What is Child Labor? - Definition, Laws, Facts & Statistics

Instructor: Kitsy Dixon

Kitsy has taught college Sociology and Interdisciplinary courses. She holds a doctorate in Medical Humanities.

This lesson discusses the global definition of child labor and the laws of other countries where child labor is prevalent. It presents facts and statistics on how child labor affects society. After the lesson, take the quiz to see what you learned.

Robbing of Innocence: Defining Child Labor

According to the International Labor Organization, child labor refers to work that is performed by anyone under the age of 17. For the work to be considered child labor, it must be:

  • dangerous to the moral, social, physical, or mental development of a child.
  • a hindrance to a child's right to education. This includes by denying a child the opportunity to attend school or interfering with a child's ability to focus on lesson content (work can leave little time to focus on homework).

The realities of child labor are often more extreme than the above definition. Children who work are often isolated from their families. They often work in dangerous conditions and receive few breaks and low pay. Typically, they receive little protection from the dangerous elements to which they are exposed. In other words, child labor around the world is very different than the chores many children perform at home for spending money.

Child Labor Around the World

Because we don't see child labor in action around us, we may be tempted to think it is only a small problem that exists in faraway places. However, we see the products of child labor everyday. For example, take a look at the tag of a t-shirt you own. Was it made in India? A child in India who received very low wages might have made your shirt. The shirt would then have been sent to the United States, where the company who owns the factory would have hiked up the price to make a major profit from each shirt sold.

As another example, what kind of coffee do you drink? Have you ever thought about who produces the sugar you use to sweeten your coffee? No? Well a child in India or Bangladesh might be working hard for low wages to cut up sugarcane. Other countries that use child labor to produce products we use frequently include:

  • Bangladesh (garments)
  • Cambodia (alcoholic beverages, meat, textiles)
  • Kenya (fish)
  • Madagascar (vanilla)
  • Malaysia (electronics)

It makes sense to pay attention to where the goods we purchase come from. If child labor could have been involved, we might feel better by searching for a product from a different place.

Child Labor Laws

In the United States, the Fair Labor Standards regulate the employment of children based on age restrictions, minimum wage provisions, and hours of work restrictions. This means that, in the United States, child labor mostly means younger kids working for a few hours in a restaurant owned by their parents or an adolescent working 30 hours per week as a lifeguard during the summer months when school is out of session. Not so bad, right?

In other parts of the world though, child labor laws are not so strict or are not enforced. India holds the largest number of child laborers in the world. According to statistics on child labor in India, nearly 400,000 children, between ages seven and fourteen, work 14-16 hours a day in cottonseed production. Poverty and lack of social security are the main reasons for child labor in India.

By law, in Bangladesh, education is free, but other associated costs (such as teacher fees, books, extra curricular activities) make it difficult to afford many children the opportunity to attend school. Therefore, a number of children work in agriculture. Children produce work from shrimping to making cigarettes.

Although economics are improving in Cambodia, children are faced with the most extreme form of child labor. According to the International Labor Organization, over 313,000 children are trapped in sexual exploitation, drug trafficking, and prostitution.

At worst, child labor includes forced prostitution and forced participation in wars or armed conflicts. In these situations, laws do not protect children from extreme forms of exploitation. Unfortunately, not all children have families who will step in where a government will not, and some families force their children into dangerous forms of labor. According to International Labor Organization, 168 million children are in child labor around the world. Of those, 85 million work in extreme conditions.

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