Banning Child Labour Alone is Pointless,
Tackle Poverty Instead

Published Nov 2012 - Updated Jul 2013

Child labor in Africa
1 in 5 children on earth

There is an estimated 200 million children forced to work across the globe. That’s without taking into account the other 150 million considered “economically active”, working part time jobs, sometimes just to help out a bit their families, sometimes because they don't have a choice.

Aside from cases of children running away or being abandoned, most of the time they work because they have to, because their parents need them to. Everybody has to chip in so that the family can make ends meet.

A war on child labour?

The cost of an all-out war on child labour is estimated at $750 billions over a period of 20 years. This is an enormous amount of money but it should be offset by the economic benefit of educating and preserving a whole generation - who would otherwise die at an early age or suffer lifelong consequences of their early labouring years. This benefit is estimated at 4 trillion dollars.

However, you’d have to wait twenty years to see it come to an end, and politicians often aren't the most patient of all people. But if the Millennium Development Goals, ending this year in 2015, have demonstrated anything it's that with enough willpower and a stubborn international community, the people can bring such a daunting task to the agenda and force governments to make it a priority.

How to approach child labour?

  1. Families shouldn't be blamed and cut from any kind of social support they may be allowed to, on the contrary;
  2. If you do ban child labour but don’t do anything to support the families, everything will only get worse for everyone in the household. New forms of child poverty will then kick in, to begin with malnutrition.

Read also about child labour:

Causes and effects of child labour

Causes of child labour

Most of child labour is caused by the imperial need to survive. In any family this forces everyone to contribute as much as they can. The trade-off for the children’s future is the direct profit to the household.

Although child soldiers and child workers in the sex industry have higher profile in the media, most kids are in fact involved in farming and factory work. Both also include very serious health damages (e.g. hazardous smokes and pesticides). Putting your kids' health at risk in order to survive isn't a choice any parent should have to make in his or her life.

What is child labour exactly?

Nevertheless let’s not get carried away too quickly here, many forms of work do help kids, namely when it helps them learn new skills, make pocket money or just help out the family business. Anyhow it will be considered child labour, any activity that entails physical or mental harm or preventing the child from going to school. Here too, poverty is tied to culture and context.

Child soldiers: the most extreme form of child labour

Child soldiers are often enrolled  (and drugged up) to take part in conflicts in Africa

An issue fueled by African conflicts

The UNICEF gives an estimation of around 250,000 child soldiers enrolled in dozens of conflicts around the world. The bulk of them is “employed” in Africa, with more and more children taking part in the conflicts that tear many countries and families apart.

Rebels and anti-government groups are particularly fond of this type of recruits since they have limited access to adults and also because children are much easier to manipulate, if not brainwash. And they hardly question orders, useful! No need to say that getting them back to a normal life after such experience is close to a miracle.

Disposable children

Poverty and instability only send more boys and girls to join such groups - whether they are kidnapped or not. As you would expect, the fate of girls is much worse. They’ve got two jobs for one: soldiers and sex slaves. The widespread and cheap use of automatic fire weapons seems to have lowered the value given to life, in particular that of children. These kids aren't meant to last very long and their rebel leaders are not counting on them to build any future.

Child soldiers in Central African Republic

Profound changes in warfare

The nature of war has undergone huge changes and thus had great effects on poverty and child labour. A hundred years ago, most deaths in conflicts were soldiers, fifty years ago half of them were civilians and nowadays the majority of casualties are civilians.

They’re more and more targeted and killed for political and symbolic purpose (ethnic tensions, psychological effect on the population (terror),…), particularly in African conflicts.

Child soldiers are pretty cheap labour, they rarely pressure their superiors for payments and are often taught to pay themselves through looting and raping. They’re “trained” not to fear death, and to develop their sense of sacrifice.

Here, the intensive use of drugs comes in handy. The movie Lord of War (read here about the real man behind the story) offered a depiction of the use of “brown-brown”: a mix of cocaine and gunpowder, the latter amplifying the effects of the drug on top of being a powerful symbol of strength and indestructibility.

Back to a normal life?

When trying to help them recover from such traumas, it’s essential not only to treat psychological damages but also to replace whatever they’ve been taught for years by new knowledge and training that help them rediscover themselves as unique individuals as well as will keep them busy.

They’ll re-learn by practicing something concrete (just as they did in the first place), thus a strong emphasis must be put on providing education and professional skills training. Overall eliminating the use of children in armed conflicts requires a comprehensive development policy. Peace and social stability must be achieved, poverty must be reduced, education must be developed, vocational training must be made available, and so on.

