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  • Child labour deprives the child of a proper childhood. He is not able to get the nurture and care that is essential for his all round development. This may lead to many psychological imbalances which are often expressed in the form of increased aggressiveness, low self esteem etc.
  • A child labourer remains uneducated and is unable to take care of his own family when he grows up. This forces him to make his children work and thus the cycle is perpetuated. 
  • Children reach mental and emotional maturity at a very early age. This is highly dangerous as such children start displaying pseudo adult behaviour such as smoking and displays of aggression. 
  • Children and young people are often paid much less for work done than adults while being forced to work as much as adults. Thus pushing adults competing for jobs out of the market. 
  • Many children who work either withdraw from school or find that their educational performance declines because of the work they are doing. Lewis Hine summed this up best in these words: “There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profits only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits form their work.” 
  • Throughout history, children have been working under very unhealthy and hazardous conditions. Their working environments were so unsafe that fatal accidents were an everyday routine. Presently, there are about 250 million children under the age of 15 who are a part of the labor industry. The working conditions have not changed; in fact, they have gotten worse. 
  • Growth deficiency is prevalent among working children, who tend to be shorter and lighter than other children; these deficiencies also impact on their adult life
Some of the economic conditions under which child labour exists have been stated in the “Why Do Children Work? Theory and Evidence” section of this project. But apart from these economic reasons there are a number of cultural or systemic reasons responsible for this malice. A few of them are as follows:

Parental Illiteracy .

Many underdeveloped and developing countries such as India are plagued by the problem of widespread illiteracy. It is difficult for uneducated parents to fully understand the importance of education for their children. When faced with the tradeoff between sending their children to school or sending them to work, they often choose the one with the more immediate benefits. Also, a child’s willingness to learn is influenced by the attitudes of those around him. In the absence of an environment that encourages him to study, the child looses interest.

Tradition of making children learn the family skills

In India social structures have acquired a rigidity that makes it very difficult for an individual to break free of the strictures that direct him from the time he is born. People expect their progeny to follow in their footsteps. They are trained from their childhood in the profession that the family has been following since ages. Children are forbidden from exploring other avenues. Because of this, the children of labourers, craftsmen etc. start working with their parents at a very young age. They are thus unable to avail of a formal education.

Absence of universal compulsory Primary education

Although governments in many countries of the world promise free and compulsory education to all children, the logistics of implementation are often daunting in a country with a population as large as India’s. Compulsory primary education does not guarantee the elimination of child labour. A large number of child labourers go to school and work in the hours after that. But the biggest impact of literacy in the greater number of options that children have once they are through with their studies.

Ineffective Labour Legislations

The governing authority of our country has passed many laws which help in the abolishment of child labour but these laws have largely remained only on paper. Some of these legislations are: Employment of Children Act in 1938, The Juvenile Justice Act of 1981 and The Shop and Establishment Act of 1996. Due to large scale corruption and general apathy of the law enforcement agencies, these laws are very rarely implemented.

Lack of Social Security

India’s poor are mostly self employed or work in unorganized sectors which do not provide their employees with any sort of a pension. Once they are out of their jobs or in the case of the death of the breadwinner in the family, the households have no resort but to force their children to work.

Irrelevant and non-attractive school curriculum 

The curriculum followed in most schools is not designed to grab the attention of the student. With a heavy emphasis on rote learning, children are bored very soon and the opportunity to go out and work somewhere seems to be more appealing. Moreover very little technical training is imparted in schools. Even after devoting many years of their lives to schooling, the child is not equipped with any technical skills that will fetch him a decent wage in the market. Without some immediate benefits accruing to the children due to their education, the incentive to work is increased.

Lack of organization

Adult labour in a most industries is organized under trade unions which allows them to have a platform to express their grievances and through the might of collective action, fight against injustice. But children are incapable of organizing themselves into such unions. This forces them to work at the lowest of wages, in the worst possible conditions.

Bonded Child Labour 

There are many cases of child labor where a child has to work against the repayment of a loan which was taken by his father who was unable to pay it off. This is called as 'bonded child labour'. Bonded child labor normally happens in villages. Such children work like slaves in order to pay the loan taken. Not only poor families, but some well established business families also put their children into business at a quite young age instead of making them complete their education.


Children born out of wedlock, children with no parents and relatives, often do not find anyone to support them. Thus they are forced to work for their own living.
Child labour in some form or the other has always existed in societies all over the world. Children used to accompany their parents while working in the fields. Moreover they were also expected to help with household chores as well as taking care of the sick and elderly. As most of the work was being done under the watchful eyes of the parents, instances of exploitation were rare. Even today work of this sort is not considered exploitative.

The worst forms of the exploitation of children started during the Industrial Revolution. It was at this time that machinery took over many functions formerly performed by hand and was centralized in large factories. There was a large scale structural shift in employment patterns. Many artisans lost their jobs and were forced to work in these factories. But the owners of these factories realized that operating many of these machines did not require adult strength, and children could be hired much more cheaply than adults.

