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Child Labour Essay


The primary objective of this essay is to investigate what has caused child labour to become a glaring issue in our society until the present day and look at possible solutions. A lot has been done but little achieved in this ongoing fight. Many international organisations such as ILO and UNICEF are deeply concerned by rising child labour in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to name but a few. Children work for many reasons, the most important being poverty and the pressure suffered by them to escape from it. Many of these children endure lives of complete and utter deprivation and abuse. However, there are problems with the intuitive solution of instantly abolishing child labour to prevent such abuse, as the conclusion at the end of this essay will later identify.

Literature Review

The problem that my research will address is why has child labour increased in some countries in recent years and what are the solutions to these causes. The main sources of information that I have identified as relevant are mainly websites set up by international organisations such as ILO, OECD and UNICEF. Accelerating action against child labour, ILO Global Report 2010 This is a global report that offers comprehensive data and analysis on the problem of child labour. The author is the International Labour Organisation and it is considered to be of high authority. It is mainly quantitative in its approach and deals with methodology, policy formation as well as execution.

The report consists of four parts. Part one discusses changes in global trends that have occurred since 2006 Global Report was published. Part two reviews the progress made in implementing the Global Action Plan. Part three identifies major challenges and how they can be addressed. Finally, part four examines steps to be taken toward the goal of eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016. The language used in the report is rational. The report contains a lot of graphs and tables to support statements that are made. I find it of major significance to my research question.

Child labour “Child labour exists because we allow it to exist” The author of the book is Joanna Rea and Development Education Unit, Concern Worldwide. It is considered an authority. Topics that are looked at in this book are the history of child labour, child labour today, child labour and education, big business and child labour, the consumer and child labour, and taking action against child labour. The language used is rational. The arguments presented are fully supported by various pieces of evidence and are balanced. The book contains a list of useful websites at the end and is very easy to read and understand. I found the book to be particularly persuasive and helpful in my research.


“Police recently raided a Bangkok sweatshop that produced paper cups and rescued 31 children who had been locked in a small room. Not one was older than 13….They were emaciated and suffering from malnutrition. They had been beaten so badly that they needed to be carried to freedom….They told of being thrashed if they failed to make 700 cups a day, by hand….the owner….gave them amphetamine tablets [to keep them awake and working longer hours]….One 13 year old told police he had been beaten unconscious twice when he tried to escape.” Child labour has been occurring throughout the world for a very long time. The extract from an article above might seem like something out of a bad movie however, it is a genuine description of child labour in 1991. What might be even more surprising is the fact that this is still a reality in the world today in spite of all the steps taken by the legal machinery to prevent it from happening.

The practice has not been eradicated. It persists as a world phenomenon in spite of various child labour laws. It even appears to be on the increase in some countries. The million dollar question that many are asking is “What has caused child labour to increase and remain an economic, and a social problem and what can be done to eliminate these causes?” or quite simply put “What are we doing wrong?” This might seem like an easy question. Unfortunately, the answer is not as easy to come up with as the question is. Taking a closer look makes one realise how challenging and problematical the world of child labour really is and the implications involved. It is only when we fully understand what constitutes as child labour and its causes can we begin our search for solutions. So what is child labour? There are many definitions and interpretations. It is a complex issue. As stated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32.1, “Child labour is work performed by a child that is likely to interfere with his or her education, or to be harmful to their health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”

Causes of Child Labour

There are three main parties involved in this heated discussion. These are the child labourers, employers and the families of the children.

Child labourers – The International Labour Organisation estimates that 215 million children ages 5-17 are engaged in child labour. (ILO, Accelerating action against child labour, 2010) These children are being exploited by their employers and receive meager pay. They are very often working in unsafe environments and are exposed to unmitigated hazards. Employers – These are the people responsible for the hiring of children, the amount of pay they receive and the unthinkable conditions they have to work in. Families – Family can also be seen as the party that induces their child/children into child labour for reasons discussed further on in this essay. There are various causes of child labour. The list is quite long and exhaustive. Here is a look at some of the causes that facilitated the increase in child labour in recent years.

