Child Labor

child slave mining gold

There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow up in peace.” ~ Kofi Annan (UN Secretary-General and Nobel Peace Prize Winner)

Of the many millions of people in some form of slave bondage, it is estimated that fully half are children. Children’s vulnerability stems from apparent weaknesses. They are smaller and more easily physically controlled. They are less experienced, more trusting and gullible. They are easier to transport and feed. They may be beaten in public, in many cultures, without arousing concern. They have a longer projected useful working life before they become worn out. As sexual commodities they command a greater price the younger they are. They are cheaper to buy and are frequently sold by their own families who are unable to care for them. Sadly, these are the cold calculations that drive this activity.

Child labor is any form of work likely to be hazardous to the health and/or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development of children or which interferes with their education. The International Labor Organization estimates worldwide that there are 246 million exploited children aged between 5 and 17 involved in debt bondage, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography, the illegal drug trade, the illegal arms trade and other illicit activities around the world. This staggering number is almost ten times the largest accepted reckoning of the total number of slaves worldwide. The discrepancy is explained by the thin line between exploitation, abuse, and slavery, along with the difficulty of amassing reliable numbers for such nefarious businesses on a global scale. Bear in mind that the often touted number of 27 million people currently enslaved is considered to be a conservative estimate and that more than half of that number are children. The incontestable fact is that children are overwhelmingly the most exploited population for all forms of human trafficking.

Right here in the United States, more than 400,000 children work in American fields to harvest the food we all eat!

Children working in agriculture endure lives of extreme poverty

  • The average farmworker family makes less than $17,500 a year, well below the poverty level for a family of four.
  • Poverty among farmworkers is two times that of workers in other occupations
  • Farmworkers can be paid hourly, daily, by the piece or receive a salary, but they are always legally exempt from receiving overtime and often from receiving even minimum wage.
  • Families often cannot afford childcare and so have no choice but to bring their children out into the fields.

Children who work as farm laborers do not have access to proper education

  • Working hours outside of school are unlimited in agriculture.
  • On average, children in agriculture work 30 hours a week, often migrating from May – November, making it exceedingly difficult to succeed in school.
  • Almost 40% of farm workers migrate and their children suffer the instability of a nomadic lifestyle, potentially working in multiple states in a given season and attending multiple schools each with a different curriculum and standards.
  • Migrant children drop out of school at 4 times the national rate.

Children face health hazards and fatalities in the fields

  • According to the USDA, agriculture is the most hazardous occupation for child workers in the US
  • The risk of fatal injuries for children working in agriculture is 4 times that of other young workers.
  • Child farm workers are especially vulnerable to repetitive-motion injury
  • Farmworkers labor in extreme temperatures and die from heat exposure at a rate 20 times that of other US workers and children are significantly more susceptible to heat stress than adults. Heat illness can lead to temporary illness, brain damage, and death.
  • Farmworkers are provided with substandard housing and sanitation facilities. As many as 15%-20% of farms lack toilets and drinking water for workers, even though they are required to provide them. Farms with 10 or fewer workers are not required to provide them at all.
  • EPA pesticide regulations are set using a 154-pound adult male as a model. They do not take children or pregnant women into consideration.
  • Research indicates that child farmworkers have a much higher rate of acute occupational pesticide-related illness than children in other industries and that there is a strong link between pesticide exposure and developmental disabilities. Long-term exposure in adults is associated with chronic health problems such as cancer, neurologic problems, and reproductive problems.
  • 64% of farmworkers do not get healthcare because it is “too expensive”

Domestic servitude is another large area where we find children being exploited, especially in poorer countries. In western Nepal, according to the Nepalese Youth Opportunity Foundation, around 25,000 girls as young as six years old, are bonded away each year into a life of indentured servitude.

In Haiti, the tradition of sending children off to live with families who can at least feed them, has grown to encompass hundreds of thousands of children. Known as “Restaveks”, their plight is little known outside of Haiti. According to the Jean Cadet Restavek Foundation many of these children are subject to beatings and to sexual abuse.  Another outstanding organization working to liberate restavek children is RestavekFreedom.Org.

