By the Sweat of Children
“Children, now part of the productive process, are treated as economic goods rather than society’s future.”—Chira Hongladarom, director of Human Resources Institute, Thailand.
THE next time you buy a doll for your daughter, remember that it may have been manufactured by young children in Southeast Asia. The next time your son kicks a soccer ball, reflect on the fact that it may have been stitched by a three-year-old girl who, along with her mother and four sisters, earns 75 cents a day. The next time you buy a carpet, consider that it may have been woven by the nimble fingers of six-year-old boys who work long hours day after day under abusive conditions.
How prevalent is child labor? What is it doing to children? What can be done to remedy the situation?
The Scope of the Problem
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the number of working children between 5 and 14 years of age in developing countries is estimated to be 250 million.a It is believed that 61 percent of them are in Asia, 32 percent in Africa, and 7 percent in Latin America. Child labor exists in industrialized countries also.
In southern Europe a large number of children are found in paid employment, especially in seasonal activities, such as farming, and in small workshops. Recently, child labor has increased in Central and Eastern Europe following the transition from Communism to capitalism. In the United States, the official number of child laborers is 5.5 million, but that does not include the many children under 12 who are illegally employed in sweatshops or as seasonal and migrant workers on large farms. How do these millions of children become part of the work force?
The Causes of Child Labor
Exploitation of poverty. “The most powerful force driving children into hazardous, debilitating labour is the exploitation of poverty,” says The State of the World’s Children 1997. “For poor families, the small contribution of a child’s income or assistance at home that allows the parents to work can make the difference between hunger and a bare sufficiency.” The parents of child workers are often unemployed or underemployed. They are desperate for a secure income. So why is it that their children are offered the jobs instead? Because children can be paid less. Because children are more docile and malleable—many will do whatever they are told to do, seldom questioning authority. Because children are less likely to organize resistance against oppression. And because they do not strike back when they are physically abused.
Lack of education. Sudhir, an 11-year-old boy from India, is one of the millions of children who have dropped out of school and started working. Why? “In school, teachers would not teach well,” he answers. “If we asked them to teach us alphabets, they would beat us. They would sleep in the class. . . . If we did not understand, they would not teach us.” Sudhir’s assessment of school is tragically accurate. In developing countries, cuts in social spending have hit education particularly hard. A UN survey carried out in 1994 in 14 of the world’s least developed countries revealed some interesting facts. For example, in half of these countries, classrooms for the first grade have seats for only 4 out of every 10 pupils. Half of the pupils have no textbooks, and half of the classrooms have no blackboards. Not surprisingly, many children who attend such schools end up working.
Traditional expectations. The more hazardous and the harder the job is, the more likely it is to be left for ethnic minorities, the lower classes, the disadvantaged, and the poor. Regarding an Asian country, the United Nations Children’s Fund notes that “the view has been that some people are born to rule and to work with their minds while others, the vast majority, are born to work with their bodies.” In the West, attitudes are not always much better. The dominant group may not wish their own children to do hazardous work, but they will not lose any sleep if young people from racial, ethnic, or economic minorities do such work. In northern Europe, for instance, child laborers are likely to be Turkish or African; in the United States, they may be Asian or Latin-American. Child labor is aggravated by a modern society that is preoccupied with consumerism. Demand for low-priced products is high. Few seem to care that these may be produced by millions of anonymous, exploited children.
Forms of Child Labor
What shapes does child labor take? By and large, most child workers are in domestic service. Such laborers have been dubbed “the world’s most forgotten children.” Domestic service need not be hazardous, but it often is. Children in domestic servitude tend to be poorly paid—or not paid at all. Their masters set the terms and conditions of their work entirely at whim. They are deprived of affection, schooling, play, and social activity. They are also vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse.
Other children find themselves as forced and bonded laborers. In South Asia, as well as in other areas, children, often only eight or nine years old, are pledged by their parents to factory owners or their agents in exchange for small loans. The lifelong servitude of the children never succeeds in even reducing the debt.
What about the commercial sexual exploitation of children? It is estimated that every year at least one million girls worldwide are lured into the sex trade. Boys too are often sexually exploited. The physical and emotional damage inflicted by this type of abuse—not to mention HIV infection—makes it one of the most hazardous forms of child labor. “We have the same place that bums do in society,” says a 15-year-old prostitute from Senegal. “No one wants to know us or be seen with us.”b
A high percentage of child workers are exploited in industrial and plantation labor. Such children toil in mining operations that would be considered too risky for adults. Many suffer from tuberculosis, bronchitis, and asthma. Child laborers on plantations are exposed to pesticides, snakebites, and insect stings. Some have been mutilated while cutting cane with machetes. Millions of other children have made the streets their workplace. Take, for example, ten-year-old Shireen, a professional scavenger. She has never been to school, but she is well versed in the economics of survival. If she sells 30 to 50 cents’ worth of wastepaper and plastic bags, she eats lunch. If she earns less, she goes without food. Street children, often fleeing abuse or neglect at home, suffer further abuse and exploitation on the street. “Every day I pray not to end up in evil hands,” says Josie, a ten-year-old who sells candy on the thoroughfares of an Asian city.
