Chapter II: Assessment of the Problem
This chapter provides an assessment of the nature and extent of child labor in the 16 countries studied for this report. This assessment provides a context for Chapters III through V, which focus on governmental efforts to address the problem. Section B of this chapter presents some general background on child labor, including the types of enterprises where children most commonly work and common physical and developmental hazards of their work, and discusses some of the reasons for children's premature entry into the work force. Section C presents quantitative data on the extent of child labor in each of the 16 countries. Section D contains a survey of the types of work children perform in these countries and the conditions under which they work in the agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining and quarrying, and service sectors.
As explained in the previous chapter, not all forms of child work are considered exploitative or abusive. Certain types of work, including legitimate apprenticeships or helping parents in a family business, can be formative learning experiences for children. Rather, the type of child labor that is the focus of current international eradication efforts is abusive commercial exploitation of children, which is either hazardous work or work that prevents young children from receiving an education. While the focus of this chapter is exploitative child labor, most available quantitative data, including that presented in Section C, do not make a distinction between abusive and nonabusive work.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that there are at least 250 million working children between the ages of five and 14 in developing countries.1 About half, or 120 million, work full-time, while the rest combine work with school or other activities.2 Many millions of these children work under conditions that are clearly abusive or dangerous.3 According to the ILO, the majority of the world's working children (61 percent) are found in Asia, followed by Africa (32 percent), and Latin America and the Caribbean (seven percent).4 While Asia has the highest number of child workers, Africa has the highest proportion of children working, with 41 percent of children between five and 14 years old engaged in some form of economic activity.5
Child workers are found in a wide range of economic activities. The largest numbers work in agriculture, services, and small-scale manufacturing workshops that are generally not covered by national laws. Children are rarely employed in medium or large enterprises, except in commercial agriculture in some countries.6 However, it is common practice for larger enterprises to subcontract certain labor-intensive tasks to small workshops or home-workers employing children.
Current available data show that, on average, more boys than girls work. This gender difference, however, may be due to the fact that girls more commonly work in less visible forms of employment such as domestic service, which are often underestimated by statistical surveys.7
Many of the world's working children labor in occupations and industries that are dangerous or hazardous.8 In agriculture, large numbers of children are exposed to harmful pesticides during their formative years. Others work in occupations and industries--including mining, construction, manufacturing, and automobile repair--in which they are exposed to toxic and carcinogenic substances such as asbestos, benzene, and mercury.9
Working children often perform tasks that are beyond their physical capacity, such as lifting and carrying heavy loads or handling dangerous tools and equipment.10 For some child workers, including children working in domestic services, verbal and sexual abuse and physical punishment by adults are routine.11 Other children, trapped in indentured servitude or similar forms of bondage, work in virtual slavery.12
Work hazards affect children to a greater degree than adults, in some cases causing irreversible harm to their physical development, with serious consequences for their futures.13 For one, children beginning work at a young age have a longer period of exposure to cumulative hazards. Carrying heavy loads or adopting unnatural positions during work can permanently distort or disable a child's growing body. Working children often grow up to be smaller than their counterparts who have attended school.14 Children are particularly vulnerable to accidents since they are often unaware of the dangers or precautions to be taken at work.15 Safety equipment designed for adults often does not fit children, and tools and equipment designed for adults are difficult for children to handle.16
In addition to the health and safety risks of beginning work at an early age, child labor perpetuates poverty.17 Children who are deprived of education and whose physical development is harmed from work at an early age are likely to have lower earning prospects throughout their adult lives. A working child often becomes an adult limited to unskilled and poorly paid jobs.18
Various factors contribute to children's early entry into the work force. In many cases, working children lack access to quality education. In addition, work that is based on a piece-rate or per-task pay structure often leads parents to call upon their children to contribute to family earnings. In some cases, employers and other adults perceive some of the most menial and labor-intensive processes as "children's work." Children are cheaper to hire than adults. But some major explanations for hiring children are noneconomic. Children are less aware of their rights, more compliant, and more willing to do monotonous work without complaining.19
This section presents country-specific data on child labor in the 16 countries studied for this report. Identifying the extent to which child labor exists within a country is the cornerstone for developing an effective response to the problem. Quantitative measures of child labor are essential for setting national goals for its elimination and for measuring progress once programs are instituted. However, reliable national data on child labor are rare and, when available, often incomplete. Standard employment surveys are often not specially designed to capture child labor, and employers and households may be reluctant to report when children are working. Furthermore, since child labor is illegal in most countries, many governments do not collect employment data on persons below the minimum age.
