The Tragedy of Child Labor

The following is an edited version of the article originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Working People.

The Problem

In May, Kathie Lee Gifford went on national TV to issue a tearful denial that her Wal-Mart line of clothing was produced by child labor in Honduras. In June, reports surfaced that Michael Jordan’s line of Nike sneakers are made by children in Indonesia working for 19 cents an hour.

Because of the ties to big names such as Kathie Lee Gifford and Michael Jordan, the child labor issue has recently won major headlines in newspapers and magazines across the country. But the problem of child labor is nothing new.

Early in this century, there was extensive use of child labor here in the U.S. as Americans worked through the growing pains of converting from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Although effectively eliminated from the U.S. today, the exploitation of children as workers exists as a major problem in many parts of the world. Estimates by human rights experts are that there are as many as 200 million children under the age of 14 who are working full-time. Because these children are paid little and do not receive an education, they have little chance of breaking the cycle of poverty in which they are caught.

The child labor problem is predominantly confined to under-developed countries. The economic reality is that children are typically paid one-half to one-third what is paid to adults doing comparable work. The children are often exposed to significant health hazards and subjected to extreme physical, verbal and even sexual abuse. While many children work to add to the family income, others are literally sold into bondage by their parents in return for money or credit.

In 1994, Congress directed the Department of Labor to conduct a review to identify foreign industries and their host countries that utilize child labor in the export of manufactured products to the United States. In conducting that review, the Labor Department used the definition of child labor established by the 1973 International Labor Organization Convention:

"The minimum age...should not be less than the age of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years...countries whose economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed [are allowed] to initially specify a minimum age of 14 years and reduce from 13 years to 12 years the minimum age for light work."

The Convention did not explicitly define "light work," other than it should not result in harming the health or development of young people and that it not interfere with their attendance at school or participation in vocational or training programs.

The Labor Department, in completing its Congressionally mandated review, quickly discovered that the scale of the child labor problem around the world is difficult to accurately evaluate because statistics are often hard to come by and of questionable validity. Many governments, especially among developing countries, lack the facilities to obtain accurate data on child labor practices. Frequently, these govenments are also reluctant to document what is not only a violation of international standards but often illegal under their own laws and reflects a serious failure of their domestic policy.

In spite of the limits in obtaining valid data, the International Labor Office (ILO) has estimated that the total number of child workers across the globe at 100-200 million. According to the ILO, more than 95 percent of child workers live in developing countries, with Asia accounting for more than half. In Africa, an estimated one in three children work and in Latin America the estimate is between 15 and 20 percent.

Children work in a wide range of economic activities. The greatest number work in family-based agriculture, services (domestic servants, restaurants and street vending), prostitution and in small-scale manufacturing (e.g., carpets, garments and furniture). Export industries that most commonly employ children include garments, carpets, shoes, small-scale mining, gem-polishing and food processing.

In some cases, government policies that promote exports of low-skilled, labor intensive products, such as garments and carpets, results in an increase in the demand for and use of child labor. The Labor Department concluded that without strong international pressure and corresponding international assistance to developing countries, child labor is likely to continue unabated.

In spite of the recent publicity that Wal-Mart clothing and Nike shoe products have received, targeting the use of child labor in a particular export industry can be quite difficult. The complex arrangements between a series of middlemen between the exporter and primary producer are frequently able to disguise the use of child labor. In addition, in industries such as shoe and garment manufacturing, parts fabricated in one country are sent to a second country for assembly before being exported to the United States.

When Nike was recently accused of having Michael Jordan’s line of sneakers made by 11-year olds in Indonesia at 14 cents an hour, Nike officials pointed to the fact that the sneakers carry the label "Made in Taiwan." That label, however, only indicates that the final assemby was done in Taiwan. It does not mean, however, that no portion of the sneaker line is made in Indonesia.

Why Children Work

Why are children forced to work when adult unemployment is so high in these under developed countries? There is a consensus among experts that child workers are generally less demanding, more obedient and less likely to object to their treatment or working conditions than adults. Children can also be easily taken advantage of and often are. The great majority of child workers work long hours for substandard wages under unhealthful conditions. They have few if any legal rights, can be fired without recourse and are often abused. While a few may be relatively well off compared with their peers, almost all are deprived of an adequate education.

The reasons why children work are many and often complex. Those seeking to explain the use of child labor frequently point to traditional patterns of economic behavior and maintain that child labor is a time-honored and inevitable fact of life. They view poverty and survival as the driving forces and often maintain that a significant reduction in child labor will only occur with industrialization and rapid economic growth.

Advocates for children’s rights challenge this analysis as too simplistic. They note that economic and social conditions vary from region to region and country to country. They argue that while poverty may be one very important contributing factor, other factors must also be taken into consideration. Varying by country, they also point to:

Economic self-interest - Factory owners who overwork, underpay and otherwise take advantage of vulnerable children.

