Child Labor: A Forgotten Focus for Child Welfare

By Otis, Jack; Pasztor, Eileen Mayers et al. | Child Welfare, September/October 2001 | Go to article overview

Child Labor: A Forgotten Focus for Child Welfare


Otis, Jack, Pasztor, Eileen Mayers, McFadden, Emily Jean, Child Welfare


Child labor is driven by child and family impoverishment, market forces, and political apathy concerning the rights of the child. Although a fundamental concern of the early 20th century child welfare system, today child labor is often seen as outside the scope of child welfare and child protective services. Making child labor a focus of child advocacy activity once again could do much to better the lives of children.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 138 on the Minimum Age for Employment-the world's principal standard on child labor, which was passed in 1973 and has been signed by more than 60 nations-child labor is any economic activity performed by someone younger than 15 years of age (ILO, 2001). Approximately 250 million children, ranging in age from 5 to 14, are estimated to be laboring worldwide. Approximately 60% and 30% of these laboring children reside on the Asian and African continents, respectively; however, America shares the problem (ILO, 2001). In the United States, as many as 800,000 children under the age of 18 work as migrant and seasonal farmworkers in the state of California alone. About 25% of all deaths of working children in the United States occur in agriculture (National Consumers League, 2000).

Although child labor is an equal opportunity offender, several critical factors contribute most directly to its occurrence and growth. As reported a decade ago in a special international issue of Child Welfare, variables that influence the nature and extent of child labor are: economic (when multitudes of poor families have multiple children); illiteracy; rural-urban migration; and use of child labor as a means to avoid labor unrest (because children typically have no organized means to complain about low wages and unsafe working conditions) (Ahmed, 1991).

Child Labor and Child Work

Organizations such as the ILO and professionals concerned about child labor sharply distinguish it from child work. At whatever age it may begin, whether in less or more technologically advanced societies, child work refers to adult-guided activities that focus on the child's growth and enculturation into the families and societies of which they are a part (George, 1990). Child work is developmental in nature.

Conversely, child labor is driven by child and family impoverishment, market forces, and political apathy concerning the rights of the child. It is synonymous with child exploitation, because the activities may be hazardous, may interfere with the child's education, and, according to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) (1989, p. 10), may be "harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development."

Children are desirable as employees, not simply because their wages are cheap or nonexistent but also because children are powerless and docile. The latter characteristic makes them especially vulnerable to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. According to the ILO, "The exploitation and subjugation of children, at and through work, is perhaps the single most common form of child abuse and neglect in much of the world today" (ILO, 1993, p. 4). In the United States, the public, the profession of social work in general, and the field of child welfare in particular, although highly sensitive to problems of child abuse, have shown little awareness of child labor as both a form and cause of these unconscionable abuses and, furthermore, as a form of slavery. According to the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor:

[F]ew human rights abuses are so unanimously condemned, while being so universally practiced, as child labor. By any objective measure, this issue should be high on the global agenda, but in practice it is surrounded by a wall of silence and perpetuated by ignorance. (ILO, 1993, p. 1)

Resistance to Reform

Why does child labor continue to grow and resist reform?

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