In recent years, the ILO's Bureau of Statistics has worked to improve child labor data collection and reporting methods. It has designed a child labor survey methodology and provided technical assistance to several countries, including many members of the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC).20 With technical expertise provided by the ILO, 15 countries have completed or are in the process of completing national child labor surveys and a number of others are in the process of doing so.21
Table II-1 below contains the best available official estimates of the size of the child labor population in the 16 countries studied for this report for the most current year available (usually 1991 to 1996). For five of these countries (Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan the Philippines, and Turkey), data are from ILO-sponsored national surveys. These surveys are generally considered to provide the most comprehensive, high-quality data on the number of working children ages five to 14 years old.22 Data for Brazil, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and South Africa are from recent government estimates taken from national census or labor force surveys covering various ages. Finally, in countries where no recent official estimates are available (Kenya, Tanzania, and Thailand), statistics are from 1995 estimates for children 10 to 14 years old, as published in the ILO's Economically Active Population.23 For a detailed description of the survey characteristics and coverage for statistics cited in Table II-1, see Appendix B.
Table II-1: Child Labor Data
When conducting national surveys, each country chooses its own definition of what constitutes a "child" and what it classifies as "labor." Therefore, government estimates may grossly over- or underrepresent the true number of child laborers simply due to the definitions used. Some countries, for example, include children working in either paid or unpaid work, while others count only full-time paid labor. Additionally, certain countries do not classify students as child laborers no matter how many hours they work outside the home, while others count students working even one hour a week as "employed." As a result, the number of working children reported by one country may be higher or lower than the number reported in another simply because of which children and which activities are included in the data.
Furthermore, factors such as child homelessness, lack of birth registration, informal sector employment, or a large refugee population can also increase the probability of significant underreporting. Considering the prevalence of these characteristics in many of the countries studied for this report, the statistics included in Table II-1 are likely to underestimate the true extent of child labor. It should also be noted that since children in the upper age bracket have a much higher probability of working, countries that only report data on older children (10 to 14 years old) will tend to have higher percentages of children in the work force in the age range reported than those with estimates extending below 10 years old. See Appendix B for a detailed discussion on the limitations of child labor statistics and methodology, as well as a description of the specific estimates reported in Table II-1.
Many factors, including those discussed above, can lead to wide-ranging estimates of the numbers of child laborers within any one country. In general, official government estimates tend to underreport the extent of child labor, while data from other sources, such as NGOs and trade union groups, in some cases overstate the number of working children. The following are some examples of such discrepancies, all of which are also discussed in Appendix B.
This section provides a survey of the types of work performed by children and the hazards they face. It focuses on abusive child labor situations where children work under dangerous conditions and are often denied an education. Examples drawn from the 16 countries visited by U.S. Department of Labor officials illustrate working conditions in agriculture, fishing, manufacturing, mining and quarrying, and various service sectors.34 An extensive listing of industries and occupations that employ children in the 16 countries studied is provided in Appendix C.
While children work in many sectors, according to data assembled by the ILO from 26 developing countries, the majority of economically active children (70 percent) work in agriculture, fishing, forestry, and hunting. The remainder work in manufacturing (eight percent); wholesale and retail trade, restaurants, and hotels (eight percent); community, social, and personal services (seven percent); transport, storage and communications (four percent); construction (two percent); and mining and quarrying (one percent).35 The following sections describe working conditions in the sectors where children are most frequently employed.
More of the world's working children are employed in agriculture than in any other sector. Common systems of pay tend to encourage the use of child labor. Arrangements for paying workers based on tasks completed or the amount of product harvested provide an incentive for parents to supplement their own labor with that of their children to augment the family income. In some cases, parents take their young children to work in the fields because they lack a safe place to leave them.
Children often begin work in the agricultural sector at a very young age and perform a variety of tasks related to the planting and harvesting of crops. They work, often along with their parents, in subsistence (purely family-based), small-holder, and commercial farming.36 As described below, the dangers faced by children working in agriculture are manifold. Their work frequently interferes with their education, and despite long hours of work, children generally receive little or no compensation.