Poverty Constraints (Supply of Child Labour):

Child labour is both a cause and outcome of poverty. “Child labour is not only a by-product of poverty, it also generates poverty….. The argument that child labour can’t be eliminated until poverty is eliminated reverses cause and effect and provides an excuse for tolerating child labour. Ending child labour is a way out of poverty.” (Pharis J. Harvey). Children who live in extreme poverty are most likely to end up working at a very young age. Increase in the gap between rich and poor in recent decades has forced millions of children out of school and into labour. The poor continue to become poorer every day and the trend seems to be on the increase. It is estimated that approximately 50-80 percent of the population in developing countries that live in rural areas are without basic amenities.

Parents are forced to send their little ones to work for reasons of survival and because they see no other alternative. Even though they do not get paid much, they still serve as the major contributors to income for poor families. A study carried out by ILO (International Labour Organisation) Bureau of Statistics found that it is utmost necessary that children go to work “in order to maintain the economic level of households, this could be in the form of wages or help in the household enterprises or of household chores, to free adult household members for economic activity elsewhere.” Child labour generates poverty because when a child is employed, an adult is denied of a place to work and also decreases adult wages in that industry. Children are not able to attend school if they work and so have no chance of escaping the vicious cycle of poverty. When they become poverty-stricken adults, they are forced to send their children to work and the cycle starts all over again.

The Vicious Cycle of Poverty

Many believe that poverty will have to be reduced in order to see any changes in child labour throughout the world. Two urgent steps that can be taken to reduce poverty are:

* Abolish Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs)

When a country has problems with money, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) program puts into operation a SAP for that country. SAPs reduce spending on education and health. The IMF program is very harsh on the poorest of the poor and ‘pushes’ children into work.

* Reform Third World Debt

The debts of the poorest countries should be cancelled. Money should be spent on local health and education rather than on repayment of loans etc. Another solution is the establishment of social services to help families and children survive crises such as a loss of home and microfinance programs so that families can afford to keep their children out of employment.

Willingness to Exploit Children (Demand for Child Labour):

The supply of child labour as caused by poverty is matched by the demand of employers for a cheap and flexible workforce. Even at the face of poverty child labour would be less rampant if there were no people willing to exploit them. The demand for child labour is caused by pressure on firms to become more competitive in the market place. Children are cheap to hire. They are easy to manipulate and control as they are more compliant than adults. They are also highly unlikely to demand better wages or working conditions and organise trade unions. “Children are employed because they are easier to exploit,” according to the “Roots of Child Labor” in UNICEF’s 1997 State of the World’s Children Report. Cheap labour creates an opportunity for money driven companies to increase their profits and gain a competitive advantage.

Moreover, hiring children illegally benefits employers as they do not have to pay various social security fees making the cost of child labour even lower. Many companies and even parents justify child labour in certain jobs on the grounds that some sorts of work cannot be performed by adults. Children have better eyesight and their fingers are “nimble” which enables them to be more productive in certain tasks such as weaving rugs and picking cocoa. This leads me onto adult unemployment which is a direct consequence of child labour.

Child labour forces adults to compete with children for employment. Parents cannot get jobs because firms prefer to hire children at cheap rates. As a result, adults live on the labour of their helpless children. To end adult unemployment and child exploitation, child labour laws should be strictly implemented in all industries. Given that it is extremely difficult to take on all the companies at once, efforts should be made to campaign on specific industries. Furthermore, jobs of child workers should be given to their adult relatives. This should be accompanied by financial support to help with the transition from child to adult employment – subsidies and micro-credit for example.

Shortcomings of the Education System:

Failure of the education system to retain kids at school until the end of the compulsory period is another major issue that ‘pushes’ children into the labour force. Many developing nations fail to provide millions of children with proper education. Grossly inadequate state expenditure on education creates overcrowding, a shortage of teachers, books, poor sanitation and lack of resources. Low quality of education makes attendance a waste of time. Schools in poor countries are too expensive and hard to reach, or even worse, there are no schools at all! Children are often beaten and girls can be sexually harassed. Is it surprising then that many students drop out of school and those that put up with it cannot even read or write? Countries that spend least on education are the ones where child labour is worst.

