7% in Latin America and 1% in industrialized nations such as Canada and the U.S. The workforce is mostly made of 148.3 million boys versus 116.1 million girls. The highest percentage of children working in hazardous conditions is in Asia and the Pacific with 33.8 million and Sub Saharan Africa with 28.7 million[ii]. There are 12.5 million children in the Caribbean and Latin America working in dangerous work areas.

Most of this work is done in:

  • Agriculture: Farming (which may include working on the family farm), fishing, forestry and livestock. Parents may have their children work based on tradition. Lack of educational resources and poverty are a couple of the main reasons children work in this sector.
  • Industry: Manufacturing, construction, mining and public utilities. Children in the mining division handle explosive devices and work with loads of coal that weigh more than they do. They also endure extreme hot or cold temperatures to search for precious gems or metals. The number of children in mining is relatively small, with one million across the world.
  • Services: Hospitality, restaurants, retail and wholesale labor, where low pay is the norm. In some cases, work in hotels is linked to prostitution.

What makes the above professions hazardous is complicated machinery, heavy loads, toxic substances and long hours. Injuries have lasting effects that may be permanent or fatal. Due to a child’s smaller build, the possibility of body parts caught in dangerous machinery is greater.

The more vile divisions of child labor are:

  • Illegal drug trade: In Mexico, one of the largest drug smuggling cartels recruits children between the ages of 11-17 to smuggle drugs into the U.S. Regions in Brazil and the Middle East also use children to transport illegal drugs. Some children become addicts themselves. The cartels use these children because they are cheap labor and are often paid in drugs, such as crystal methamphetamine.
  • Prostitution and pornography: [iii]Accounts support that infants to older children are sexually abused due to pornography. In developing countries like Southeast Asia and Madagascar, child sex tourism is a common problem. Children provide sexual services in massage parlors, bars, restaurants and brothels for little to no pay. The Internet has made it easier to transmit pedophile pornography files that are recorded (or transmitted) in any part of the world. This is called peer-to-peer networking. Encryption and data destruction software ensures that only screened viewers enter chat rooms.
  • Slavery: Children removed from the safety of their homes are at the mercy of the slave keeper. Children are more vulnerable to physical and psychological abuse of the handlers. They may be forced into any type of labor, including the sex trade. Child slaves are usually found in West and Central Africa and South Asia. Arranged and forced marriages of girls as young as 10 years old are subjected to abuse and domestic serfdom. Underage marriage is widespread in Latin America, Asia, Sub Saharan Africa and the Middle East.[iv]
  • Armed conflict: Some children are forced into recruitment of armed conflict. A majority join armed forces for retribution or protection. They may become fighters or placed in supportive roles (cooks, spies or messengers).

Some of the harrowing stories told by survivors claim they were enticed by promises of food, education and financial gain, only to face a number of the atrocities listed above. All underage labor may also involve one or more of the following: physical, psychological or sexual abuse.

Child Labor Events

Various multinational companies were exposed using adolescents as inexpensive labor. Below are a few cases involving retail organizations.

In December 2009, Anti-Slavery International and Environmental Justice Foundation accused the clothing retailer H&M for using cotton imported from a manufacturer in Uzbekistan, known for employing adolescents for field work. H&M stated that their institution did not have knowledge of the cotton manufacturer’s labor operations.

Multibillion dollar sportswear company Nike has been the model of unscrupulous labor practices since 1991. Examples of this include the Pakistan soccer ball production, which uses underage labor, and in Indonesia, where reports state that adolescent girls work in factories. There is an extensive list of labor atrocities by Nike, but little is done to reform public and media opinions regarding their international manufacturing operations.

In January 2013, an audit revealed 74 children younger than age of 16 were employed by China manufacturer Foxconn in 2012. Foxconn manufactures Apple electronic products. A majority of children supplied falsified identification documents. Apple has since reported the findings to local authorities and ended production with some manufacturers.


There is a lighter side to underage labor and abuses. Reports state that underage labor is decreasing. During 2012 in the Asia and Pacific areas, child labor decreased from 113,607 million to 77.7 million. In Latin America and the Pacific, it decreased from 14,125 million to 12,505 million. The smallest change is in Sub Saharan Africa. Child labor has decreased from 65 million to 59 million. Children who fall under the hazardous work category decreased from 115,314 million to 85,344 million.[v]

Large projects, such as the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, are developing programs to end juvenile labor. Under the International Labour Organization (SD 1992), this institution is seeking to find various solutions. They use governments, employers and employees to create policies and set industry specifications.

Sensitive arguments between governments and activists regarding underage labor are providing survival plans when work is terminated. Children resort to other hazardous employment just to live since death from starvation affects the population in various regions. Education programs such as the IPEC project provide opportunities for children by teaching a trade.

Additional propositions for reform include:

  • Free education curriculums for children
  • Industry trade training for all adults
  • Campaigns to change public opinions regarding women and children
  • Eradicating the child sex industry
  • Regularly monitoring and penalizing those who use underage labor in industrialized nations

Overall, many intricate pieces contribute to the worldwide elimination of illegal child labor.

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