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Child labour

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Child labour (or child labor) is the situation where children are allowed or required to perform significant amounts of productive labor (what adults call "working for a living") in addition to or instead of receiving an education. It does not typically refer to children helping around the home or performing chores for pocket money, but to labor outside the home. However, in family businesses, particularly in agriculture and hospitality, there is often a grey area with children expected to help out.

In the developed world, it is often relatively benign (excluding child prostitution and trafficking, and less severe problems like children being too tired to study, missing out on extracurricular activities, etc). It is a far more serious problem in poorer countries, where children may be the main breadwinners for their families, forced into dangerous jobs for tiny sums of money, and denied the ability to attend school. Because children who work will tend to be uneducated and unskilled (especially if they're working when other children are at school), the work is often menial manual labour. Throughout the world, some children earn money as actors, models, etc.; this is commonly regulated rather differently than other forms of paid work, but some of the same issues apply.

As with anything else obviously bad, contrarians are queuing up to explain that child labor is actually in the interests of children, their parents, and customers. Their arguments are not terribly persuasive, but tackling poverty is hard, or at least expensive, so instead of raising taxes, why not rely on child workers instead? Especially when their tiny hands make such nice things.


Boys picking slate from coal in the 1880s

In the past, most children received little formal education, and it was expected that they would be earning money from an early age. In England, even when compulsory education was introduced in 1870, most children left school at the age of 10, or younger in areas where children were needed for agricultural work. Their tiny hands are so good for picking fruit.

In Europe, many child labourers worked in textile mills. While many employers touted the benefits of replacing groups of adult spinning cloth by hand with machines manned by children, more often than not, the children worked alongside adults, assisting them rather than replacing them. While child labour was generally the exception rather than the rule in Europe, child workers dominated the labour force of the cotton mill industry. For example, in 1818, 54.5% of the workers in British cotton mills were between ten and nineteen years old, with an additional 4.5% being under ten.[1]

As you can imagine, life as a child labourer was pretty shitty. Hours were long, the work was hard on both mind and body, and supervisors were often abusive. If you were an orphan or foundling, you were probably forced into your job. Many factories were located in rural areas, so while they had easy access to hydropower for running machinery, they also had a lot of issues finding workers.[1] In urban areas, chimney sweeps were notorious for deliberately keeping children malnourished so they wouldn't properly develop and could therefore fit into chimneys for longer. Nevertheless, child workers were able to organize and participate in labour protests.[1]


As the International Labour Organization puts it, "children have worked for millennia, but it is only in the last hundred years or so that this work has been seen as problematic".[2] For example, in the United States, there were movements against child labour in the United States as early as 1835, and the first state law regulating child labour was created in 1836, but it took until 1938 for a federal law against child labour to come into effect.[3] Similarly, in Europe, child labour was already in decline by the mid-1800s, and child workers had virtually disappeared from factories by World War I.[1]

What caused this shift? Part of it was due to the Romanticism movement, which held that children were innocent and had no place in the world of adults. Managers also didn't want the burden of having to deal with so many kids running around; as any primary school teacher can tell you, they may be small, but they sure can make a big mess.[1]

One of the big forces against child labour was child education. Education has long been valued, but it was formerly only for the rich or middle classes. Since the late 19th century, there has been a movement to get children out of work and into education. This is in theory beneficial for the child, who can achieve fuller mental, emotional, and intellectual development, and better life prospects, even if it means parents must support the child for longer and do without the wages the child might earn. In England, the minimum school leaving age increased from an initial 10 in 1870 to 14 in 1921 to 16 in 1972, with debate continuing about whether to extend it further.[4]

Child labour today[edit]

Even in wealthy countries, child labor persists. Although much of this is done on weekends, holidays, or after school, it can still have a bad effect on education.[2] In 1998, 9% of American 15-year olds worked in term-time and 18% in the summer[5]; a 1997 study found that 3.6% of American 14- and 15-year olds worked 15 or more hours per week.[6]; in Denmark in 1993, 59% of 15-year olds had some form of employment[7]. There is particular concern about dangerous and exploitative forms of work such as child prostitution, even though the numbers involved are very difficult to quantify.[2]