Therefore, spending on education, especially primary, should be prioritised as every full-time student is one less potential full-time child worker. The only way that children can obtain jobs that are other than those in sweatshops is if they receive basic education. Some believe that education is the key to breaking the cycle of child labour. Guido Bertolaso, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF states that “When basic education becomes accessible, relevant, and free, parents will understand that the education of their children is the best investment in their future, and children themselves will also be motivated to get an education.” Illiterate parents do not understand the value of education. High unemployment rate among graduates makes parents assume that it is useless sending their children to school because there is no guarantee of a job at the end of it. Compared to education, work assures better survival in life and better prospects for the future. To tackle the problem of illiteracy the following steps are advisable:

* Reduce or eliminate school fees.

* Make education relevant. Relevant in the sense that it should help children learn skills that will help them earn a living. Governments should open schools that teach lifelong skills to children who must work. * Provide catch up education opportunities for children and youth who have so far missed out on formal schooling. * Motivate parents to send their children to school.

* Introduce and enforce compulsory education laws that are in line with international standards. * Make school attendance more accessible – more schools, flexible schooling. It is every government’s responsibility to provide all children with access to a safe environment where children can gain knowledge. * Improve educational quality – teaching, curriculum…

* Cash or food linked to participation in education.
* Tackle shortage of teachers and ensure a properly trained and professional teaching force.

Cultural Expectations and Limited Choices for Women:

It is common in most households to decide which children to send to school on the basis of age or gender. This is called child specialization and involves certain siblings going to school while others work. When it comes to choosing between sending either a boy or a girl to school, it is often the girl who loses out. The established female role in some countries means that girls are particularly at risk of being sent to work. Since birth they are seen as having to cook and clean so why should they study? Attempts should be made to inform families about the benefits of education. Girls should be allowed to go to school and women who have missed out on education should be trained. Studies show that when women are educated and empowered, the incidence of girls in child labour drops dramatically. APHEDA has many projects assisting skills training for women.

Suppression of Trade Unions:

Trade unions play a crucial role in preventing and eliminating child labour, therefore every effort should be made to strengthen them. Employed adults, who have the right to organise and bargain for a living wage, do not have to send their children to work. Where strong unions exist, child labour is diminished. When trade unions are banned, there is no one to protect the rights of workers both young and old.

Lack of Information:

How many children are engaged in labour? What types of work do they perform? The ILO has collected a lot of data in recent years, however gaps still exist. We need more data about “hidden” or “grey” areas of child labour that are hidden from public eye such as domestic servants. There is also a difficulty in some countries, such as those that do not have a systematic birth registration, of establishing a child’s age. Without proper documentation, children may be denied access to schools. Governments should ensure that a proper birth registration system is in place.

Inadequate Laws:

Despite the fact that more than 130 countries have signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in some countries the laws are too vague, confusing and not enforced. Countries will continue to suffer from the lingering peril of child labour as long as inadequate legislation and corrupt officials who benefit from child exploitation exist. Laws and regulations against child labour must be in place and rigorously enforced by governments. Greater share of budgets should go to non-government aid agencies for primary education and teacher training rather than to big profit making companies.

These are just some of the causes of child labour. However, the list does not stop here. Other causes such as overpopulation, migration, orphanage, lack of awareness of child labour laws, lack of acceptance and determination by various parties are also very significant contributors to the problem of child labour. The causes mentioned above are not only reasons why child labour began to pollute economies. They are also the reasons as to why it continues to grow. The cause that had the most impact on this increase in recent years is undoubtedly the recession. The impact of recession on child labour is very well summed up in UNICEF’s 1997 State of the World’s Children Report, seeing that the economic trends we are experiencing now have also occurred in 1980s. The report says that “during the 1980s, in many developing countries, government indebtedness, unwise internal economic policies and recession resulted in economic crisis. Structural adjustment programmes in many countries accentuated cuts in social spending that have hit the poor disproportionately.”

The report declares that in many countries education has deteriorated so much, that education itself became part of the problem as children would rather work than attend school. Economic setbacks arising from recession can therefore regenerate the supply of child labour. Globalisation and urbanization has also increased the incidence of child labour in recent years. A combination of ruthless competition, banning of trade unions and economic rationalist policies favouring labour deregulation, cause a decrease in workers wages, conditions and safety standards. Recently, a report revealed that in 2008 Apple found that 25 children have been employed by the factories to build the iPods and most of the goods were produced in China. Apple has been criticized for using factories that abuse workers.

