Child Labour: A Shameful Reality In The 21st Century


Child labour: Many in the past had hoped this phenomenon would have ceased to be a reality in our “futuristic” 2016 world. However, staggering statistics show that child labour continues to affect children worldwide, including developed countries like the United States. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 168 million children between 5 to 17 years old are currently subjected to child labour, with 85 million of them under hazardous conditions. When we think of child labour, the image of a poor factory worker somewhere in the developing world may come to mind. However, the grim reality is that children, everywhere across the globe, find themselves in deplorable working conditions, and are prevented from going to school to better their situation.

Child labour has always existed in some form or another, either through trades passed on from parent to child or through apprenticeships. However, it was not until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, which brought about a new demand for cheap labour, that children were exposed to more severe abuses, which in turn shaped our current understanding of child labour. Nowadays, we define it as work that impedes on a child’s access to education or places them in dangerous environments. This is not just limited to long working hours in a clothing factory but also includes children that are forced to be soldiers or used in prostitution and pornography. Many factors have made and continue to make children exploitable. For one, they are more docile, and easier to train to obey, and especially, they can be paid less than their adult counterparts.

Since the Industrial Revolution, laws have been put in place to protect children from harsh working conditions in favour of education. International conventions include the Minimum Age Convention of 1973 and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention of 1999. Today, groups like the ILO, UNICEF, the United Nations, and others work towards ending child labour, mainly through raising public awareness about the issue. Initiatives have also been put in place to cooperate with companies in order to encourage and maintain ethical work conditions. Other efforts include creating more accessible education to lower income families, where children are more at risk of child labour. However, these efforts have only been able to reduce about one-third of child labourers around the world since 2000. Many factors continue to perpetuate the problem, including a lack of international cooperation and national implementation of anti-child labour policies, but, perhaps the greatest cause, is the perpetual poverty plaguing people around the world.

This said, the root cause of child labour today can be directly attributed to poverty. When a family finds itself barely making ends meet, more often than not, children will be sent to factories, fields, or domestic workplaces instead of school. They become extensions of the parents’ labour to help the family survive. A very current example is the child labour that has emerged from the ongoing Refugee Crisis, whereby Syrian children are being forced to work illegally in factories for meagre wages while the family awaits work permits. Responses to this type of poverty-based child labour usually involve making education more accessible. As well, even by trying to make education more affordable, many of the poorest families live in rural areas, where the difficulty to get schooling is amplified. Even if resources are made available, cultural values may make some families view education as inferior to gaining the knowledge and know-how of work and trade. This can be especially problematic in rural areas since the authorities usually pay less attention to them.

Sadly, just as the reality of the manufacturing business of the Industrial Revolution brought huge demands for child labour, many of today’s companies still seek to profit from child labour. Children can be paid less than adult employees, even if they practically perform the same work. Thus, children are a labour force that gives producers a bigger return. Just as in the 19th century, they are also easier to control, more susceptible to arbitrary discipline, and usually do not benefit from any trade union protections. Why are these companies still allowed to carry out such abuses? Unfortunately, it is mostly because enough international implementation of conventions against child labour has not been enforced. In countries where the problem is rampant, like in Bangladesh, with the clothing industries, they loosely follow anti-child labour laws. Meanwhile, both developed and developing countries just do not put in enough effort to keep themselves and each other in check.

It is clear that the most powerful weapon against the vicious cycle of child labour is international cooperation. Child labour is a global problem, and it is only through global cooperation that the end of child labour will actually become a feasible reality. Countries have put economic sanctions on others when weapons and other diplomatic issues are concerned, so why not extend this practice to enforce active international participation in closing in on and truly ending child labor? Aid must be provided to poor families so that their children are not forced to forgo an education, but this can only be done through global cooperation. Even if some programmes are already in place, it is not enough to have these types of initiatives thinly spread out.

True societal changes are only achievable through the participation of individuals, and through the force of a collective global movement. Simply denouncing its’ existence is not enough. One could very well be against child labour but indirectly support it through the products one consumes. That is why conscious consumerism is one of the best ways to force industries to be ethical about the production of their goods and services. Although methods like these already exist, we need them on a greater scale. Too many people in developed countries see child labour as something far away and non-existent in their own society, but this is simply not true.

For one, buying fair trade – and not just coffee – can significantly discourage unethical producers from continuing their practices. The final product is not necessarily the only thing produced by child labour; intermediate goods, like cocoa beans for making innocent looking chocolate bars, may have been harvested by children in Africa. In fact, most child labourers are exploited in the agricultural sector. Yes, fair trade products are usually more expensive, but are cheaper prices worth your conscious? Little changes in everyday consumer life can actually make a difference; that’s actually how most sustained changes have occurred!

No one can deny that children are the future of humankind. Many claim that we are in an era of modern progress, where ethics and morality are not limited to idealistic dreams. To people living through the Industrial Revolution, 2016 must have seemed like the time where human civilization would finally have reached its golden epitome. Though we have achieved remarkable progress in technology and science, we still have not been able to secure the future for our children. We still have not been able to achieve a safe world where all children have access to opportunities equally, and where children are not robbed of their childhood. June 12 is World Day Against Child Labour; let us all mark it on our calendars, and strive to make it the a remembrance day for when we finally abolish it.


The Organization for World Peace