Child labor is still common in many of the poorer countries of the world. 2012 ILO figures say 168 million children are involved in child labour, with agriculture accounting for 59% of those; in sub-Saharan Africa over 21% of children work.[8] Campaigners are active in the Third World, and with those people in western countries who buy their cheap goods, and child labor worldwide was reduced by a third between 2000 and 2012.[8]

In the United States, 2023 marked the return of sending kids into meat packing plants — and why not coal mines? Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders of Arkansas signed the first law that rolled back statewide child labor protection laws in March 2023.[9] Iowa may soon follow suit.[9] The drive behind these measures is a conservative (libertarian) astroturf think tank called the Foundation for Government Accountability.[9] Though FGA's vice president Nick Stehle has claimed that it's funded by "families like mine, who want more of the freedom that lets our children flourish," In reality "70 percent of its $10.6 million in revenue came from 14 conservative groups."[9] Just to show how popular the Arkansas law is among actual residents of Arkansas, That law passed so swiftly and was met with such public outcry that Arkansas officials quickly approved a second measure increasing penalties on violators of the child labor codes the state had just weakened."[9]

2023 saw the deaths of at least three teenage workers,[10] including a sixteen year old boy at a poultry plant in Mississippi.[11][note 1] It's also illegal for minors to work at poultry plants.[11] 2023 also saw three McDonald's franchise in Kentucky fined twenty two thousand dollars after having been found to violate federal child labor laws. The feds found that these franchises had hired over three hundred minors, including several ten year olds.[12]

In the United States, child labor law violations have markedly increased since 2016, primarily due to the franchised fast-food industry (e.g., McDonald's, Sonic and Chick-fil-A).[13]

But wait![edit]

Is child labor really all that bad? Don't we want to encourage children to be productive members of society? Shouldn't they learn useful workplace skills rather than memorize useless facts, dates, and liberal propaganda?

Indeed, the advantages of child labor have been proposed by some of those on the libertarian right. In particular, for poor children abroad, it's a lot cheaper than aid, and it doesn't involve taxation or restrictions on business. A 2005 study by the Royal Economic Society found that banning the most dangerous forms of child labor, "prostitutes, drug-traffickers, in quarries and mines", was bad because this would drive down wages for other forms of child labor and increase poverty.[14]

Advocates include the economist John Blundell,[15] a mainstay of right-wing think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs.[16]

Pro-child labor arguments include:

  • Children enjoy working: "It could be fun."[15]
  • Banning child labor means that only criminals will employ children: the result is lower wages and worse working conditions, as employers pass on the increased risks (of going to jail).[17] This omits the fact that if the risk is really great, it becomes more economical to pay decent wages and get good workers.
  • Buying goods produced by child labour is a form of aid: it "transfers money from the rich of the West to the poor of the East."[15]
  • It reduces prices: "I remain baffled why no Scottish politician campaigns to cut the price of our groceries. Would it not be popular? I'm not advocating sending any child into dangerous or degrading roles, but I do believe every school could allow pupils to widen their knowledge and experience by participating in local commercial life."[15]
  • Critics who say that child labor lowers adult wages actually hate women: "A pernicious argument is that children working stop adults earning full wages. This is precisely the economic dunce-speak that used to argue a woman's place is in the home."[15]
  • It costs money to combat child labour: for instance to compensate parents for lost income, and this money comes out of your taxes.[15]
  • It can combat labor shortages: in areas where women are not allowed to work, allowing children to work can make up for lost income.[18]
  • Child labour is an opportunity: what for isn't mentioned (to be exploited? To see the evils of capitalism first-hand? To lose a limb in badly-maintained machinery? To gain work experience and thereby overcome employers' fear of inexperience?), but "working in scruffy factories in Manila or Nairobi is an opportunity for the people involved".[15]
  • The religious argument: "We were all created to work and work is good."[19]


Most of these arguments are very weak. While child labour could in theory teach children valuable things that they don't learn in school, in practice it often means menial, repetitive labour such as pulling up vegetables or performing simple manufacturing tasks. It very seldom involves initiative, creativity, entrepreneurship, overseas conferences, or any other aspect that right-wing pundits enjoy about their work.

