Does child labour exist in rich countries? Is all work for children considered harmful?
An estimated 168 million children are involved in child labour, accounting for almost 11% of children globally.
While this figure is a third lower than it was in 2000, campaigners say more still needs to be done to get children out of work and into school.
Patrick Quinn, child labor specialist with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), says the first step to reducing the incidence of child labour is ensuring that people know what it is.
The ILO defines child labor as work that “deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”.
In its most extreme forms, child labour can involve youngsters being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to hazards and illnesses or left alone on city streets.
“People don’t always understand the seriousness of child labor and many may see it as an acceptable pathway to adult work,” says Quinn. “What we’re focused on is ensuring children are free to access education.”
To mark World Day Against Child Labour, we bust five myths on child labor and its impact on children.
1. Every form of child labour is bad
The type of work children can be involved in differs greatly, and not all work done by children has been targeted for elimination.
For instance, if a child or teenager is involved in work that does not have a negative impact on their health or prevent them from attending school, it is generally considered acceptable.
It is recognized that this type of work can be a positive influence on children by contributing to their personal development and the welfare of their families.
2. Most child laborers work in factories
ILO global estimates show that 58.6% of child laborers aged between five and 17 work in the agricultural sector; 6.9% work in domestic work; 7.2% work in the industrial sector including mining, manufacturing, and construction, and 25.4% work in services including retail trade, restaurants, and transport.
“Often, most people hear about children working in sweatshops and factories, but in fact, the majority of child labour occurs in agriculture, often in very poor subsistence farming areas,” Quinn said.
3. Child labour only exists in poor countries
Child labour is a global problem. The largest number of child laborers are found in Asia and the Pacific (77.7 million), while sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of child labor, with 21% of children aged between five and 17 involved in the practice.
But beyond these regions, child labour is still an issue. “Of the 168 million children in child labor, 12 million are in upper or middle-income countries,” said Quinn.
“While clearly the problem is most serious in lower income countries, it is not exclusively a problem for those areas. The stats are harder to find because there hasn’t been the same emphasis on child labour in high income countries, but there are several incidences in Europe and the US where children are working in hazardous work, particularly children aged 15 to 17.”
4. Child labour is a necessary evil for growing economies
There is a school of thought that major economies were built partly on the exploitation of child labour, and that the availability of cheap labour is necessary for today’s burgeoning economies.
Domestic workers in private households, of which 10.5 million are children, play an important role in the smooth running of national economies, as do garment and factory workers.
But the ILO argues that growing economies require quality education and a skilled workforce to flourish.
“If you look at a number of countries in Asia, South America and elsewhere, there are examples of economies that have expanded rapidly while making education and social protection schemes a priority. For many, investing in education has helped lead to economic growth,” said Quinn.
5. Child labour helps young people transition into paid work as adults
The ILO’s 2015 report on the state of child labor examines the long-term effects of a child workforce, including the employment outcomes of former child laborers.
The research found that young people with prior involvement in child labour were more likely to be in unpaid family work or in low-paying jobs as adults, while those who had left school at or below the general minimum working age of 15 were at greater risk of remaining outside the world of work altogether.