Around the world, approximately 250 million children are child laborers. What exactly does that mean?*
The term “child labor” has many definitions depending on who is talking about it. Unfortunately, this means that there is no way to give a concrete, rock-solid definition of child labor.
The International Labor Organization, or the ILO, defines child labor as “some types of work” done by children under the age of 18. The ILO also says that child labor includes full-time work done by children under 15 years of age that prevents them from going to school (getting an education), or that is dangerous to their health. More complete definitions of what child labor I in regard, age restrictions, job types, and exceptions can be found in convention 138, convention 182, and the convention on the rights of the child.
Other sources and organizations disagree on what child labor is. Some say that it is only hazardous work or work that interferes with a child’s education, while others are broader and include any work done by children working for pay.
Some organizations, such as UNICEF, decide to draw a line between child work, which, depending on what definition you use, can consist of light work done by children above the age of 12, and child labor.
While there are many different ways to define what child labor is, it is much easier to find things that are NOT instances of child labor. These include washing dishes, and other chores, and supervised apprenticeships.
In many cases, child labor consists of children working in horrible conditions, missing school, and wasting away their childhood. While child labor can consist of children working at dangerous jobs, it is by no means restricted to this type of labor There are many other cases where children (people under the age of 18) work in jobs that are NOT hazardous and do not interfere with their education. These jobs allow them to get a sense of responsibility and an opportunity to earn money. Examples of this can be seen many times in the U.S. with children working at restaurants.
In this website, we use a broad definition of child labor. The term “child labor” is used to refer to anyone who is a child (under the age of 18) who is working for pay. This can include someone who is working in a Pakistani sweatshop as well as someone flipping burgers over the summer at a fast food joint. Because of this, the website does not attempt to answer the question, “Is child labor good or bad?” because the answer really depends on the context of the question. Instead, it refers to types of child labor being good, bad, and in some cases, neutral.
Note: In some extreme cases, young children are forced to work off a debt where the amount owed goes up, not down (because of purposely false accounting). While this could be considered an instance in which the child is not being paid, it is still considered child labor on this website.
Bonded Child Labor
When dealing with exploitative child labor, there are two main types of labor: bonded and non-bonded (In non-exploitative child labor, it is always non-bonded, or the work would no longer be non-exploitative).
Non-bonded child labor is child labor in which the child working is not working to pay off a debt that they or their family owe to the employer of the child. This does not mean that non-bonded child labor is good, however. Children may not be paying off a debt, but may still be “forced” to work for food and shelter in very poor conditions. Bonded child labor, though, may be considered the “worst” kind of child labor because the child can be physically forced to do the work to pay off their debt.
Bonded child labor is child labor in which, “a child (below 18 years of age as defined in the UNCRC) working against debt taken by himself/herself or his/her family members… without or with the child's consent, under conditions that restrain his/her freedom and development, making him/her vulnerable to physical and other forms of abuse and deprives him/her of his/her basic rights.” (This is also called debt bondage)
Bonded child labor is caused when a poor family needs money (for food, a sickness, etc.) to pay for something. If the family has enough to pay, there is no problem. When, however, the family does not have enough, they may need a loan. Employers of bonded laborers know how to take advantages of these situations. They will provide the family varying amounts of money (in India, for example, a place where bonded child labor abounds, these amounts are generally in the $15-$220 range) in exchange for the servitude of a child.
This child is then forced to work – whether they agree or not – for the employer until they work off the debt with their wages. Unfortunately, employers generally charge absurdly high interest rates and have low wages, so in many cases, the debt actually goes up instead of down. This can cause the child to work for many, many years – even until adulthood in some cases – before he/she is allowed to stop working. Often, these children transfer this debt to their children later on in life, continuing the cycle.
Conventions and International Laws Regarding Child Labor
Convention 182 was adopted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) on June 1, 1999 in Geneva on their 87th meeting. Its purpose was to help rid the world of the “worst” types of child labor, especially in poorer countries:
Child slavery (bonded child labor)
Children involved in illegal activities
Children in hazardous work
The convention also defined what work/situations were explicitly considered, “hazardous,” to children (people under the age of 18):
Work in oceans
Carrying heavy materials
Extremely hot/cold temperatures
Working with pesticides or herbicides
Working with chemicals
Working with silica dust
This convention has been ratified by 132 of the 175 ILO members; 25% of these members ratified the convention just after it was passed in 1999. It was the first ILO convention that was adopted with the unanimous support of all 425 delegates.
This convention, which was adopted in, 1973, discusses the minimum age for employment for children. The minimum age is defined as 15 in the convention, but several exceptions involving developing or third-world countries, and light work also exist in the convention.
Convention on the Rights of the Child:
This is a United Nations resolution, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was passed in 1989. This Convention has been ratified by 192 countries to date; only two have not ratified it yet (the two countries are the United States and Somalia). The Convention discusses all the rights of any child anywhere in the world, and covers much more than just child labor. There are also two optional conventions, accompanying the main convention, that discuss the participation of children soldiers and child prostitution, topics that are also covered, in part, in ILO Convention 182.
* Because of the fact that there are many working definitions of child labor, statistics dealing with the number of child laborers in the world can vary, however 250 million is generally accepted as the correct approximate number (currently).
Want to find out more about child laborers? At the child laborers section, you can read stories of some of the 250 million child laborers worldwide.
Interested in the laws governing child labor? Click here to find out more.