“Children, now part of the productive process, are treated as economic goods rather than society’s future.”—Chira Hongladarom, director of Human Resources Institute, Thailand.

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THE next time you buy a doll for your daughter, remember that it may have been manufactured by young children in Southeast Asia. The next time your son kicks a soccer ball, reflect on the fact that it may have been stitched by a three-year-old girl who, along with her mother and four sisters, earns 75 cents a day. The next time you buy a carpet, consider that it may have been woven by the nimble fingers of six-year-old boys who work long hours day after day under abusive conditions.

How prevalent is child labor? What is it doing to children? What can be done to remedy the situation?

child labor
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The Scope of the Problem

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the number of working children between 5 and 14 years of age in developing countries is estimated to be 250 million. It is believed that 61 percent of them are in Asia, 32 percent in Africa, and 7 percent in Latin America. Child labor exists in industrialized countries also.

In southern Europe a large number of children are found in paid employment, especially in seasonal activities, such as farming, and in small workshops. Recently, child labor has increased in Central and Eastern Europe following the transition from Communism to capitalism. In the United States, the official number of child laborers is 5.5 million, but that does not include the many children under 12 who are illegally employed in sweatshops or as seasonal and migrant workers on large farms. How do these millions of children become part of the work force?

The Causes of Child Labor

Exploitation of poverty. “The most powerful force driving children into hazardous, debilitating labour is the exploitation of poverty,” says The State of the World’s Children 1997. “For poor families, the small contribution of a child’s income or assistance at home that allows the parents to work can make the difference between hunger and a bare sufficiency.” The parents of child workers are often unemployed or underemployed.

They are desperate for a secure income. So why is it that their children are offered the jobs instead? Because children can be paid less. Because children are more docile and malleable—many will do whatever they are told to do, seldom questioning authority. Because children are less likely to organize resistance against oppression. And because they do not strike back when they are physically abused.

Lack of education. Sudhir, an 11-year-old boy from India, is one of the millions of children who have dropped out of school and started working. Why? “In school, teachers would not teach well,” he answers. “If we asked them to teach us alphabets, they would beat us. They would sleep in the class. . . . If we did not understand, they would not teach us.” Sudhir’s assessment of school is tragically accurate. In developing countries, cuts in social spending have hit education particularly hard.

A UN survey carried out in 1994 in 14 of the world’s least developed countries revealed some interesting facts. For example, in half of these countries, classrooms for the first grade have seats for only 4 out of every 10 pupils. Half of the pupils have no textbooks, and half of the classrooms have no blackboards. Not surprisingly, many children who attend such schools end up working.

Traditional expectations. The more hazardous and the harder the job is, the more likely it is to be left for ethnic minorities, the lower classes, the disadvantaged, and the poor. Regarding an Asian country, the United Nations Children’s Fund notes that “the view has been that some people are born to rule and to work with their minds while others, the vast majority, are born to work with their bodies.” In the West, attitudes are not always much better.

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The dominant group may not wish their own children to do hazardous work, but they will not lose any sleep if young people from racial, ethnic, or economic minorities do such work. In northern Europe, for instance, child laborers are likely to be Turkish or African; in the United States, they may be Asian or Latin-American. Child labor is aggravated by a modern society that is preoccupied with consumerism. Demand for low-priced products is high. Few seem to care that these may be produced by millions of anonymous, exploited children.

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Awake 1999 published by Jehovah’s wittnesses