Child Labor: Myths, Theories and Facts

By Lopez-Calva, Luis F. | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Child Labor: Myths, Theories and Facts


Lopez-Calva, Luis F., Journal of International Affairs


"Perhaps the most important lesson to be gleaned from the academic work in this area is that child labor tends to be a phenomenon related to poverty and difficult social conditions rather than the perverse preferences of the parents."

The discussion on child labor is very often, and understandably so, charged with emotional content. Activists throughout the world typically offer a picture of impoverished boys and girls working under hazardous conditions for next-to-nothing wages. This depiction, however, may lead to confusion by mixing issues that need to be analytically differentiated. Exploitation, understood as inhumane working conditions, is something to be avoided per se, regardless of the age of the worker. However, even after eliminating exploitative working conditions for children, child labor still has an effect on a child's lifetime welfare. For all these reasons, the causes and effects of this phenomenon require careful analysis.

What are the dimensions of the problem? In absolute numbers, estimates by the International Labor Organization (ILO) show that approximately 250 million children under the age of 12 are working for a salary around the world. (1) For a variety of reasons, such as methodological differences in the collection of data and underreporting of statistics, estimates vary widely. Varying definitions of child labor, the inclusion or exclusion of part-time work, and different data collecting techniques also complicate fixing on a concrete number of child workers.

A more relevant variable, however, is the participation rate of children in local labor markets; i.e., what proportion of children under a certain age are indeed working. For children between 10 and 14 years of age, the participation rate in Europe is below 1.5 percent, whereas Africa shows the highest participation rate in the world, with a figure of 27.87 percent. The participation rate in Asia is 15.19 percent, and, in 1995, it was around 15 percent in Latin America. (2)

Thus, child labor is far from being a trivial issue. But why worry about child labor? There are both normative and positive reasons to believe that child labor is unacceptable. From the normative perspective, an adequate childhood education and a work-free youth are ethical considerations. As for the more pragmatic reasons, child labor may, under certain circumstances, bring down adult wages and create a vicious cycle of child labor and poverty. Moreover, it has been empirically established that children who start working at a younger age attain a lower level of education, which has an obvious impact on the child's future welfare and ability to generate income. Interestingly enough, both the normative and the positive reasons have been in the debate for a long time. A paper analyzing the results of the US Census of 1900 states that "child labor, of necessity, will affect the conditions under which adults have to work, and to some degree also will affect their chances for wages. It is but fair to assume that in the same measure as females replaced men as factory workers, so child labor, if not restricted, will crowd a proportionate number of adults out of employment. Child labor, therefore, is not desirable and should be restricted." (3) The same article provides data about the state that showed the lowest level of child labor, Minnesota, saying, "this denotes a condition which its citizens should strive to preserve, for it bears with it a great blessing for the young generation. They are much more fortunate than the many other children in other states who have to enter upon factory life at a time when they should build up their bodies and brains for the great struggle of life." (4) Thus both the ethical and practical arguments against child labor have been advanced side-by-side for the past 100 years.

Still, difficult questions remain to be analyzed. For example, is child labor in and of itself a phenomenon that negatively affects the welfare of the child, and, if so, for what reasons? …

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