"Aid is famously described as a device by which the poor people in the West fund the rich of the Third World. But free trade in shirts transfers money from the rich of the West to the poor of the East."[15] This shows total ignorance of where most of the money goes from goods manufactured by child labor. If you want to help a child in poverty, give to charity, don't buy the cheapest trainers you can find.

Even non-financial benefits that working for a living might offer, such as discipline and order (which right-wingers always claim children lack), or social interaction with one's peers (often the only thing that makes menial jobs bearable), can be provided in education. Many schools already try to teach subjects relevant to the world of work, such as business studies, commercial art, or office administration, as well as short periods of work experience and supporting entrepreneurship, though much more could be done.

Many of the arguments for lowering price on consumer goods or taxes are short-sighted in nature. It's true that employing children now would temporarily help a country's economy. However, if that employment prevents the children from getting a proper education, that will significantly curtail their potential production as adults. In the long run, a country's economy will prosper more from having properly educated adults capable of doing skilled labor than child laborers who grow up to only be able to do unskilled jobs.

The most serious argument is that it's really expensive to replace the income children would receive: alleviating poverty and providing education are among the best ways to tackle child labor, but are much less cheap than simply throwing a few bosses in jail. Replacing the income of 200 million child workers receiving on average $500 per year[20] would cost $100 bn per year, less than 20% of the US defense budget, but still quite a lot of money.

Child slavery[edit]

There are even more issues around various forms of child slavery, included types of bonded labour.[21] In Thailand, girls have been sold into sex slavery by the thousands, sometimes by their own parents.[22] In Mauritanian hereditary slavery, slave children often begin working at the age of five or six.[23] In 1980s Brazil, gatos in the charcoal camps of the Mato Grosso were enslaving whole families, including children, and a number of children died of burns and other accidents. As the result of an anti-slavery campaign, the use of child slavery was greatly reduced, and signs saying "No women or children are allowed to work here" were added to many slave labour camps.[24] In Pakistan, entire families are often enslaved against a debt that is often passed on from one generation to the next, and children as young as six have been seen working with their parents.[25] In India there are a variety of forms of slavery, which often involve children.[26] In India, some child slaves are used to make carpets.[27][28][29][30][31][32][33][34][35][36][37]

External links[edit]