Public indifference - Politicians, media and other public institutions who treat child labor as a non-issue.

Public policy - Export promotion policies that support industries without regard to their impact on child labor and inadequate resources devoted to education.

Government corruption - Government officials who not only condone but in many cases personally benefit from child labor.

Societal prejudice - Major portions of society that consider child labor among the less privileged a part of the natural order.

In summary, children work for a variety of reasons. Some work simply to survive. Others, in the absence of free and compulsory education, lack a meaningful educational alternative. Tragically, too many children, those in bonded labor, work to repay debts incurred by their parents. Still others are kidnapped or recruited by unscrupulous agents to work away from home as a source of cheap labor. While most apologists cite poverty as the principle cause of child labor, the amount of money earned by most child workers is generally a small contribution to the family income. Although children work because they are the victims of poverty, by working instead of being educated, they tend to perpetuate the poverty cycle.

Two Case Studies


An estimated 2.7 million children are actively working in Indonesia, according to a 1994 report by the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Although the extent of child labor in export industries is hard to measure, there is credible evidence of its use in the garment, food processing, furniture, footwear and mining industries. According to the Department of Labor report:

"Children begin work at the age of nine or ten, and enter full-time wage labor after leaving primary school at the age of 12 or 13. Most children work full-time, seven hours per day, and six days a week...In general, children are paid 6,000 to 9,000 Indonesian rupiahs (approximately $3.40-$5.10) per week."

Although Indonesia was one of the first countries to join the International Labor Organization’s Program on the Elimination of Child Labor, according to a U.S. State Department report on Indonesian Human Rights Practices, the Indonesian government, which continues to “commit serious human rights abuses” throughout the country, has done little to try and stem the growing tide of child labor use.

It is estimated that there are over 2.5 million children working in Indonesia, in spite of an unemployment rate for adults of over 30% and a federal minimum wage of only $2.25.


On April 16th, 1995, the shotgun slaying of a 12-year old boy in a remote Pakistani village drew international headlines. The boy, Iqbal Masih had, just a year earlier, been the youngest recipient of the international Rebbok Human Rights Youth in Action Award. Unfortunately, Iqbal’s story as a child laborer is not uncommon in today’s Pakistan.

At the age of 4, Iqbal was sold into bonded labor by his father for $12. For six years he was forced to work 16 hours a day in a carpet factory. At the age of 10, Iqbal escaped from his bondage and began to speak out against the abuses of child labor in Pakistan. His efforts eventually gained international attention and the Rebbok Human Rights Award. Unfortunately, the attention he drew to the problem was also, most believe, the cause of his untimely death at the hands of a still unknown assassin.

Pakistan is a poor country, with huge extremes in income distribution. Its per capita income is $450 per year and has a high rate of illiteracy. According to a recent U.S. State Department report, although the Pakistani government has pledged to address human rights concerns, particularly those involving women and child labor, "the overall human rights situation remains difficult."

It is estimated that more than 10 million children work in Pakistan, working 6 days a week at up to 10 hours per day. Children are used extensively in the carpet and soccer ball industries because their small hands and nimble fingers enable them to become particularly adept at weaving and stitching. Although Pakistan has put laws in effect to restrict the use of child labor, the government lacks the resources to efforce them. The lack of any federal requirement for compulsory education is also a major factor contributing to the continued use of child labor.

What to Do?

Advocates for children’s rights are divided as to the best strategy to address the problems of child labor. Many advocate abolishing child labor immediately; they argue that in the long run, developing countries would benefit both economically and socially from a public policy of strict enforcement of both compulsory education and minimum age laws. They argue that many countries actually have the resources for greater investment in education but lack the necessary political will. They believe that strict enforcement of both compulsory education and child labor laws would be much easier to administer than a more differentiated system and would reduce opportunities for corruption.

The majority of children’s rights advocates, however, believe that the immediate abolition of all child labor is unrealistic. They recommend that the first priority should be to abolish the most abusive forms of child labor, i.e., child prostitution, bonded labor and hazardous working conditions.

There is little likelihood, however, that the child labor problem will improve without a concerted international effort, led by the major industrialized countries. In the U.S., efforts to bring pressure to bear on offending countries through the threatened reduction of foreign aid and restriction on imports have so far failed. The U.S., because of its position as the world’s largest importer, could wield significant influence over the child labor issue. The influence of retailers and consumers’ desires for cheap products, however, has left Congress reluctant to act.

American workers must decide whether they’re willing to sacrifice some of those bargains to help children in foreign countries and the protection of their own jobs here at home. If child labor is eliminated, it may give a boost to economies in under-developed nations. That, in turn, would raise the overall world economy, which includes the U.S. The bottom line is that fighting child labor is not only the morally correct thing to do but is also in the long term self interest of American workers.