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Child labour

Child labour is one of the topic that presents strong emotions, beliefs and opinions. Most people are opposed to the involvement of children in labour force activities when they are at an age when other activities, such as education and play, should be the central role in development. However, child labour represents an extremely difficult and complex issue which often extends beyond emotions, beliefs and opinions. Much of this has to do with the understanding that a wide variety of factors, such as economic, cultural, social, political and legal concerns, are part of any child labour problems as well as the solution to these problems. With this in mind, the purpose of this paper will be to discuss the issue of child labour on a national and an international scale. This will not only include an evaluation of it prominence and any problems that are associated with the use of child labour, but also an examination of the efforts that are being made to discourage national and foreign markets who employ children.

In many respects, the issue of child labour on a national scale, at least from a Canadian perspective, is one that is quite limited. Much of this has to do with the fact that a significant amount of powerful legislation and enforcement of this legislation is available. For example, the Ontario Employment Standards Act states that individuals under the age of 18 must be paid a minimum of $6.40 per hour1. Furthermore, through the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act, regulations have been created which allow for a minimum age of 16 for logging activities, 15 for factory activities other than logging, and 14 for activities other than factory work2.

Unfortunately, an examination of child labour on an international scale reveals the extent to which this situation exists, as well as the degree to which problems can arise. "A systematic estimate, undertaken in 1985, calculated around 31 million street children worldwide, of whom 71 percent were child workers living at home, 23 percent kept occasional family contact, and 8 percent were entirely separated"3.

While the number of child workers is significant, it is equally apparent that the reasons why they are involved in employment can attributed to a number of specific causal factors. "It is almost universally accepted that poverty is the main cause of child work in developing countries"4 . However, while poverty is an important causal factor, it is often the case that it is not the only factor. For example, some studies have indicated that some child workers "...are from relatively affluent families, and engage in the business for excitement and pocket money"5. This would seem to suggest that "...cultural and economic factors here interact in complex ways to encourage child work and need to be understood together"6.

An examination of existing trends regarding child labour often reveals contradictory and even disturbing developments. More specifically, official data from most countries have shown "...a gradual, long-term decline in child labour, but many experts assert that recent economic crisis in the developing countries has led to an upsurge in juvenile workers"7. Even though child labour is primarily found in developing countries, and that this can be largely attributed to the economic, social and cultural environment, there is some indication of a resurgence in this activity in industrialized countries. Much of this activity also happens to be everywhere and familiar, such as a child who shines shoes for a living, who is at home tending younger children or who is helping in a family farm and business working such long hours that it is impossible to play or even attend school. If anything, this emphasizes that much of the attention that has been focused on child labour has dealt with the problems that can arise. Here we find that "...the potential for gross exploitation and loss of childhood is considerable. Economic exploitation leaves the young worker in an extremely vulnerable situation"8.

Given the problems that can occur as a result of the use of child labour, this immediately focuses attention on what is being done to discourage national and foreign markets who employ children. In light of the prominence of economic factors in the cause of the problems associated with child labour, it is not unusual to find that solutions are often directed this way as well. This refers to the fact that "...some have claimed that the best way to deal with child labour is to stimulate rapid and broad-reaching economic expansion that will create ample adult employment, rendering child work superfluous"9. Attempts to implement change in this way involve instruments such as economic policies and regulations, especially wage and price policies.

But the examination of the issue of child labour also reveals that a wide variety of factors, beyond those that are economic, can contribute the development of such a situation. Most experts accept that economic progress is the most fundamental cure for child labour problems, but additional interventions are also required until acceptable levels of economic level and income equality have been achieved. One of these is education, "...which is considered a more important and appropriate activity for children, and which is often made compulsory up to a certain level or age"10. Another is the development of social security and assistance policy. This reflects the fact that "...child protection - including the reduction of child labour - was an important reason in various countries for establishment of social security and other welfare programs11.

An examination of what is being done to discourage national and foreign markets who employ children workers also reveals that a strong, broad-based international commitment to the elimination of child labour. More specifically, most countries in the world, even those with large numbers of working children, are involved in one or more international agreements that enforce a commitment to reducing child labour. Examples of these include the International Labour Organization's Minimum Age Convention (1973), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) as well as the World declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children (1990)12.

In conclusion, an examination of the issue of child labour on a national and an international scale reveals a number of important points. First, while the issue is generally one that is associated with economic difficulties and especially with developing countries, it is equally apparent that child labour can be found in industrialized countries and can be the result of a wide variety of factors, such as social and cultural influences. Second, problems that can arise from an environment in which child labour is used include the potential for gross exploitation as well as the loss of childhood, which are considerable implications of such a situation. Third, efforts to discourage national and foreign markets who employ children workers tends to reflect the development of such a solution. More specifically, economic progress is important, however, it is equally apparent that a great deal of significance can be attached to improvements in education and social security or assistance policies as well as the development of international agreements that deal with this issue.


Bequele, A. and Myers, W. E. First things first in child labour. Geneva: International Labour Organization, 1995.

Black, Maggie. In the twilight zone: Child workers in the hotel, tourism and catering industry. Geneva: International Labour Organization, 1995.

Government of Ontario. Information for Students Working in Ontario. Toronto: 1995.

Government of Ontario. Regulations for Industrial Establishments. Toronto: 1990.

Myers, William E., ed. Protecting Working Children. London: Zed Books Ltd., 1991.

1 Government of Ontario, 1995, p. 1.

2 Government of Ontario, 1990, Section 4.

3 Black, 1995, p. 9.

4 Myers, 1991, p. 9.

5 Myers, 1991, p. 9.

6 Myers, 1991, p. 9.

7 Myers, 1991, p. 9.

8 Black, 1995, p. 43.

9 Bequele and Myers, 1995, p. 33.

10 Bequele and Myers, 1995, p. 35.

11 Bequele and Myers, 1995, p. 34.

12 Bequele and Myers, 1995, p. 88.

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