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Child Labour

Child Labour


Child Labour, designation formerly applied to the practice of employing young children in factories, now used to denote the employment of minors generally, especially in work that may interfere with their education or endanger their health. Throughout the ages and in all cultures children joined with their parents to work in the fields, in the marketplace, and around the home as soon as they were old enough to perform simple tasks. The use of child labour was not regarded a social problem until the introduction of the factory system.

Child Labour


As the first country to experience the Industrial Revolution, Great Britain was the first to exhibit particular problems of child labour associated with the factory system. During the latter part of the 18th century, owners of cotton mills collected orphans and children of poor parents throughout the country, obtaining their services merely for the cost of maintaining them. In some cases children, five and six years of age were forced to work from 13 to 16 hours a day.

Social reformers attempted as early as 1802 to obtain legislative restrictions against the worst features of the child-labour system, but little was done even to enforce existing laws limiting hours of labour and establishing a minimum age for employment. Conditions as bad as those imposed on pauper children rapidly developed in enterprises employing non-pauper children. Often with the approval of political, social, and religious leaders, children were permitted to labour in hazardous occupations such as mining. The resultant social evils included illiteracy, further impoverishment of poor families, and a multitude of diseased and injured children.

Popular agitation for reform steadily increased. The first significant British legislation was enacted in 1878 when the minimum age of employees was raised to 10 years and employers were required to restrict employment of children between the ages of 10 and 14 to alternate days or consecutive half days. In addition to making every Saturday a half holiday, this legislation also limited the workday of children between 14 and 18 years of age to 12 hours, with an intermission of 2 hours for meals and rest.


Meanwhile, the industrial system developed in other countries, bringing with it abuses of child labour similar to those in Great Britain. In the early years of the 19th-century children between the ages of 7 and 12 years made up one-third of the work force in US factories. The shortage of adult male labourers, who were needed for agriculture, contributed to the exploitation of child labourers. In addition, the majority of adults cooperated with employers, helping them to recruit young factory hands from indigent families.

Legislation followed to check illiteracy among child labourers, establish minimum working ages and maximum working hours, and restricting child labour in dangerous industries. The first International Labour Conference in Berlin in 1890 was the first concerted international attempt to formulate standards for employment of children. The International Association for Labour, founded in Basel in 1900 with branches in over 16 countries, was organized to press for statutes on child labour to be incorporated into international labour legislation. Abuses were gradually addressed so that now all developed countries operate extensive restrictions on the employment of children.

Modern legislation against child labour in the developed world is usually tied to educational legislation on school attendance. Though most industries and businesses are prohibited from employing underage staff on a full-time basis, many children are able to work as newspaper deliverers and sales personnel, as part-time workers at home, or even as actors and performers in radio, television, and films.


In the latter part of the 20th century, child labour remains a serious problem in many parts of the world. Many of these children live in underdeveloped countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Their living conditions are crude and their chances for education minimal. The meagre income they bring in is, however, necessary for the survival of their families. In other cases, children are bonded, working to pay off an initial cash advance from the employer with escalating interest that leaves them effectively slaves.

In some countries, industrialization has created working conditions for children that rival the worst features of the 19th-century factories and mines. In some countries, legal provisions are evaded through clauses which permit work within the family. Precise statistics are difficult to arrive at because child labour is formally illegal almost everywhere, and consequently authorities have the greatest difficulty quantifying the problem, let alone controlling it. Anti-Slavery International gives the following estimates by country for children below the age of 15 enduring exploitative child labour, although these countries do not necessarily have the worst records and others with poor records may have been excluded: Bangladesh: 5-6 million; Brazil: up to 5 million; Egypt: 1.4 million; Guatemala: 1 million; India: up to 40 million; Indonesia: over 2 million; Mexico: up to 8 million; Nepal: up to 2 million: Nigeria: 12 million; Pakistan: over 2 million; the Philippines: 5 million; Thailand: 4 million. Widely accepted estimates put child labour at 2 to 10 per cent of the labour force in some areas of Latin America and Asia, and more than 10 per cent in some Middle Eastern countries. The continuing problem of child labour is evidenced by the fact that in October 1998 Pakistan’s carpet manufacturers were given up to 10 years to remove child labourers from their workforce, part of an agreement reached with the International Labour Organization (ILO). The agreement followed similar arrangements to phase out child labour in Pakistan’s soccer ball industry and in Bangladesh’s clothing industry.

Child-labour problems are not, of course, limited to developing nations. They occur wherever poverty exists in Europe and the United States. In Great Britain, the Low Pay Unit recently estimated that up to 2 million children were engaged in part-time work: the worst record in the European Union. A growing concern in recent years has been the increase in prostitution among youngsters in urban centres.

The most important efforts to eliminate child-labour abuses throughout the world come from the ILO, founded in 1919 and now a special agency of the United Nations. The organization has introduced several child-labour conventions among its members, including a minimum age of 16 years for admission to all work (whether within the family or not), a higher minimum age for specific types of employment, compulsory medical examinations, and regulation of night work. The ILO, however, does not have the power to enforce these conventions; it depends on the voluntary compliance of member nations. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, includes restrictions on child labour and is formally binding on all countries that have ratified it, but it also has no enforcement mechanisms attached. A new treaty, known as the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, taking effect in late 2000 and intended to outlaw the most serious abuses of children, such as slavery, debt bondage, and child prostitution, was passed unanimously by members of the ILO in June 1999. Again, the treaty is dependent on ratifying nations enforcing it within their borders and contains no sanctions against violating parties. UN estimates stated that by the year 2000 there were 375 million child labourers worldwide.

Child Labour

Contributed By:
Asa Briggs

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