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How does child labour undermine literacy?

Child labour is a barrier to education and poverty
Child labour is a barrier to education and poverty

Across the world, child labour is a major factor preventing children from going to school and equipping themselves with literacy skills. Poverty forces many children into work, but being illiterate will further propel the poverty cycle. As part of our series on literacy, we investigate this complex problem that keeps millions of children out of school every day.

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What is meant by 'child labour'?

For many, the term ‘child labour’ might conjure up images of sweatshops and crowded factories, which exploit young children and neglect their well-being. While this may be true in some cases, there are many other types of child labour, and some types of child work which are even considered as a positive way of developing skills. So how can we draw a line between what is acceptable child work, and what is harmful child labour?

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is the authority in defining child labour. They have considered all types of child work; from light work (such as helping with chores at home), difficult and demanding work (e.g. agricultural tasks), through to the worst forms of child labour which are hazardous and even morally reprehensible (including child prostitution). The ILO has categorised child work according to the type and hours of work performed, the conditions under which it is performed, and the age of the child.

ILO states that child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and is harmful to physical and mental development. Child labour refers to work that:Boys harvesting crops

  • is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and
  • interferes with their schooling by:
  • depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
  • obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
  • requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

Child labour is a violation of a child’s rights. In Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child it is declared,

“(we) recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”

How big of a problem is child labour?

Although difficult to accurately measure, it’s estimated that about 150,000,000 children (5-14 years old) are involved in child labour worldwide. If we consider all young people who are under 18, some estimates are as high as 246 million. Of these, nearly 70% work in hazardous conditions.

Child labour is a global problem. Regional estimates indicate that the largest number of child workers in the 5 to 14 age group are in the Asia and Pacific region, where 127.3 million children work (19% of children in the region). In sub-Saharan Africa there is an estimated 48 million child workers - that’s almost one child in three (29 %) below the age of 15 who is economically active. 16% of children work in Latin America and the Caribbean - that’s approximately 17.4 million children, and 15% of children in the Middle East and North Africa are working. Finally in developed and transition economies, 2.5 million and 2.4 million children are working respectively.

Boy collecting rubbish

Looking at the 5-17 year olds who are child labourers, it’s estimated that 60% of them work in agriculture, 26% in services and 7% in industry, with the remainder in undefined work. Although numbers show that more boys than girls are involved in child labour, this may be because many of the types of work that girls do are invisible - such as being a domestic servant. Of the children involved in domestic work, roughly 90% of children are girls.

Child labour tends to be concentrated in the informal sector of the economy (this means the part of the economy that isn’t taxed, monitored by the government or included in a country’s GNP). For some work children are not paid, only receiving food and a place to sleep. Working in the informal sector is more risky as children have less protection if they suffer violence or maltreatment by their employer, and if they become injured or ill they can be dismissed and not receive payment.

As you can see - child labour is a huge problem. Beyond these statistics, the real damage of child labour are the long-term consequences on a child’s ability to attain a decent quality of life, in which they’re happy and healthy. Whatever the reasons for a child working, the effects are similarly damaging. Child labour interferes with a child’s physical and mental development, violates their rights, and is an obstacle to gaining basic education.

Without going to school, children labourers are unlikely to learn how to read and write, meaning they won’t enjoy the vital benefits and freedoms that literacy brings. Findings from Brazil by the World Bank demonstrate that early entry into the labour force reduces lifetime earnings by some 13 to 20%, increasing significantly the probability of being poor later in life.

Why do children work?

We’ve looked at what child labour is - but why does it continue to exist in today’s world? The answer is not straightforward, and requires looking at many interconnected factors. We need to consider both the supply side of child labour, that is, the children who are working, as well as the demand side of child labour, meaning those who employ children.

The most compelling reason why children work is poverty. The income that a child can bring to a poor household can be vital to a family's survival. Yet poverty doesn’t fully explain child labour, as countries may be equally poor but have relatively high or low levels of child labour. Other factors influencing how much child labour there is in a country includes;

  • Barriers to education. In many parts of the world, basic education is not available for all children, especially in remote rural areas. Where schools are available, they might not be free. Even in many countries which boast free primary education, there are often hidden costs such as buying uniforms, textbooks, and stationery, which many families simply can’t afford. Furthermore, when the quality of education is poor, and the lessons not relevant, parents might not see the value in sending their child to school, and therefore going to work is preferred.
  • Culture and tradition. Where there are few opportunities for children even with advanced education, parents may share a cultural norm in which labour is seen as more valuable and productive. In many cultures, particularly where the informal economy is large, children are often expected to pursue their parents’ trade or take over a small household business, so that training from a young age seems advantageous. Another cultural norm which exists in many cultures is that educating girls is less valuable, or not expected, and these girls may instead work, providing domestic services, for instance.Boy cleaning shoes
  • Market demand. Employers may actively prefer to hire children because they can be paid lower wages than adults, can be dispensed of easily and also form a docile, obedient work-force that will not seek to organise itself for protection and support. Another important factor to consider is that the informal economy is growing, especially in developing countries, meaning it is increasingly more attractive for employers to recruit children.
  • The effects of income shocks on households. Natural disasters, economic or agricultural crises or the impact of disease including HIV, AIDS, can cause a sudden lose of family income. During these unpredictable events, child labour may be resorted to as a coping mechanism. If a parent falls ill due to HIV or AIDS related illnesses, the child may have to drop out of school to care for family members. The phenomenon of child-headed households is also associated with the HIV, AIDS epidemic as orphaned children work to care for younger siblings. Read Samia's story, a girl from Somaliland who had to drop out of school to care for her ill father. Fortunately, with the help of SOS Children Samia has been able to re-enrol in school.
  • Inadequate/poor enforcement of legislation and policies to protect children. Child labour persists when national laws and policies to protect children are lacking or are not effectively implemented and policed.
  • Discrimination and vulnerability amongst certain groups in a society.  Social inequities may cause child labour, but they are also a consequence. Children who belong to discriminated sections of a community, such as from indigenous or minority groups or lower castes, are more likely to drop out of school and work. Migrant children are also vulnerable to hidden and illicit labour.

How can we eliminate child labour?

The damaging and enduring consequences of child labour demand that the problem is urgently addressed and child labour is eliminated across the world. However, the many causes of child labour, and the reasons behind it, demonstrate that any solution needs to have a multi-pronged approach. Juan Somavia, the Director-General of ILO, states that,Girl carrying bag on head

“No to child labour is our stance. Yet 215 million are in child labour as a matter of survival. A world without child labour is possible with the right priorities and policies: quality education, opportunities for young people, decent work for parents, a basic social protection floor for all. Driven by conscience, let’s muster the courage and conviction to act in solidarity and ensure every child’s right to his or her childhood. It brings rewards for all.”

To eliminate child labour is to break intergenerational cycles of poverty, strengthen national economies and make progress on achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Policies to tackle child labour need to put children’s welfare at the centre, while working towards creating a protective environment. This includes the provision of good quality, accessible, relevant and free schools with basic education as compulsory. Attending school and gaining academic success needs to be seen as a better option than work - requiring shifts in cultural norms as well as an opening up of economic and social opportunities.

By providing caring homes, schools and health care services, SOS Children strives to support children to have a happy childhood, and not be forced into child labour. Find out more, and consider sponsoring a child