Thousands of children in West Africa work in the production of cocoa, chocolate’s primary ingredient. The West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire is the leading supplier of cocoa, accounting for more than 40% of global production. Low cocoa prices received by cocoa farmers for their beans drive them to employ children as a means to survive. The US Department of State estimates that more than 109,000 children in Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa industry work under “the worst forms of child labor,” and that some 10,000 are victims of human trafficking or forced labor.

Laws and International Agreements:

Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, there have been statements condemning human rights violations of children such as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child 1924 and 1959, both of which state that children have the right, among other important ones, to be protected from exploitation (UNICEF). However, none of them were legally binding. Presently though, some children’s rights conventions have emerged that do carry the weight of international law. Two of the most prominent are the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention 138 and 182.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

One of the most comprehensive conventions to address human rights violations of children is the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The CRC names certain principles and standards that are aimed at protecting children in the social, political, and economic arenas. The nations who ratify the Convention are obligated to undertake concrete legislative action in order to comply with the standards. To ensure that the member countries comply, they must submit reports to show the progress of their efforts. Meanwhile, there is also an independent committee that monitors their actions.

More countries have ratified the Convention than any other human rights treaty in history — 192 countries had become State Parties to the Convention as of November 2005.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history. Only two countries, Somalia and the United States, have not ratified this celebrated agreement, although the United States did ratify a later agreement, known as an optional protocol to the convention, aimed at preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

The Convention emphasizes that cooperation from these nations and civil society are important in order for action to be effective.  Article 1 defines a child is a person who is below eighteen years of age. Article 32 declares that nations must “recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous…or be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” Article 35 explicitly states that countries must stop child trafficking; that they must “take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measure to prevent the abduction of, the sale of or traffic in children for any purpose or in any form (UNICEF).”

ILO Convention 138 and 182

The International Labor Organization (ILO), whose aim it is to create plans that encourage respect for human rights at work, is composed of national governments, worker’s groups, and employers’ organizations. Nations that ratify ILO Conventions must ascribe to the legally-binding standards of the document. The ILO has also set up monitoring committees to check up and report on countries’ progress. The ILO Conventions 138 and 182 are especially pertinent as they specifically address child labor.

Convention 138 was adopted in 1973 and established the minimum age for a child to be able to work. The age was set to fifteen or the age in which the children fulfill the minimum educational requirements of their countries. It calls for the absolute eradication of any form of child labor. Article 1 states that, “Each member…undertakes to pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labor and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment …to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons.”

Since the ILO recognizes that child labor is often times a function of underdevelopment-an issue that realistically cannot be resolved quickly-Convention 138’s goals are oriented towards the long-term. However, the cessation of certain types of child labor cannot be postponed no matter what development status a nation occupies. Therefore in 1999 the ILO adopted Convention 182 to swiftly combat “the worst forms of child labor.” This category of labor as stated in Article 3 includes “all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor…” The Convention requires governments to employ every instrument in their power to end the worse forms of child labor, with the collaboration of workers’ and employers’ groups, and NGOs as mandated by Article 6. The Convention actually spells out a set of programs that the governments should follow, (including identifying the violations, educating society about the harmfulness of child labor, and effectively punishing the violators) and also how to go about taking those actions using data collection, regional coordination, and cooperation with civil society.


Child Trafficking for Labor in the United States, Factsheet, Freedom Network, September, 2012

A Union of Labor: Tobacco Production & Unethical Labor Use (QuitDay.Org)

Child labor is employed by cigarette companies on their tobacco farms in an effort to ease the costs of increased governmental taxation. Labor unions and human rights organizations are asked to become more involved in stopping these violations.

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3 Responses to “Child Labor”

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  2. 48 Slaves: Mindful Ignorance – Drema Deoraich Says:

    […] girls in brothels, or begging on the street, or carrying guns in an army, or working to mine that shiny gold you wear around your neck are immediate red flags that shout “Something is wrong […]

  3. 48 Slaves: Mindful Ignorance - My Blog Says:

    […] girls in brothels, or begging on the street, or carrying guns in an army, or working to mine that shiny gold you wear around your neck are immediate red flags that shout “Something is wrong […]

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