Another incident has occurred in 2007 when GAP came under investigation for using Indian children to produce its line of clothes. As a result, GAP withdrew thousands of items from its shelves. These incidents are only some of the examples of when child labour is hired to achieve higher profits. The corporate turn a blind eye to this process. This conduct is due to the lack of laws in the country for using child labour. Despite the fact that the majority of countries have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, some governments have hardly taken any steps to prevent such incidences.

An appropriate solution might be additional regulation of international trading laws enforced by the World Trade Organisation (WTO). The World Trade Organisation’s inadequate rules controlling world trade allow worker exploitation such as child labour. WTO disallows bans on imports of goods made with child labour. WTO does not allow countries to treat products differently based on how they were produced. A set of rules that specify the minimum labour standards should be included in the rules of world trade. These labour standards would enforce several ILO Conventions such as the right for workers to join a trade union and the banning of child labour. Trade laws which employ strict measures against child labour are urgently needed.


As we all know, the elimination of child labour has become an important concern to many international organisations over the past decade, especially because efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labour are slowing down as a result of the economic downturn. The ILO stated in its Global Report that the number of child labourers in the world has decreased from 222 million to 215 million from 2004 to 2008. This 3 percent decrease is not at all welcoming as it represents a “slowing down of the global pace of reduction.”

The report also suggested that the current economic crisis could further impact negatively on this figure. So far, governments have failed to reduce the problem of child exploitation. Relying on laws and government intervention is therefore insufficient. From my studies of this complex issue I have come to the conclusion that there are many approaches, but no one foolproof solution. Every solution has its pros and cons. The most effective solution is probably a combination of various methods.

Primary Sources
* HIS Child Slave Labor News at [accessed 25 Feb 2011]. * Child Rights Information Network at [accessed 2 Feb 2011]. * International Labour Organisation at [accessed 23 Mar 2011]. * Poverty facts and stats at [accessed 20 Mar 2011]. * What can be done to stop child labour at [accessed 25 Mar 2011]. * Union Aid Abroad APHEDA at [accessed 28 Mar 2011]. * Child labour in developing countries at [accessed 20 Feb 2011]. * United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund at [accessed 1 Mar 2011]. * Tania Branigan, ‘Apple finds increase in number of child labourers used by suppliers’ in Irish Times, 16 February 2011. * Dan McDougall, ‘Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap’s ethical image’ in the Observer, 28 October 2007. * World Trade Organisation at [accessed 29 Mar 2011].

Secondary Sources
* ‘Let the parents earn and children learn’ report at [accessed 4 Mar 2011]. * Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at [accessed 13 Feb 2011]. * Rea, Joanna. Child Labour, ‘Child labour exists because we allow it to exist’. * Eliminating Child Labour in Tobacco Growing at [accessed 21 Feb 2011]. * Free the children at [accessed 30 Mar 2011]. * Child Labor: Frequently Asked Questions at [accessed 22 Feb 2011].

[ 2 ]. HIS Child Slave Labor News at [accessed 25
Feb 2011]. [ 3 ]. Child Rights Information Network at [accessed 2 Feb 2011]. [ 4 ]. International Labour Organisation at [accessed 23 Mar 2011]. [ 5 ]. 15 Questions about child labour at [accessed 28 Mar 2011]. [ 6 ]. Poverty facts and stats at [accessed 20 Mar 2011]. [ 7 ]. International Labour Organisation at [accessed 23 Mar 2011]. [ 8 ]. United Nations International Children’s Fund at [accessed 1 Mar 2011]. [ 9 ]. What can be done to stop child labour at [accessed 25 Mar 2011]. [ 10 ]. Union Aid Abroad APHEDA at [accessed 28 Mar 2011]. [ 11 ]. Child labour in developing countries at [accessed 20 Feb 2011]. [ 12 ]. United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund at [accessed 1 Mar 2011]. [ 13 ]. Tania Branigan, “Apple finds increase in number of child labourers used by suppliers’ in Irish Times, 16 February 2011. [ 14 ]. Dan McDougall, ‘Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap’s ethical image’ in the Observer, 28 October 2007. [ 15 ]. World Trade Organisation at [accessed 29 Mar 2011]. [ 16 ]. International Labour Organisation at [accessed 23 Mar 2011]. [ 17 ]. International Labour Organisation at [accessed 23 Mar 2011].

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