Child Labor Then and Now

Child Labor Then and Now: the Realities Around the World

This child labor essay reveals the realities of child labor as it exists now, as it has existed in the past, and what we can expect as to its potential for existence in the future. This is particularly important for interested readers who might be unaware of the issues of child labor then and now, or the many others who misunderstand the complexity of the matter.

It is fitting to discuss the status of child labor then and now, because 2021 was The International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor.

Child Labor as it Exists Now – A Review of the Numbers

The statistics relevant to child labor research have barely changed, if at all, on a global basis. As our previous report stated, “An estimated 218 million children as young as 5 years old are employed, and that at least 152 million are in forced child labor, according to basic facts about child labor published by the Child labor Coalition.”[1]

  • Children under the age of 12 perform up to a fourth of all hazardous child labor.
  • Almost half of all forced child laborers are between the ages of 5 and 11.
  • More than 134 million children in forced labor are in Africa and the region of Asia and the Pacific.

A Review of the Definitions

It would be a mistake to assume that only work as a bonded laborer, a slave or a victim of human trafficking are the only forms of child labor. Not all child labor is forced. Neither is all child labor hazardous. However, historically and currently, a large percentage of child labor is considered hazardous.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) currently estimates that:

  • 72 million children in Africa and another 62 million in Asia and the Pacific are engaged in some form of child labor.[2]
  • 73 million children, aged 5–17, work in dangerous conditions in a wide range of sectors, including agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, as well as in hotels, bars, restaurants, markets, and domestic service in both industrialized and developing countries.[3]
  • Around 22,000 children are killed at work every year.[4]

Child labor is defined by the ILO as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.”[5]

Advocates for the elimination of child labor often decry the plight of working children when that work deprives them of the opportunity to attend school on a regular basis, a point talked about later in this article.

The definition of hazardous child labor is only slightly different than that of the more generic child labor. Work is considered hazardous if, “by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children.”

Working long hours, at night, in confined space, around dangerous equipment, or exposed to toxic substances are a few circumstances that are considered to be dangerous.[6] The real question is how to stop child labor?

Child Labor as it Exists Now in Some Countries

  • 42 percent of the children in Burkina Faso do not attend school because they are working children. Although the country adopted a National Strategy to End the Worst Forms of Child Labor, “High rates of child labor have not decreased significantly over the past few years.”[7]
  • The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates that 12 million of its country’s children are working. An unnumbered majority are in forced domestic servitude. In August 2020, officials passed legislation making the domestic servitude of children illegal. It is, of course, too soon to measure the actual effect of the new law. Sadly, the motivation for the legislation was a growing accumulation of evidence of abuse and deaths among domestic child laborers, including the beating of 16-year-old Uzma Bibi, the abuse of 10-year-old Tayyaba Quein, and the abuse and death of 8-year-old Zohra Shah.[8]
  • Jamaican children are “often seen selling merchandise, washing car windshields, and begging for money.”[9]
  • Argentinians are known to be working illegally in textile mills, mining, construction or farming.[10]
  • An estimated 10,000 children in Madagascar work deep underground in mica mines. Their work includes lugging the ore to the surface, then sorting and processing it using razor-sharp tools.[11]
  • In an article dated January 24, 2021, The Arab News reported that at least 76,000 children in Jordan were working. The actual number of child labor stories are believed to be growing at a significant rate due to a dramatic increase in the poverty rate and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.[12]
Learn more about gender inequality in school

[1] Maki, Reid “10 Basic Facts about Child Labor Globally” Child Labor Coalition July 16, 2018.
[2] International Labor Association (ILO) Press release. 2021: International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor.–en/index.htm. January 15, 2021.
[3] ILO. What is hazardous child labor.–en/index.htm. Accessed February 2021.
[4] Ibid.
[5] ILO. Defining child labor.–en/index.htm. Accessed February 2021.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Lenahan, Daryn. Borgen Project. The Challenges for Children in Burkina Faso. January 7, 2021.
[8] Cornelissen, Natasha. Borgen Project. 5 Facts About Poverty in Jamaica. January 25, 2021.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Schmeck, Naomi. Borgen Project. Child Poverty in Argentina: A Crisis That Needs Action. January 12, 2021.
[11] U.S. Bureau of International Labor Affairs. News Release: 5 Fact About Child Poverty in Jamaica. February 9, 2021.
[12] Arab News. Coronavirus pandemic forces Jordanian children into labor market. January 24, 2021.