Child Labor in the Third World

Sarah Kalmes

The problem of child labor has become an ever-increasing concern among many nations. Many of the worst child labor offenses take place in Third World countries. Throughout these nations, children are being forced to work long hours in terrible conditions for little or no money. To fully understand child labor, one needs to address the reasons for supporting and opposing child labor, its effect on underdeveloped countries’ economies and the child laborers, and what is being done to combat child labor.

Child labor can be defined as mostly full-time work of children under the age of 14 in situations that are damaging to health, education, or moral development- for pay or no pay. The most common type of child labor is bonded labor, in which workers agree to sell their labor in exchange for a lump sum payment, such as a medical bill. These debts are usually impossible to repay. Therefore, the debt is passed down from generation to generation. Bonded children may also be kidnapped, exported as prostitutes or camel riders, or "recruited" to work in factories and plantations. These children may perform a variety of tasks. They may work in brick kilns, assemble shoes, mix gunpowder for firecrackers, or work at carpet looms.

Although many nations object to child labor, many Third World countries believe it is an acceptable and necessary way of life. Some Third World countries argue that child labor is inevitable for societies at an early stage of industrial development. While trying to achieve this development, poverty and underdevelopment cause child labor to be a necessary, if unfortunate, aspect of modernization in poor countries. In the majority of Hindu societies, for instance, there is a natural division of labor (castes), and members of lower castes should start training for their lot in life at an early age. Little children can be efficient at many unskilled and semi-skilled tasks, and these children of the lower castes are actually meant to work rather than attend school. Another argument is that it is naive for Western societies to apply their standards to other countries and cultures. It is argued that Western societies need to respect the local cultures and customs of different nation. Finally, ending child labor is not a guarantee that the well being of the child will be improved. Many of these children need to work to sustain life, and if they can not work in the formal or legal sectors of the economy, they will find jobs in the informal sector. It may force children from productive jobs into prostitution and dangerous life on the street.

While many Third World nations feel child labor is necessary, many developed nations strongly oppose the practice. They believe that exploiting children is immoral and unethical. The majority of these nations have laws protecting their own children from the possibility of exploitation in the workforce. Opponents of child labor believe that childhood should be a period devoted to training and education, not work. Furthermore, they feel that children have the right to be children and to enjoy their youth. Instead of enjoying their young years, these children are forced to work long days in cruel circumstances and receive little or no money. Child labor also generates poverty. Children work for much lower pay rates than adults, so employers prefer to hire children rather than adults. This phenomenon becomes a vicious, self-defeating circle: child labor increases unemployment among adults, but employment of children also forces adults to put their children to work. These children work in terrible conditions to support their families financially. Opponents of child labor claim that it is a blatant violation of human rights and needs to be abolished in order to protect the children’s welfare and to generate a more productive economy.

Despite the controversy, child labor is becoming more popular and desirable among Third World countries as it is beneficial to these countries’ economies. The number of children participating in child labor is rapidly increasing, for access to the international market has caused export oriented countries to demand cheap labor. Macro-economic policies have encouraged growth in export oriented countries, which have, in turn, increased their supply of child laborers. Many Western companies drastically reduce their cost of production by sending their unfinished goods overseas to be assembled by cheap laborers. These laborers are usually children, and they are profitable and exploitable for employers. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) makes it illegal for any country to ban products simply because they were made by children. This enables employers to use desperate children to work for very cheap wages, which produces profit for them.

Although child labor may be beneficial to Third World economies, it has many negative effects on the children providing that labor. Child laborers usually work in extremely harsh conditions for long periods of time and are paid little if anything at all. They are locked in rooms for several hours and sometimes chained as prisoners. Some of the children are kidnapped and later sold as slaves. Employers may beat the children, brand them with hot irons, hang them upside down from trees, withhold food, or force them to stand on their heads for ten to thirty minutes. These children are confined to small cramped quarters every day. As a result, the odds of spreading and contracting diseases are quite high. Many laborers contract silicosis, tuberculosis, and a variety of other diseases from their co-workers. They are also more susceptible to injury and long- term emotional damage. Often times, these children are severely injured or killed while at work.

Due to the horrific conditions that these children endure at work, many things have been done to combat child labor. Many Third World countries have ordered local authorities to raid factories that employ children and to prosecute the employers, which may mean levying fines against violating employers and/or two to five years in prison. The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) has also devoted attention and resources to the fight against child labor. The Harkin-Brown bill bars the United States from importing products made or imported by children under the age of 15 and directs aid toward programs to eliminate child labor. A major individual campaigner against child labor is an Asian named Kailash Saturthi. He chairs the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), which is a non-governmental group that frees children from child slavery. Frequently, the organization will literally storm into factories and free bonded children. Many companies have also started combating child labor by requiring their suppliers to prohibit the employment of children under the age of 14.

Child labor is a severe and complex problem that can not be solved easily. Although slavery is outlawed in almost every country, it is frequently practiced and rarely punished. Winning the war against child labor will come through the spread of literacy and education, not trade sanctions. In the immediate future, international attention will be focused on the protection of children working in dangerous jobs and inhumane situations. The education of children from Third World countries will also help eliminate poverty from these developing nations, which, in turn, will someday eliminate child labor altogether.

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