Putting children's health at risk

Child labor in Indian slums


In many cases, when one or both parents suffer from a serious disease they find themselves forced to ask their children to work. In poor areas, diseases spread fast and the absence of any kind of social safety net or labour protection law in developing countries means that parents can’t take any kind of leave from work without losing precious money for the household’s survival.

In this regard HIV/AIDS has not only orphaned millions of children, it also starts by weakening their parents and making them unable to work. Slowly children come to walk the labour path. The situation is all the more dramatic when the infection is widespread, making a country's economy dependent upon children's work.

Work-related diseases

Severe lung diseases caused by dust are among the most common among child workers, who often take jobs in mines and other low construction stuff such as laying bricks, without any protection whatsoever. Children doing farm work are regularly exposed to pesticides and other chemicals along with poisonous bites from all kinds of animals.

This makes them very vulnerable to malaria, severe fevers and other tropical diseases. As for children working as scavengers in waste dumps, they’re exposed to almost everything cited before plus additional threats from heavy metals and other dangerous chemicals...

... Far from Disneyland, aren’t we?

Effective policies and strategies

Child workers in Pakistan

Rebuilding trust & educating communities

It's crucial to involve the children themselves in the war against child labour. This would improve communication in both directions: better and more accurate information for the researchers and policy-makers, and better spread of information to the children through simple word-of-mouth. Too often they have no idea of the existence of special programs dedicated to helping them re-integrate the society and normal life. And too often they have learned to mistrust adults.

In several countries, street children know that if they get arrested it means beating, whipping, and camps where things get only worse - down to sexual abuses. To avoid extreme situations like this, it’s fundamental to reinforce and foster the bonds within families and between families at the community level, as well as to develop infrastructures that will help parents not getting sick or cope with diseases and get back on the job market. A couple of successful programs in Latin America have provided grants as well as health check-ups for children who regularly attend school, and the funds are very well targeted on the poorest of the population.

Bans are useless, fight poverty instead

Economic sanctions against child labour that try to set international labour standards seem to have positive impacts at first. Indeed, this causes the price of banned goods to decrease and thus kids are paid less in return. This should in theory give them less incentive to keep on working. But, governments miss the heart of the problem. If the kid is forced to work to sustain his family, then you have dragged the whole family into poverty with this anti-child labour policy.
Mission...not accomplished.

This is why it’s a complex and counter-intuitive problem. Child labour can only be fought by anti-poverty policies. Or else, children will most certainly move to more profitable “professions” such as prostitution, crime, child “soldiering”… or if they’re good kids they’ll simply sit there and starve. When fighting child poverty and child labour it’s key to keep a broad view of the problem and the consequences of any action to avoid making things worse. The best thing to do in any case remains to better the school system and provide incentives for children and parents to improve school attendance.

On the whole... what should we do?

The role of the state

Lastly, what this tells us is that the state has a great role to play in poverty reduction and that free trade alone won't do much ,quite the opposite in fact. Governments should be there to set the rules of the market (and observe their use), fix any distortion or even improve it.

But most of all, their role is to empower and ensure that every citizen can fully participate in the country’s social, economic and political life. This means that adults should be able to find a decent job, participate in politics (raise issues of concern such as health, sanitation, education). This implies that the place of children is in schools or learning environments so that our future is being secured... and their lives preserved.

No silver bullet

The ultimate tool against child labour is poverty reduction.

There is no other twisted or simple fix to it and studies have gathered tons of evidence over time: the problem disappears as poverty does.

Poverty here should be understood in a broad sense since phenomena such as marginalization of certain social groups leads to increased number of children having to work to help the household cope with poverty.


  • A Cross-National Study of Child Labor and Its Determinants, Joelle Saad-Lessler, The Journal of Developing Areas 2010
  • International Labor Standards and the Political Economy of Child-Labord Regulation, Matthias Doepke, Fabrizio Zilibotti, Journal of the European Economic Association 2009
  • An Overview of Child Labour Statistics, Charita L. Castro, Child Labour: A Public Health Perspective 2010
  • Child Labour and Health: Changing the FutureAnaclaudia G. Fassa, David L. Parker, Thomas J. Scanlon, Child Labour: A Public Health Perspective 2010
  • Children’s work and children’s rightsRenata M. Coimbra Libório, Silvia H. Koller, Child Labour: A Public Health Perspective 2010
  • Segmentation in the Market for Child Labor: The Economics of Child Labor Revisited, James G. Scoville, American Journal of Economics and Sociology 2002
  • The Political Economy of Child Labor and its Impact on International Business, S.L. Bachman, Business Economics 2000

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