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1. Prevalence of child labor
2. The economic cost of child labor
3. The relative harm of child labor
4. Child labor in the US
5. Child labor in Brazil
The International Labor Organization estimates that 246 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 currently work. This is about 15% of the world’s children, and about 35% of children in Sub-Saharan Africa. Worldwide, more than 10 million children are employed in drug-trafficking, sex work, and other hazardous labor (source).
There’s an interesting database about child labor here.
Child labor isn’t just a moral issue; it also has an economic cost:
In Brazil, according to two economists’ research, former child laborers are three times more likely to need their own children to work (source). Child laborers can’t developed their skills and risk condemning their own children to poverty and child labor. If you start your career as an unskilled laborer, you most likely will remain unskilled.
At the same time, it’s important to avoid sentimentality. When child labor isn’t directly coerced and isn’t a form of slavery one can reasonably argue that the children in question are better off than if international pressure or legislation leads to the eradication of child labor. After all, it isn’t as if most countries where child labor occurs can offer these children adequate education combined with a standard of living higher than abject poverty. Keeping them away from work doesn’t magically improve their situation. The opposite may be true: they are left without an income, and without the education that they should get. It’s not merely the fact that they work that’s causing them to forgo education.
It might “feel good” to oppose child labor, but the alternative for these children is not attending some nice school or relying on parental income; the alternative is an even lower standard of living if they cannot work. (source)
All this doesn’t mean that there are no cases in which the immediate abolition of child labor isn’t the best option. Or that the long term goal shouldn’t be the total eradication of child labor. Or that multinational companies can simply ignore their responsibilities because of the overall dreadfulness of the situation in a particular country they’re operating in.
Sure, the assumption that we’re talking about children who aren’t coerced is vague. Coercion can take several forms: a slave master coerces, but poverty also coerces.
I’ve pointed to a similar counterintuitive case when discussing to pros and cons of sweatshops: they are awful and certainly violations of a number of human rights, but the alternative is often even worse. (See here and here).
About 1 million children age 10 to 15 were working in America in 1920 (out of a total population of 12 million kids in that age range). About half worked on family farms. The rest did everything else, working in factories, trained as apprentices, and served as messengers.
In countries such as Brazil, however, child labor still exists today. It’s estimated that some 1.4 million Brazilian children, ranging in age from 5 to 14, are forced to work (source). The majority of those children work in rural areas, where poverty prevails and schools are few and far between.