In some countries, children make up a significant percentage of the agricultural work force. A survey of 12 states in Mexico indicated that children from seven to 14 years make up 30 percent of day laborers in the agricultural sector.37 A similar reliance on child labor is found in Kenyan agriculture. During peak seasons, Kenyan children account for close to half of the work force planting, weeding, and harvesting on sugar estates,38 and between 50 and 60 percent of the work force on coffee plantations.39 In Egypt, tens of thousands of children harvest cotton, the country's second largest export product.40
Some children, while not directly engaged in planting or harvesting, instead perform smaller tasks on farms and plantations. In Guatemala, for example, since the work of cutting sugar cane requires strength, younger children are employed in less physically demanding, complementary activities such as helping to trim the cane after it has been cut and collecting loose stalks that have fallen off loaders and trucks.41
For the many children employed in agriculture, exposure to health and safety risks is a regular part of their daily work life. They face numerous hazards such as sharp and unwieldy tools, bites from snakes and insects, transportation in unsafe vehicles, and regular exposure to toxic substances such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides. They often work without protective clothing, are exposed to extreme temperatures, and carry heavy loads.42 As the following examples illustrate, such hazards vary, depending on the crops farmed and the equipment used.
Most children work in agriculture on a seasonal basis--full-time during the harvesting and seeding seasons and on an irregular or part-time basis during the remainder of the year. Seasonal agricultural work often conflicts with children's school attendance during the regular academic year. Children frequently miss classes, and some are even forced to give up years of their education.
Despite the dangers of agricultural work and the sacrifices children make in terms of their education, child agricultural workers often receive little pay for their long hours of labor.
Finally, there are reports of bonded child labor in agriculture, particularly in small-scale agricultural operations in rural India, Pakistan, and Nepal. Bonded labor in the farm sector occurs when poor, landless peasants and tenant farmers have no choice but to turn to landlords for loans in the form of cash or food, to be repaid with labor. Instead of decreasing with the time worked, however, the loans often increase, and bondage becomes a way of life for generations.59
Significant numbers of children work in the fishing industry. Children dive for fish, work on fishing platforms and boats, collect shellfish and shrimp larvae, peel shrimp, and clean fish. In performing these tasks, they often spend long hours in the water and face hazards such as drowning, skin diseases, and attack by sharks or other dangerous fish. They also risk injury from the sharp tools used for cutting and cleaning fish and seafood.
According to the 1995 Philippines National Survey of Working Children, almost seven percent of Filipino working children from five to 15 years old are engaged in fishing.60 It used to be common practice to employ children in deep-sea fishing operations, where they worked without protective gear in water for up to 12 hours a day. Boys as young as age 10 dived to depths of 100 feet to maneuver nets around coral reefs, risking drowning, ruptured eardrums, decompression sickness, and attack by predatory fish.61 A concerted effort by Filipino NGOs, the ILO, and UNICEF and stepped up enforcement by the Government of the Philippines resulted in a reduction in the employment of underage children in deep-sea fishing.62 It is unclear, however, whether the practice has been completely eradicated.63
In countries such as Bangladesh, Peru, and Thailand, children perform labor-intensive tasks related to farming and processing shrimp and other shellfish.
Where child labor occurs in the manufacturing sector, most often it is in small workshops or home-based work. Employment of children in medium-sized or large enterprises is rare, but such establishments sometimes contribute indirectly to child labor by subcontracting out certain production tasks to small workshops or home-workers who make extensive use of child labor.69
Children who are employed in manufacturing work long hours, often without proper safety gear. They face numerous hazards, including exposure to excessive heat, insufficient lighting, poor ventilation, loud noise, and toxic substances. While the number of children working in manufacturing generally represents only a small portion of the overall population of working children in a given country, they sometimes make up a significant percentage of the work force in a particular industry. In such cases, children are generally used intensively for specific tasks in the chain of production for which they are perceived to be especially well suited.
Manufacturing involving child labor frequently involves subcontracting arrangements whereby children work out of small shops or private homes. Such arrangements enable producers to skirt child labor laws in countries where such worksites are exempt from existing legislation.
Hazards associated with child labor in manufacturing result from poor work environments that contribute to illness and inadequate safety measures to protect children from work place accidents.
In the leather footwear industry, children work with sharp knives and cutting tools and are exposed to toxic fumes, solvents, and other dangerous chemicals which can cause skin and respiratory diseases.
In certain cases, children perform specific tasks within an industry. These tend to be the most menial and labor-intensive tasks that are sometimes viewed as well-suited for child labor.
The use of child labor in the labor-intensive hand-knotted carpet industries of India, Pakistan, and Nepal has been widely documented. Children employed in this industry often work in confined, dimly-lit workshops. Many develop respiratory illnesses and suffer spinal deformities and retarded growth from long hours of work crouched in dust-filled rooms. Cuts and wounds from sharp tools are common. Some children in the industry work as bonded laborers, working to pay off money borrowed by their parents.102
4. Mining and Quarrying
Child labor is used in small-scale mining and stone-quarrying operations in many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The number of children working in mining and quarrying is relatively small, but the incidence of injuries and illness is high. According to the ILO, more than one in every five girls and one in every six boys employed in mines and quarries are affected by serious injuries and illnesses.103
In small-scale mining, there are no limits to the hours a child may work. Children work without adequate protective equipment, clothing, or training. They handle dangerous tools and carry heavy loads. Working conditions include extremes of heat and cold and exposure to high levels of humidity and hazardous dusts and materials, including mercury. The examples below illustrate some of the hazards child miners face and the negative impact of mine work on child development.
