The world agrees that child labor needs to be eradicated. But not all child labor is bad, and we need a sensible approach that also combats poverty.
Ayu is a 13-year-old girl from a village in Indonesia, one of five children in a family that cultivates tobacco and other crops.
All of the children help with the tobacco crop. Ayu says she vomits every year while harvesting tobacco.
“My stomach is like, I can’t explain, it’s stinky in my mouth,” she told Human Rights Watch. “I’m always throwing up every time I’m harvesting.”
Ayu’s symptoms are consistent with acute nicotine poisoning. Her story is among many told by child workers in a recent 127-page report by the international rights group.
The small plot of land tended by Ayu and her relatives is one of 500,000 family farms that produce nearly all of the tobacco in Indonesia, the fifth largest producer in the world.
Thousands of Indonesian children, some as young as eight, are cultivating and harvesting tobacco. They are particularly useful because they can nimbly wrap tobacco leaves with their small hands and they earn very little, about $1.45 to $3.60 a day.
But the children can pay a high price. Their skin can turn black from exposure to toxins, a sign of nicotine poisoning. Children handling nicotine leaves are exposed to the same dangers as those who smoke cigarettes. They run the risk of cancer, respiratory and brain development problems.
Not all work is bad for children.
Child labor is defined by the International Labor Organization as “work that children should not be doing because they are too young to work, or — if they are old enough to work — because it is dangerous or otherwise unsuitable for them.”
Child labor is any work done by someone under the age of 12, non-light work by children aged 12 to 14 or hazardous work done by children aged 15 to 17.
But the United Nations agency is careful to point out that not all work done by children should be targeted for elimination.
“Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their education, is generally regarded as being something positive,” according to the ILO.
The ILO has set minimum ages for employment that take into account a country’s economic development. Young people can work in developing countries from the age of 14, and in developed countries by 15.
In some cases, child labor is linked to culture.
Today, 168 million children are working. Most are in developing countries such as Somalia, Indonesia or India. Many work to help sustain their families.
Often parents do not see the benefits of education as it brings no short-term income. Poverty is a leading factor contributing to child labor.
Children living in poverty perform all kinds of work. Market demand for children is often strong as they generally command lower pay. They do no belong to unions, a factor that can be particularly attractive to large firms. Children lack protection from the kind of dangerous working conditions prevalent on tobacco farms in Indonesia.
In some cases, child labor is linked to culture. Members of the Amish community — traditionalist Christians found in the U.S. states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, as well as in the Canadian province of Ontario — traditionally start working wood from a very young age.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court exempted young Amish from federal law, ruling that they could work in wood workshops from the age of 14.
Ironically, a ban can tempt more children to work, for lower wages.
There have been notable efforts to curb child labor around the world.
In 1990, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child, guaranteeing children’s basic rights. It has been ratified by all but two nations: Somalia and the United States
Then in 1999, the ILO adopted a treaty banning the worst forms of child labor such as slavery, prostitution, child soldiers and drug trafficking. To date it has been ratified by all but seven of the ILO’s 187 member states.
Although there is widespread agreement that child labor must be avoided and eventually abolished, it still generates ongoing debate.
Some hold that all child labor should be abolished so that children can focus on completing their basic education.
Others note that in many developing countries, children help families make ends meet. They argue that a blanket ban on child labor would drive children to work in unregulated environments and to face even greater dangers.
The U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research studied the effects of a ban that India imposed in 1986 on child labor. It concluded that, ironically, child labor increased and child wages decreased after the ban as employers were able to cut pay because the risk of unemployment rose. The increase in child labor came at the expense of reduced school enrollment, it said.
Because poor families often need child wages to survive, we should aim in the short term to regulate child labor while striving in the long term to improve a country’s educational system and economy. By improving a country’s overall welfare, we reduce the temptation for families to send their children to work.
The UN has set a goal of eradicating all forms of child labor by 2025. By giving the world nearly a decade to achieve this laudable aim, member states recognize that child labor is a complex problem that is linked to poverty and economic development.
Lukas Jansen is a first-year undergraduate student at King’s College London, studying War Studies and Philosophy. He is passionate about geopolitical international issues and hopes to work in either journalism or strategy in the future.