Challenges and perspectives of child labor : Industrial Psychiatry Journal

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Challenges and perspectives of child labor

Radfar, Amir; Asgharzadeh, Seyed Ahmad Ahmadi1; Quesada, Fernando2; Filip, Irina3,

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Industrial Psychiatry Journal 27(1):p 17-20, Jan–Jun 2018. | DOI: 10.4103/ipj.ipj_105_14
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Child labor is one of the oldest problems in our society and still an ongoing issue. During the time, child labor evolved from working in agriculture or small handicraft workshops to being forced into work in factories in the urban setting as a result of the industrial revolution. Children were very profitable assets since their pay was very low, were less likely to strike, and were easy to be manipulated. Socioeconomic disparities and lack of access to education are among others contributing to the child labor. Religious and cultural beliefs can be misguiding and concealing in delineating the limits of child labor. Child labor prevents physical, intellectual, and emotional development of children. To date, there is no international agreement to fully enforced child labor. This public health issue demands a multidisciplinary approach from the education of children and their families to development of comprehensive child labor laws and regulations.


Child labor is an old problem well rooted in human history. Children were exploited to various extents during different periods of time. The problem was common in poor and developing countries. In the 1800's, child labor was part of economic life and industrial growth. Children less than 14 years old worked in agriculture, factories, mining, and as street vendors.[1] Children from poor families were expected to participate to the family income, and sometimes they worked in dangerous conditions in 12-hour shifts.[1]

In the 1900's, in England, more than a quarter of poor families lost their children to diseases and death, endangering their extra financial support.[1] Boys worked in glass factories in high heat in three shifts because the furnaces were kept fired all the time to increase productivity, while girls were forced into prostitution. In 1910, it was estimated that more than two million children in the United States were working.[1]

With the increase of education, economy, and the emergence of labor laws, child labor decreased. However, child labor is still a widespread problem in many parts of the world in developed and developing countries. With the development of agriculture, children were again forced to be employed mostly by the families rather than factories. The main cause of child labor is the lack of schools and poverty.[2]

Per International Labor Organization (ILO, 2002), in the world, there are 211 million children laborers, 73 million under 10 years of age, 126 million children work in the worst forms of child labor, and more than 8 million are kept as slaves for domestic work, in trafficking, armed conflict, prostitution, and pornography. More than 20,000 children die yearly due to work-related accidents. Nearly, one-third of the world's children work in Africa.[3] Countries such as India have made efforts to tackle the worst forms of child labor. Despite this, 56.4% of children aged 5–14 work in agriculture and 33.1% work in industry.[4] Indian children are forced into labor to pay family debt. They work sometimes in hazardous environments, being forced into commercial sexual exploitation, human trafficking, or forcibly recruited or kidnapped to be part of terrorist groups.[4]

Child labor is morally and ethically unacceptable. United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) was the first international body that signed in 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Children. It is for the first time in history when children are seen as humans with rights rather than economic assets of their parents. Child labor was defined as labor that harms the health of the children and deprives them of education rights. This law does not exclude children that work for their families.


Child labor has many facets from the ethical point of view. Autonomy, beneficence, justice, nonmaleficence, privacy, and veracity are endangered during child labor.[5] Utilitarianists would support the idea of child labor as long as they are the sole providers for the family and without their income, the family would not survive and as long as the labor is voluntarily provided. The ends justify the means. Forced child labor is unethical because it is against the autonomy of the children. The consent of the working child is mostly manipulated by the parents. To give consent, a child needs to understand the situation, the consequences, and voluntarily agree to work. Children of young age, who have a less than fully competent capacity, can assent to an action by getting involved in the decision-making process. Children fall easy victims to unfair job conditions, and they do not have the power to stand-up against mistreatments.[6] The maleficence of this act has long-term physical, psychological, behavioral, and societal consequences. Even if they are lacking the competency of making informed decisions, they are considered individuals with autonomy that should be protected and safeguarded.[6]

Child labor is more common in developing countries where more than 90% of children live.[3] Child labor in developing countries affects 211 million children.[3] The continent with the highest child employment rate is Asia with 61%, followed by Africa and Latin America. Nearly 41% of the children in Africa are below 14 years old, followed by Asia with 22% and Latin America 17%.[3] India has made progress in reducing the child labor. However, more than 4 million children in India between 5 and 14 years old work more than 6 hours a day, while about 2 million children aged 5–14 work 3–6 months in a year.[4]


Cultural beliefs have an important role in encouraging child labor. In developing countries, people believe that work has a constructive effect on character building and increases skill development in children. There is a tradition in these families, where children follow the parents' footsteps and learn the job from an early age. Some cultural beliefs may contribute to the misguided concept that a girl's education is not as important as a boy's education, and therefore, girls are pushed into child labor as providers of domestic services.[7] In India, not putting a child to work means the family would not make enough income to sustain their living. Sociocultural aspects such as the cast system, discrimination, and cultural biases against girls contribute to child labor.[4]


It is generally accepted that parents have the fundamental right to educate and raise their children. Parents almost always try to act in the child's best interest at the best of their knowledge and beliefs. In doing so, they are reasonably motivated by their intellectual growth, social development, and at times by spiritual salvation. Oftentimes, parents seek guidance in religion to shape the upbringing of their children and to enhance their progress. Hard work is among others, an important religious value to instill from a young age.

