Econ-Atrocity: The Scourge of Child Labor

By Sevinc Rende, UMass Amherst Department of Economics

Child labor was once considered a problem of the past, but with 186 million children working as laborers across the world, it is very much a problem of today. Activists, the media, academics, and those discussing labor standards in international institutions have all played a part in creating awareness around this issue.

Around 110 million of child laborers – almost 60% – are under the age of twelve. More than half of all child laborers work with hazardous chemicals or in confined spaces. The Asia-Pacific region harbors the most child laborers in terms of absolute numbers, but the sub-Saharan Africa has the highest percentage of its children at work. Yet, if 129 nations have agreed to the elimination of child labor, why is child labor so widespread? What do we actually know about these children and their economic circumstances? As a result of decade long research and data collection, today we can outline broadly what we know about the world’s child laborers.

Child labor has attracted attention at the global scale first with the well-known “nimble fingers” argument. But demand for child labor is not because they are better able to pick jasmine flowers or weave hand-knotted carpets. It is because they are docile while doing monotonous work, they take orders well, and they are unaware of their rights. Aside from the export-oriented sector, child labor is more prevalent at family-run businesses and particularly farms. Overall, child labor is more common in rural areas than in urban areas.

The type of work that children perform differs according to gender. Girls are often recorded by international agency surveys as “idle,” meaning they neither attend school nor work. One-fourth the girls in Cameroon and one-half in Yemen are “idle.” But this accounting system is misleading. At home, girls perform housework and childrearing duties either helping other adults or as a substitute for adults who need to work in the labor market. Girls are at work, but at a different kind of work than boys.

Country studies reveal that for children in many countries, work and school are not mutually exclusive. Most children combine work and school, and for some of them, like the children in Colombia, work is even necessary to finance the cost of education. However, evidence from Cambodia and Philippines indicates that working long hours is detrimental to children’s learning outcomes. A skilled and educated workforce is crucial to the development of an economy, so aside from moral arguments about child labor, the lack of educational attainment is a strong economic argument against it.

Poverty is often cited as a major cause of child labor because it is more prevalent in poor countries than in advanced countries. But amongst developing countries, this relationship does not necessarily hold. While Ghanaian families living in poverty send their children to work for wages, household income or asset levels are not significant factors in the parents’ decision in Peru and Zambia. Moreover, one study showed that there may even be a “wealth paradox”. In Pakistan, for example, the daughters of families with large land holdings work for longer hours than the daughters of less affluent families.

Today, child labor continues to be a problem on a massive scale, though progress is being made in getting children out of harmful work and into school. With increasing commitments from governments, international organizations, and NGOs working in the field, small steps forward are being taken in supporting families to develop better, more secure livelihoods, and in preventing increasing numbers of children from being drawn into child labor.

Web sites that might be of interest on child labor:

Child Rights Information Network:

Global March Against Child Labor:

International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour:

Understanding Children’s Work:


Basu, K. and Z. Tzannatos (2004) “The Global Child Labor Problem: What do we know and what can we do?” World Bank Economic Review, forthcoming

Bhalotra, S. and Z. Tzannatos (2003) “Child Labor: What have we learnt?“, Social Protection Discussion Paper Series, World Bank, No. 0317 (203k pdf)

Biggeri, M. , L. Guarcello, S. Lyon and F. Rosati (2003) “The Puzzle of ‘Idle’ Children: neither in school nor performing economic activity. Evidence from six countries” Understanding Children’s Work Project Working Paper Series. (290k pdf)

Brown, D., A. Deardoff, and R. Stern (2003) “Child Labor: Theory, Evidence and Policy” in International Labor Standards: History, Theories and Policy, eds. K. Basu, H. Horn, L. Roman and J. Shapiro, Blackwell, forthcoming

Dorman, P. (2001) “Child Labor in Developed Countries” ILO / IPEC policy papers, ILO – Geneva

ILO (2002) Every Child Counts: New Global Estimates on Child Labor: Geneva, International Labor Organization

Ray, R. and G. Lancaster (2003) “Does Child Labor Affect School Attendance and School Performance? Multi Country Evidence on SIMPOC data” School of Economics, University of Tasmania, Discussion Papers: 2003-04.

© 2004 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities are a periodic publication of the Center for Popular Economics. They are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.