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 152 million children whose primary activity is work. The prevalence of child labour is highest in sub-Saharan Africa (29% of children aged 5 to 17 years). In the least developed countries, around one in four children (ages 5 to 17) are engaged in labour that is considered detrimental to their health and development. Asia and the Pacific also have large populations of child labourers.In Latin America and the Caribbean, 11% of children are so active. 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.
“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.
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 widescale 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.
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?”
The PATRIZIA Children Foundation believes that education is the way to a better future. The non-profit organisation has already helped more than 200,000 children and adolescents worldwide hato gain access to education, a home or medical care in our facilities. All administrative expenses are covered by PATRIZIA AG, ensuring that all donations go 100% into projects. For further information on the PCF, visit www.patrizia.foundation
Further information on the World Day Against Child Labour, click here.
Image: Dan White / Alamy Stock Photo