  1. This is also the second worker death at the exact same facility in two years.[11]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Heywood, Colin (August 1, 2021) Childwork in Europe (19th century), Encyclopédie d'histoire numérique de l'Europe
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 "Child labour in the developed economies", Peter Dorman, ILO, January 2001
  3. Child Labor in U.S. History, The University of Iowa Labor Center
  4. Raising of school leaving age in England and WalesWikipedia
  5. CPS, 1998, cited in "Child labour in the developed economies", Peter Dorman, ILO, January 2001
  6. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997, cited in "Child labour in the developed economies", Peter Dorman, ILO, January 2001
  7. Frederiksen, Lisa. 1999. Child and Youth Employment in Denmark: Comments on Children’s Work from Their Own Perspective. Childhood. 6(1): 101-12, cited in "Child labour in the developed economies", Peter Dorman, ILO, January 2001
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Child Labour", International Labour Organization
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 The conservative campaign to rewrite child labor laws: The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA), a Florida-based think tank and lobbying group, drafted state legislation to strip child workplace protections, emails show by Jacob Bogage & María Luisa Paúl (April 23, 2023 at 7:00 a.m. EDT) The Washington Post.
  10. Third Teen Worker Killed In Industrial Accident As States Try To Loosen Child Labor Laws[a w]Huffington Post
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 16-year-old boy dies in accident at a Mississippi poultry plant[a w]NBC News
  12. Three McDonald’s franchisees in Kentucky pay $212K in fines after federal investigations find 305 minors — including 10-year-olds — working illegally[a w]US Department of Labor
  13. Fast-food giants overwork teenagers, driving America’s child labor crisis: More than three-quarters of child labor violations in the first nine months of 2023 were in food service, with most of those at franchised brands. by Lauren Kaori Gurley & Emmanuel Martinez (January 14, 2024 at 7:00 a.m. EST) The Washington Post.
  14. "It's official: child labour is a good thing", David Harrison, The Daily Telegraph
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 15.5 15.6 15.7 "Economic truths of child labour", John Blundell, The Scotsman, 23 Feb 2004, reproduced on Institute of Economic Affairs website
  16. John Blundell (economist)Wikipedia
  17. Child Labor Bans Actually Make Things Worse For The Poorest Children, Business Insider, Nov. 11, 2013
  18. 5 positive sides of child labor,, March 3, 2013
  19. 5 Reasons Your Child Should Work, Mark Merrill
  20. Typical wages are as low as $0.11 per hour in some industries — Your Beautiful Indian Rug Was Probably Made By Child Labor, Megha Bahree, Forbes, Feb 5, 2014
  21. The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor In India, Human Rights Watch, 1996
  22. Bales, Kevin (2012). "2 Thailand: Because She Looks Like a Child". Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Revised ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 34-79. ISBN 978-0-520-27291-0. 
  23. Bales, Kevin (2012). "3 Mauritania: Old Times There Are Not Forgotten". Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Revised ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 97. ISBN 978-0-520-27291-0. 
  24. Bales, Kevin (2012). "4 Brazil: Life on the Edge". Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Revised ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 143-146. ISBN 978-0-520-27291-0. 
  25. Bales, Kevin (2012). "5 Pakistan: When Is a Slave Not a Slave?". Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Revised ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 149-194. ISBN 978-0-520-27291-0. 
  26. Bales, Kevin (2012). "6 India: The Ploughman's Lunch". Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Revised ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 149-194. ISBN 978-0-520-27291-0. 
  27. "Slavery: A Global Investigation". True Vision. Retrieved 13 March 2018. 
  28. Bales, Kevin (2007). Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 22-23, 36-46. ISBN 978-0-520-25470-1. 
  29. Bales, Kevin (2012). Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Revised ed.). Berkeley, California: University of California Press. p. 225, 238, 240. ISBN 978-0-520-27291-0. 
  30. Kara, Siddharth. "Tainted Carpets: Slavery and Child Labor in India's Hand-Made Carpet Sector". Harvard University. 
  31. Bahree, Megha (February 5, 2014). "Your Beautiful Indian Rug Was Probably Made By Child Labor". Forbes. Retrieved 13 March 2018. 
  32. Rambho Kumar; Rama; Ravi Shanker Kumar; Shahnawaz; Ashok; Battis; Sandeep (2008). Bales, Kevin; Trodd, Zoe. eds. To Plead Our Own Cause: Personal Stories by Today's Slaves. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. pp. 69-81. 
  33. Kumar, Ravi Shanker. "Ravi Shanker Kumar". Retrieved 13 March 2018. 
  34. FitzPatrick, Terry. "Rambho: Survivor of Child Slavery in India". Retrieved 13 March 2018. 
  35. "Case study 2 - Rama (India, 2004)". International Slavery Museum. Retrieved 13 March 2018. 
  36. "Ashok - 2004". Retrieved 13 March 2018. 
  37. Fitzpatrick, Terry (December 21, 2016). "2016 Highlight: Rescue Frees 11 Boys from India Carpet Slavery". Retrieved 15 March 2018.