"We cannot possibly gravitate from a condition of agriculturalism to a condition of industrialism without the employment of minors."
So testified Lewis Parker, a South Carolina cotton mill owner, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Labor in 1914, in opposition to legislation that would have outlawed the use of child labor in the United States.
Parker was on the wrong side of history. By the time he testified, most U.S. states had already adopted legislation limiting the use of child labor. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act regulating the use of child labor in industry. The Supreme Court struck down the law in 1918, but in 1938, with adoption of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the United States banned the use of child labor altogether. While the ban still suffers from serious enforcement problems, the widespread use of child labor in the United States has been effectively eradicated.
Now, six decades later, the child labor debate is being replayed on a global scale - with some Third World business interests and their supporters echoing Parker's arguments - as the world suddenly awakens to the ongoing scourge of child labor.
With economic globalization tying national economies more closely together, awareness of the incidence of child labor in Third World nations is growing rapidly in the industrialized countries, as Northern consumers respond with discomfort to reports showing that the clothes they wear and the toys with which their children play are made by child workers. At the same time, the globalization process which is spurring the new Northern awareness of child labor is putting strains on the economics and social structures of countries in the global South - and, in many ways, intensifying the problem of child labor.
Forced labor and hazardous conditions
Approximately 120 million children under the age of 14 labor full-time, according to a 1996 estimate by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that is widely viewed as the most informed ever. If those for whom work is a secondary activity are included, the number of working children rises to 250 million.
The majority of child laborers live in Asia, although Africa has a higher rate of child labor. The ILO estimates that 40 percent of African children between the ages of five and 14 work.
The majority of the 120 million full-time working children labor in the commercial agricultural sector.
Child labor is not confined to any particular economic sector, however. Children work as domestic servants, in mining, as divers in deep-sea fishing, in construction, as prostitutes, in toy, shoe and garment factories, as cigarette makers, as rug weavers, in charcoal making, in glass and ceramics factories, as sports equipment and surgical instrument makers, in the match and fireworks industries and in many other jobs.
The most appalling circumstances of child labor involve forced labor and children working in hazardous conditions.
The most common form of forced child labor is debt bondage, a practice by which parents pledge their children's work to pay off debts. The debts are often miniscule, but the children may work for their entire childhood - indeed, for their entire lives - to pay them off because of fraudulent accounting mechanisms employed by debt holders.
In Nepal, where bonded laborers are known as "Kamaiya," the accounting schemes can keep families in debt for generations. "Since Kamaiyas are generally not paid enough to meet their basic needs, many have no choice but to take loans from their master," explains "By the Sweat and Toil of Children," a 1995 U.S. Department of Labor report. "Many also carry inherited debts, sometimes going back for three or four generations, in addition to their own."
Debt bondage and other forms of forced child labor are most pervasive in India, Pakistan and Nepal, where they are supported by longstanding traditions and cultural biases against low castes or minority ethnic groups. …