Children in the service sector work in a variety of occupations and situations. A large number of children, especially girls, work as domestic servants. Both boys and girls of increasingly young ages are recruited or trafficked into the commercial sex industry. In urban areas, children work as street vendors, car washers, and porters. Children are also employed in markets, bakeries, restaurants, cafes, and train and bus stations. The conditions of work of child domestic servants, commercial sex workers, and other child laborers in service occupations in the 16 countries studied for this report are described below.
a. Domestic Workers
Domestic service remains one of the most common forms of child labor. In many countries, the use of children as domestic servants is regarded as a socially acceptable traditional practice.119 Child domestic servants typically perform household services and chores for their employers in exchange for pay and/or room and board. They run errands, shop, provide child care, fetch water and firewood, clean, do laundry, cook, and perform other household chores. Child domestic servants are frequently expected to work at all hours of the day, with few days off.120
In many developing countries, it is common for poor families to send their young children, particularly girls, to work as domestic servants in the households of more well-to-do families or relatives. Sometimes parents send their children away to gain extra income or with the hope that they will receive better lodging, nourishment, and an education. In some cases, children work as domestics to repay debts incurred by their parents. Often, child domestics receive harsh treatment at the hands of their employers.
The informal and hidden nature of domestic work makes it difficult to accurately estimate the number of child domestic workers around the world. However, the ILO believes that child domestic service is a widespread practice in many developing countries.121 This is the case in all of the countries studied for this report. In some countries, the number of children working as domestic servants is large.
The majority of domestic workers tend to be between 12 and 17 years old, but in some instances, much younger children are reported to work in this sector.
Children who work as domestic servants often suffer physical, mental, and sexual abuse. Many work for little or no pay. They endure isolation from their families and are frequently deprived of opportunities to play with peers and attend school.127
Many child domestic servants suffer psychological trauma and impairment, physical injury, and exhaustion; some become pregnant at a young age.139 Unfortunately, more often than not, the suffering of these children goes unnoticed and unreported.
b. Commercial Sex Workers
Child prostitution, often described as one of the worst contemporary forms of slavery, has been defined as "the act of engaging or offering the services of a child to perform sexual acts for money or other consideration . . ."140 This definition stresses that child prostitution is not committed by children but by the adults who engage in prostitution or offer a child's sexual services to others.
Large numbers of children work in the commercial sex industry in an increasing number of countries. These children are often recruited under the false pretense of marriage or a good job in the city. Others are kidnaped or sold by their parents, and some are trafficked across national borders. The prostitution and trafficking of children is common in Asia, but also occurs in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Europe.141
Commercial sexual exploitation is one of the most brutal forms of violence against children. As described above, child prostitutes suffer extreme physical, psychological, and emotional abuse.161 They risk drug addiction, early pregnancy, social alienation, and deadly sexually transmitted infections.162
c. Other Forms of Child
In addition to the service sectors already discussed, children work in myriad other occupations in the 16 countries studied for this report. These occupations range from street vending and hotel and restaurant work, to car repair and construction. Many children live and work on the streets, exposed on a daily basis to harsh weather, crime, and street violence. Earnings vary widely, but most of these children are extremely poor, making barely enough money to survive. The following examples illustrate some of the many services children perform and the conditions of work they endure.
Children also work in the construction industries of many countries, including Brazil,176 Guatemala,177 India,178 Mexico,179 Nepal,180 Pakistan,181 and Thailand.182 Children in construction perform various tasks, including digging earth, carrying heavy loads, breaking stones or rocks, and shoveling sand and cement. They face tremendous safety and health hazards, including falls, exposure to dust, heat, and noise, and numerous accidents and injuries.183 In some cases, the burden is even greater when the work is performed under bonded conditions. In India, for instance, there are allegations of bonded labor in the construction industry of Tamil Nadu.184
Although some of the work performed by children in the service sector is highly visible, such as that of street vendors and shoeshines, the plight of many others goes largely unnoticed and unaddressed. The informal nature of children's work in the service sector makes it difficult to document the full extent of this problem, and in many countries, labor legislation fails to address such forms of child labor.
This report was produced by the staff of the International Child Labor Program and is published by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs.