- What Is Child Labor
- The Child Labor Decision
- Child Labor and International Trade
- The End of Child Labor
There are an estimated 191 million economically active children ages 5 to 14 in the world today (ILO 2006). This corresponds to 16 percent of this age group. The images that pervade the popular press of children chained in factories, forced into prostitution, or coerced into a country’s military do not represent the conditions of most working children around theworld.Mostworking children are at their parents’ sides, helping in the family farm or business. A2000UNICEF (UnitedNationsChildren’s Fund) project surveyed working children in 36 developing countries. The data represent more than 120 million children ages 5 to 14. Although nearly 70 percent of children inthese countries spend time in some form of economic activity or domestic chores, less than 3 percentwork in the formalwage labormarket. Most of this wage employment, like most employment overall in the world’s poorest economies, is in agriculture.
What Is Child Labor?
There is no universally accepted definition of child labor. Some researchers view the phrase as referencing all nonschool, non-leisure activities of children. Others define ‘‘child labor’’ as referring to activities that harmthe child in some sense.
Most quoted estimates of the incidence of child labor come from the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Statistical Information andMonitoring Program on Child Labor (SIMPOC). In their most recent global estimates of child labor, they define child labor as:
- An economically active child under 12 who works 1 or more hours per week;
- An economically active child 14 and under who works at least 14 hours per week or 1 or more hours per week in activities that are classified as a worst form of child labor;
- An economically active child 17 and under who works more than 43 hours per week or 1 ormore hours per week in a worst formof child labor.
This reference to activities classified as a worst form of child labor refers to activities that are considered either unconditional worst forms of child labor or hazardous work. Unconditional worst forms of child labor are activities that ILO convention C182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor lists as inappropriate for children under 18: forced and bonded labor, prostitution, pornography, illicit activities, soldiering, and child trafficking. Each signatory country of C182 defines a set of industries and occupations that are classified as hazardous work and therefore a worst form of child labor. Hazardous work is defined as economic activity that, owing to thenature or circumstance of the work, is harmful to the child. There are an estimated 126 million children in hazardous work worldwide (ILO 2006), and 8.4 million children are involved in unconditional worst forms of child labor, 68 percent of whom are in forced or bonded labor (ILO 2002).Acommon bonded labor arrangement is when parents are paid an advance on the child’s future labor earnings, and the child is then committed to the employer until the advance is repaid.
The Child Labor Decision
Poor families balance the child’s potential economic contribution against alternative uses of child time.What is the child’s potential economic contribution? Direct wage income paid to working children may be important in some contexts, but wage work is rare. In most contexts, working children’s primary economic contribution comes through the help they offer their families.Most often, this help is providing domestic services that free up adult time for income-generating pursuits. When there is a family business or farm, the child and other family members oftenhelp, and working in the family business or farm is the most prevalent economic activity of children. The value of the child’s economic contribution to family farms and businesses can be large. One recent study from Nepal estimates that children are responsible for nearly 9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Even when the net economic contribution of the working child is small, it may be important to the welfare of a poor family.
Schooling is typically viewed as the most important alternative use of a child’s time outside of work. The net return to school will depend on how the family values future returns to schooling against the direct costs of schooling. Schooling is not the only alternative use of a child’s time outside of work. Leisure and play are important components of how children spend their time and may be critically important for child development. In fact, the early Progressive-era arguments about child labor all focused on the value of leisure and play as reasons why children should not work.
Overall, children aremost likely toworkwhen the family’s valuation of their net economic contribution is high or the perceived returns on alternative uses of the child’s time are low. Empirically, poverty has stood out as a key factor influencing the allocation of children’s time. Across countries, roughly threefourths of differences in the economic activity rates of children can be explained by differences in GDP per capita. Within a country, some of the most compelling evidence is from Vietnam, which cut child labor nearly in half over a five-year period during its economic boom in the 1990s. A majority of this decline in child labor can be explained by improvements in living standards alone.
It is not clear whether the strong poverty child labor connection that is generally observed reflects something about parental or child preferences, changes in the structure of household production, the weakening of credit constraints, a decline in insurance failures, or increases in the returns to activities outside of work such as schooling. All may play some role, and the importance of these factors should vary depending on country context.
Child Labor and International Trade
One frequently hears anecdotes about children working in export industries. It is possible that if high-income countries increase labor demand for unskilled labor in low-income countries through international trade, then trade may increase the net economic contribution available to working children and thereby increase child labor. Also, trade can affect returns to education, prices of consumption goods, opportunities for household specialization, and the availability of substitutes for goods or activities involving children.
The cross-country data suggest that the most important connection between trade and child labor stems from the positive association between trade and family incomes.Child labor is lower in countries that trade more because incomes are higher in those countries. This income-driven positive association between trade and child labor holds when one considers all countries, only low-income countries, only trade between high- and low-income countries, and exports of unskilled labor intensive products from low-income countries (Edmonds andPavcnik2006). The cross-country data provide no support for the claimthat trade perpetuates high levels of child labor in poor countries.
The microeconomic evidence also emphasizes the importance of the effect of trade on family incomes. When income effects are negligible or transitory, children may work more, as apparently occurred in response to coffee price booms in Nicaragua and Brazil (Kruger 2007). When the income effects are positive and long-lived, childrenwork less even when labor demand has increased, as apparently happened with Vietnam’s liberalization of its rice trade (Edmonds and Pavcnik 2005).Thus themicroeconomic evidence illustrates both that child labor is primarily a facet of poverty and that ultimately decisions about child labor depend on the family’s assessment of the relative value of the child’s time in its alternative uses.
The End of Child Labor?
There is no universally accepted definition of child labor. There is no consensus about how many of the world’s 191 million working children areworse off because of their work. Evaluating whether work harms a child requires understandingwhat childrenwould do in the absence of work. High-quality schooling is too rarely available as an alternative. Hence, it is not surprising that so many of the world’s poor families choose to have their children help their families meet their basic needs. Most child work is not in the formal wage sector. In practice, international trade seems to have little influence on the propensity of children to work aside fromtrade’s impact on living standards in lowincome countries. Children will no longer work in today’s poor countries when families can say that the returns to the child’s time in other activities such as school or play are greater than the family’s valuation of the child’s potential economic contribution. See also International Labor Organization; labor standards