Children had always worked, especially in farming. But factory work was hard. A child with a factory job might work 12 to 18 hours a day, six days a week, to earn a dollar. Many children began working before the age of 7, tending machines in spinning mills or hauling heavy loads. The factories were often damp, dark, and dirty. Some children worked underground, in coal mines. The working children had no time to play or go to school, and little time to rest. They often became ill.

Many of the jobs that these children specialized in were very dangerous. E.g.: The youngest children in the textile factories were usually employed as scavengers and piecers. Scavengers had to pick up the loose cotton from under the machinery. This was extremely dangerous as the children were expected to carry out the task while the machine was still working. While the piecers had the job of fixing broken threads. It is estimated that these piecers walked almost 20 miles in a single day.

Another barbaric practice followed in Victorian times was the use of children as chimney sweeps. Children were also employed to work in coal mines to crawl through tunnels too narrow and low for adults. They also worked as errand boys, crossing sweepers, shoe blacks, or selling matches, flowers and other cheap goods. Some children undertook work as apprentices to respectable trades, such as building or as domestic servants. By 1810 about 2,000,000 children were working 50 to 70 hours a week. About 2/3rds of the total workers in the textile industry were children.
Church and labor groups, teachers, and many other people were outraged by such cruelty. They began to press for reforms. The English writer Charles Dickens helped publicize the evils of child labor with his novel Oliver Twist. Two Factory Acts were implemented in 1802 and 1809. Both these acts set limits on the maximum number of hours that a child was allowed to work in a day. But the implementation of these laws was lax and it had very little effect.

In the United States it took many years to outlaw child labour. Connecticut passed a law in 1813 saying that working children must have some schooling. By 1899 a total of 28 states had passed laws regulating child labor. Today all the states and the U.S. Government have laws regulating child labour. These laws have cured the worst evils of children's working in factories. But some kinds of work are not regulated. Children of migrant workers, for example, have no legal protection. Farmers may legally employ them outside of school hours. The children pick crops in the fields and move from place to place, so they get little schooling.

In India child labour has always existed in the agricultural sector. Children and their parents used to work together in the farms. Moreover the task of taking the cattle to graze was always allotted to children. Although this work was hard and tiring, it did not lead to a worsening of their future prospects. Schooling was not available in most villages and most of the jobs were still in the agricultural sector. So this work served as training for their future. Large scale exploitation of children in India began with the arrival of the British. Just as the case was in Great Britain, the new industrialists started hiring children who were forced to work in inhuman conditions. Laws against child labour were passed under Employment of Children Act of 1938. These attempts at legislation failed as they failed to address the root cause of child labour in India: poverty. Until and unless the populace was brought out of poverty, it was impossible to take the children out of the labour force.

Economic theories of child labour have, with a few exceptions, been based on some shared premises. First, that child labour is socially undesirable and its reduction a worthy goal. Second, that there are other, more desirable, activities in which a child can engage, namely school attendance and leisure. Third, that the child labour decision is a prerogative of the parent, not of the child. However, the parent is motivated not by narrow self-interest but by a rational and benevolent outlook which takes into account the welfare of the whole household, including that of the child. In this context, the parent shares in the undesirable consequences of child labour.

If parents dislike child labour, then the decision to impose it upon their children must be based on the economic conditions facing the household. It is fair to say that a single factor has been emphasized in all economic explanations of child labour: abject poverty. But in precisely what fashion does poverty influence child labour? This is where differences arise.

Child Labour and Adult Labour:

In 1998 Basu and Van showed that the link between child labour and poverty can be mutually reinforcing. They construct a model in which children can either work or enjoy leisure. Parents value the latter and not the former. However, child leisure is a “luxury” in that only sufficiently rich households can afford to “buy” it. Also, child workers can substitute for adult workers in the labour market, even though each child may be only fractionally as productive as an adult. This substitutability implies that entry into the workforce by children leads to a fall in wages for adults. This reinforces the absence of child leisure.

These possibilities bear several interesting implications. First, individual households have no control over which outcome occurs. Even if individual parents were to withdraw their own children from work, this would raise market wages only slightly; to move the wage sufficiently requires withdrawal of children by a significant proportion of households.

Child Labour and Credit Markets:

A second strand of research has studied the tradeoff between labour and schooling. This overlaps with a large and influential body of research, known as "endogenous growth theory". This theory maintains that long-run, sustainable growth is made possible by continuous increases in an economy's stock of knowledge. Education plays an integral part in this process by disseminating knowledge across the population. There are also spillover effects: in an economy where a large proportion of workers are educated, even the uneducated ones are more productive and receive high wages. A high incidence of child labour obviously interferes with these mechanisms of economic prosperity and growth.