Krolikowski found that Christian children were the least likely to work, while Muslim children, children with no religion, and children affiliated with a traditional African religion were more likely to work than Christians.[8] The 40% higher incidence of child labor among Indian Muslims compared with Indian Hindus is due perhaps to the impoverishment of Muslim community.[4] Amish people's life is also regulated by religious values. They believe that work and faith bring people closer to God.[9] Amish children are initiated from childhood into apprenticeship to learn the trade, and beyond eighth grade, they have to provide like an adult for the community. Education of children beyond eighth grade is considered a threat to the community values. The U. S. labor laws forbid children less than 16 years of age to work in hazardous places such as sawmill or woodworking. However, in 2004 an exception was made by the United States Department of Labor, who approved an amendment that allows Amish children between 14 and 18 years old to work.[10]


Child labor is rooted in poverty, income insecurity, social injustice, lack of public services, and lack of political will.[7] Working children are deprived from a proper physical and mental development. The millennium development goals (MDGs), issued in 2001 to implement the Millennium Declaration, set up commitments for poverty reduction, education, and women's empowerment. Persistence of poverty is the major cause of labor. However, child labor also causes poverty because it deprives the children from education and from a normal physical and mental development hampering a prosperous life as adults. The first MDG in addressing poverty is the elimination of child labor.[11]

The International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) was created by ILO in 1992 to progressively eliminate child labor. The priority addresses the worst forms of child labor such as slavery, prostitution, drug trafficking, and recruitment of children in armed conflicts.[12] IPEC is working with stakeholders from many countries to increase strengths and promote the fight against child labor. IPEC engage with multiple organizations, international and governmental bodies, community-based organizations, religious groups, private plural form businesses, children and their families.

Policy reform was promoted through country-based programs. The capacity building of institutions has been increased to better understand the obstacles and increase the ability of obtaining sustainable measures. These measures were meant to decrease child labor and bring children back in schools. In all these processes, statistical data were collected at the worldwide level, methodologies were set in place, and guidelines were created.

The Child Labor Platform was created as a business-led initiative by ILO in 2012, to identify the obstacles of the implementation of ILO conventions at the community level and to come up with solutions. This platform is a win-win situation for all parties involved: stakeholders as well children and their families. This platform offers training, research, and specialized tools to member companies, so they can carry out activities against child labor. Eliminating child labor is part of the corporates' social responsibility in line with their values and is what the society expects from them. This platform provides information how to get involved and how to find businesses that work collaboratively with the communities to solve the problem. Training and knowledge is a real value added for companies.[12] The Indian Government implemented a national project deemed to assist population to eradicate child labor, and set in place enforcements of criminal and labor law.[4]


Despite all these international and national measures against child labor, there are arguments in favor of child labor. Some argue that poor families would be even poorer without the supplemental financial contribution of children. Lack of money will deprive them of the basic needs of food and shelter which will decrease their survival rate. In addition, an increase in poverty would make children even more susceptible to exploitation.

The supporters of these ideas argue that the benefit of creating a safe workplace and allowing children to work is helpful in certain situations. They also emphasize that child work is not child labor as long as it does not interfere with schooling and children have safe workplace conditions with a limited number of hours per day.[13]


The stakeholders most directly affected are the children and their families. Children are working at the expense of their education and normal mental development. Education is important not only for the intellectual development but also for the empowerment and acquisition of new skills for adult life. The health of children is endangered by work in hazardous conditions, abuse, exhaustion, malnutrition, or exposure to toxic materials. The psychological harm leads to behavioral problems later on in life.[14]

Despite the implementation of laws and measurements at the international level, child labor still persists, and it is caused by the same factors as 100 years ago. There is a need to address poverty and access to education. To date, there is no international agreement to define child labor. Every country has different laws and regulations regarding the minimum age for starting working based on the type of labor. The lack of international consensus on child labor makes the limits of child labor very unclear.[15]

Therefore, it is mandatory to create international policies that adopt a holistic approach to free quality education for all children, including labor children from poor families. Education should be continued beyond the primary school level and should be done in a formal setting. Studies show that nonformal education is a necessary but not a sufficient prerequisite for permanently withdrawing children from work.[15] The public educational system should be expanded to accommodate laborer children who still do not have access to school. More schools should be built, more teachers should be trained, and more educational materials should be available. A special attention should be given to children living in exceptional geographical conditions and mobility should be provided at the cost of the community. Children who dropped out of school should receive adequate guidance and support, and a smooth reentry should be facilitated. The development of schools in the rural areas would decrease the load of children in urban schools. This will allow parents to accommodate children's needs without having to migrate in big cities.

Another phenomenon that should be addressed is the social exclusion. Children engaged in the worst forms of child labor come from the lowest strata of the society. International Labor Organization launched a project on Indigen and tribal people, who are the most targeted by social exclusion. This project promotes their rights and encourages building capacity among their community.[15] Proper enforcement of child labor policies and the focus on education can break the cycle of poverty that drives the children into labor.


Child labor is a public health issue with negative outcomes that demands special attention. A multidisciplinary approach is needed to tackle child labor issues. Per ILO, poverty is a major single cause behind child labor. Lack of affordable schools and affordable education is another major factor to force children to work. Certain cultural beliefs rationalize this practice and encourage child labor as character building and skill development for children. Some cultural traditions encourage child labor as footsteps to their parents' jobs. Socioeconomic disparities, poor governance, and poor implementation of international agreements are among major causes of child labor. Macroeconomic factors also encourage child labor by the growth of low pay informal economy. Child labor prevents the normal well-being including physical, intellectual, and emotional psychosocial development of children. This public health issue cannot be eliminated by only enforcement of child labor laws and regulations. Any comprehensive policies should engulf a holistic approach on the education of children and their families, investment in early childhood development programs, establishing public education task forces in rural areas, implementing policies with focus on increasing adult wages, and discouraging consumers to buy products made by forced child labor. As such, ethical practice requires protection of all rights of children and protective policies and procedures which support the provisions of ILO's standards.

Financial support and sponsorship


Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.


The authors wish to thank the University Writing Center at A.T. Still University for assistance with this manuscript.


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Child labor; education; ethics; politics; poverty; religion

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