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The supply and demand for child labour

Photo: Krish Dulal // CC-BY-SA-3.0
Photo: Krish Dulal // CC-BY-SA-3.0

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically recognises the rights of a child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing work that is dangerous or that disrupts the child’s education, or that is otherwise harmful to the child’s development and well-being. In this guest blog, Isabelle looks at why, given these rights, there are currently 168 million children worldwide engaged in child labour.

More than just household chores

Activities such as helping out at the family business after school, or taking on odd jobs during the holidays to earn extra pocket money, do not constitute child labour. The International Labour Organization defines child labour as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”. This especially refers to work that interferes with the child’s schooling; prevents them from attending classes; forces them to leave school early, or requires them to attend school while also working long and hard hours.

Although the definition of child labour seems clear, the legislation regarding it is not. Part of the problem is that labour laws vary greatly from country to country—and vary greatly within countries. Additionally, several factors have to be taken into account when setting and enforcing laws, including the child’s age and the type of work performed. This is part of the reason why very few child labour cases make it to the courts.

A chain of cruelty

Child labourer, India
Photo: Jorge Royan // CC-BY-SA-3.0
The 2016 World Day Against Child Labour focuses on child labour in supply chains (all the activities or processes involved in an item’s production and distribution). This includes industries such as agriculture, construction, and manufacturing. Clothing sweatshops are notorious for their long hours, low wages, poor work conditions, and—in particular—their use of child labour.

All people have their part to play in preventing and reducing child labour in supply chains:

  • Consumers need to learn about where and how the products that they purchase are made. They can educate themselves on child labour and spread awareness online and offline (through community action, for example), as well as boycott companies that are known to or are suspected of making use of child labour.
  • Governments and policymakers have to enforce a minimum age for employment, as well as strict regulations for work hours and environments. Thorough labour inspections should frequently be conducted in rural and informal economies, where child labour is most common.
  • Employers, supervisors, etc. are key to minimising incidences of child labour. They must remain vigilant and be aware of what goes on at every level of the business. (There is even a mobile app that helps managers to ensure child labour-free operations.)

The demand for child labour

So why make a child do a job that, generally speaking, an adult would be better at?

The criminals who force children into “employment” want to get away with cheap or, more likely, free labour. To do this, they need workers whom they can exploit. Because of their young age, and consequent mental and physical vulnerability, children are the ideal targets—easy to manipulate, coerce, and train. This is especially so because children in such situations are often unaware of their rights; or, even if they are, they have no one to turn to or no resources to rely on to help them maintain these rights.

The victims of child labour are not exactly in short supply. Children who are particularly susceptible are those who grow up in impoverished circumstances. In fact, it is usually the destitute and desperate parents or families of the children who subject them to labour, or who sell them to perpetrators to repay debts. In many other cases, minors are kidnapped and made to work.

Born in servitude

Numerous child labour incidents can be attributed to modern slavery. A recent BBC report highlights one prevalent example of child slavery: forced begging. In all continents on the globe, countless children are forced by criminals to roam the streets for donations. Because they work as bonded labourers, they are not paid anything from what they manage to get while begging. And never mind the dangerous environments and harsh weather conditions—these children are often deprived of sleep and nourishment in order to gain more sympathy and consequently more money. Most of them live in constant fear and are regularly threatened and abused.

Young girl working on a loom, Morocco
Photo: Zouavman Le Zouave // CC-BY-SA-3.0
Although Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of child labourers, the same BBC report estimates that in the UK itself, there are 3,000 children from Vietnam alone working in British nails bars and cannabis farms. Other victims are thought to be trafficked from countries such as Albania, Nigeria, and Romania. They are discouraged from escaping, as the perpetrators warn the children that their families will be hurt if they try to leave.

Beyond supply networks

Some of the more horrific, yet unfortunately common, forms of child labour include prostitution and armed conflict. Yet the predominant type of child labour is perhaps domestic work, which “employs” millions of children worldwide, but especially in Asia. While in India, I met one such girl—around 14 years old— who despairingly asked me to teach her English so that she could travel and would not have to continue in her current situation. To help support her parents and siblings, the girl has no choice but to cook and clean for strangers every day. She has never been to school.

Other children in the region do menial jobs or run errands all day to earn money for basic necessities. In the same area where I met the girl, I came across a group of small boys who, after a whole day of working, were still delivering groceries to households at midnight.

Although child labour rates seem to be slowly decreasing, they are still too high.
It is unfair and unreasonable to expect children to grow up to be happy, healthy, and productive members of society when they are forced to perform work that’s stressful and difficult even for adults. Making kids work at such an early age robs them of their rights to education, safety, rest, and play. And more often than not, these children never realise their full mental, physical, and social potential. Many of them die young, are left permanently disabled as a result of hazardous work, or have to endure psychological scarring for the rest of their lives.