As a result of such forms of child labor, tens of millions of children are exposed to serious hazards. These may stem from the nature of the work involved or from poor working conditions. Children and other young workers tend to have more serious occupational accidents than adults. This is because a child’s anatomy is different from that of an adult. His spine or pelvis can easily become deformed by heavy work. Also, children suffer more than adults do when exposed to dangerous chemical substances or to radiation. In addition, children are not physically suited to long hours of strenuous and monotonous work, which is very often their lot. They are not usually aware of dangers, nor do they have much knowledge of the precautions they should be taking.
The effects of child labor on the psychological, emotional, and intellectual growth of the victims are also grave. Such children are deprived of affection. Beatings, insults, punishment by being deprived of food, and sexual abuse are very common. According to one study, nearly half of the approximately 250 million child laborers have dropped out of school. Additionally, it has been observed that the learning capacity of children working long hours can be impaired.
What does all of this mean? That most child laborers are condemned to lifelong poverty, misery, sickness, illiteracy, and social dysfunction. Or, as journalist Robin Wright put it, “for all of its scientific and technical advances, the world at the end of the 20th Century is producing millions of children who have little hope of normal life, much less of leading the world into the 21st.” These sobering thoughts raise the questions: How should children be treated? Are there any solutions in sight for the problem of abusive child labor?
a In general, the ILO establishes 15 years as the minimum age for allowing children to work—provided that 15 is not less than the age for completion of compulsory schooling. This has been the most widely used yardstick when establishing how many children around the world are currently working.
b For further information on the sexual exploitation of children, see pages 11-15 of the April 8, 1997, issue of Awake!
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What Is Child Labor?
MOST children in all societies work in one way or another. The types of work they do vary within societies and over time. Work can be an essential part of children’s education and a means of transmitting vital skills from parent to offspring. In some countries, children are often involved in workshops and small-scale services, gradually becoming full-fledged workers later in life. In other countries, teenagers work for a few hours a week to earn pocket money. The United Nations Children’s Fund maintains that such work “is beneficial, promoting or enhancing a child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development without interfering with schooling, recreation and rest.”
Child labor, on the other hand, is about children who work long hours for low wages, often under conditions harmful to their health. This type of work “is palpably destructive or exploitative,” comments The State of the World’s Children 1997. “No one would publicly argue that exploiting children as prostitutes is acceptable in any circumstances. The same can be said about ‘bonded child labour’, the term widely used for the virtual enslavement of children to repay debts incurred by their parents or grandparents. This also applies to industries notorious for the dire health and safety hazards they present . . . Hazardous work is simply intolerable for all children.”
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“Still Much More to Be Done”
THE International Labor Organization (ILO) is spearheading efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor. The ILO prods governments to pass legislation banning labor by children under the age of 15. It also promotes new conventions to ban child workers under the age of 12 and to outlaw the most dangerous forms of exploitation. To learn more about the success of such efforts, Awake! spoke with Sonia Rosen, director of the International Child Labor Program, at the U.S. Department of Labor. She has worked closely with various ILO programs. Here is an excerpt from that discussion.
Q.: What is the most effective way to fight child labor?
A.: We do not have a single right answer. However, on an international level, the issues that we have discussed are key issues, namely, adequate law enforcement combined with universal primary education, preferably compulsory and free. Certainly, having adequate jobs for the parents is vital too.
Q.: Are you satisfied with the progress that has already been made in fighting child labor?
A.: I am never satisfied. We say that one child working in abusive conditions is one child too many. We have made great strides through the programs of the ILO. But there is still much more to be done.
Q.: How is the international community responding to efforts to eliminate child labor?
A.: I don’t know how to answer that question anymore. Around the world we now have a certain level of consensus that child labor is something that has to be dealt with. I think at this point the questions really are: How, and how fast? What are the best tools that we can use to address certain types of child labor? I think that is our real challenge.
Q.: What can child workers expect next?
A.: All the countries of the world are about to return to Geneva this year to conclude a new convention on the worst forms of child labor. That really has a tremendous amount of promise—all the countries, plus the workers’ organizations and the employers’ organizations. Hopefully, that will set up a new structure aimed at getting rid of the very worst forms of child labor.
Not all share Sonia Rosen’s optimism. Charles MacCormack, president of Save the Children, has reservations. “The political will and public knowledge aren’t there to make it happen,” he says. Why? The United Nations Children’s Fund comments: “Child labour is often a complex issue. Powerful forces sustain it, including many employers, vested interest groups and economists proposing that the market must be free at all costs, and traditionalists believing the caste or class of certain children denudes them of rights.”
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Child labor’s sad history includes toil in mines and cotton mills
U.S. National Archives photos
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Hard labor in collecting firewood
UN PHOTO 148046/J. P. Laffont-SYGMA
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Employed in a yarn factory
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Child street vendors work for as little as six cents a day
UN PHOTO 148027/Jean Pierre Laffont
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Laboring in a carpentry shop
UN PHOTO 148079/J. P. Laffont-SYGMA
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Struggling to earn a living
UN PHOTO 148048/J. P. Laffont-SYGMA