Credit markets can affect the tradeoff between child labour and schooling. It is widely believed that by acquiring at least primary education, children are able to enhance their wage-earning potential later in life. Whether this is true or not is open to question, one that we shall discuss later on. In any case, any increase in wages accrues only after the schooling process is over, which could take five years at the minimum. During this period, the household forgoes the income the child could have earned by working instead. If households could borrow at reasonable terms against the child's higher future earnings, sending children to work might be unnecessary. In the absence of credit, however, the lost income from the child's formative years could very well tilt the balance against schooling. This implies that if credit markets allow households to borrow against their child’s future earnings, child labour will cease to exist so long as the returns from education are high enough.

A related theory put forward by Jacoby and Skoufias explained that parents treated child labour as buffers during harsh economic times: Children were sent to school during periods of relative prosperity and were made to work during the time of hardship.

Education Quality and Child Labour:

As mentioned in the preceding subsection, credit markets can affect the tradeoff between child labour and schooling. The extent of this tradeoff depends, inter alia, upon the returns to education, which in turn depend upon the quality of schools. Most economists assume that the returns to education are high enough so that in the presence of a perfectly functioning credit market, child labour would not exist. This is partly under the influence of the empirical literature on endogenous growth theory, which has found that higher schooling levels in developing countries can have growth-enhancing effects on their economies. However, even if the overall impact of schooling is positive, this does not mean that all schools in a country impart an education of sufficient quality to benefit its recipients.

Studies done in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa by Psacharopoulos report discounted returns on the order of 20-40 percent. Such rates of return imply that borrowing for children's education would be profitable even at interest rates of 20 percent per annum or higher. But studies by Jean Dreze indicate that in most rural parts of northern India the state of education was so bad that parents did not see the point of sending their kids to school.

Child Labour and Poverty Traps

While all economic studies touch upon poverty as a causal factor in child labour, one branch of the literature emphasizes the reverse, i.e. child labour as a cause of poverty. This literature studies child labour decisions for successive generations of the same family. In any generation, children who work do not go to school and do not acquire the skills needed to earn decent wages as adults. Upon becoming parents themselves, they send their own children to work. Yet another generation misses out on an education and, in its own turn, sends its own children to work. This vicious circle is known as a “poverty trap”.
Any discussion of child labour must begin with a precise description of what the term means. The phrase "child labour" conjures images of children chained into factories, sold as slaves, or forced into prostitution. Fortunately, while many children work in the developing world, few experience such atrocities. Most of these working children labeled "child labourers" are helping their family at home, on the family farm, or in the family business.

There is a huge amount of heterogeneity that prevails amongst scholars when it comes to defining child labour. We will look at some of the more widely accepted definitions.


The term “child labour” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.

It refers to work that:
  • is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and
  • interferes with their schooling by:
  • depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
  • obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
  • requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

UNICEF defines child labour as work that exceeds a minimum number of hours, depending on the age of a child and on the type of work. Such work is considered harmful to the child and should therefore be eliminated.
  • Ages 5-11: At least one hour of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work per week.
  • Ages 12-14: At least 14 hours of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work per week.
  • Ages 15-17: At least 43 hours of economic or domestic work per week.
Government of India:

India sought to prohibit child labour under THE CHILD LABOUR (PROHIBITION AND REGUALTION) ACT, 1986. The Government of India realized that complete abolition of child labour was not possible and hence drew up a list of occupations considered hazardous under Annexure A of the aforementioned Act. Some of these prohibited occupations are: Any work related to mines, plastic units, handlooms, foundries etc.

National Commission for Protection of Child Rights:

“The definition of child labour must encompass children working for the families in their own homes, children in agriculture work, work rendered by girl children and all other forms of work that deprives them of their right to education in a full-time, formal school. In other words, the definition of child labour must be inclusive and it should recognize all forms of child labour as prohibitive. Finally child labour must include children up to 18 years of age. The NCPCR calls for consonance between child labour law and the 86th amendment to the constitution of India which guarantees education as a fundamental right to all children in the 6-14 age group.”
I recently completed a class project on child labour. I will be publishing it in its entirety on the blog.


“There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want and that they can grow up in peace.”
-Kofi Annan

One in every five children aged 5 to 17 in the world today is involved in child labour, doing work that is damaging to his/her mental, physical and emotional development. These children risk their health and their lives and mortgage their lives as future adults.

These children work in a variety of industries, and in many parts of the world. The vast majority are in the agricultural sector, where they may be exposed to dangerous chemicals and equipments. Others are street children, peddling or running errands to earn a living. Some are domestic workers, prostitutes, or factory workers. All are children who have no fair chance of a real childhood, an education or a better life.
Children work because their survival and that of their families depends on it. Child labour persists even where it has been declared illegal, and is frequently surrounded by a wall of silence, indifference and apathy.

In totality there are estimated to be about 218 million child labourers. Of these 73 million working children are less than 10 years old. The realization of the full potential of a nation is closely wound with the quality of human capital it has. But when such large numbers of children are forced to work instead of study, the nation’s growth is stunted.

Child labour is often thought of as endemic to the underdeveloped parts of the world. But the sad truth is that no country is immune. There are 2.5 million working children in the developed countries and another 2.5 million working in the transition economies.

India is one of the worst affected countries. Conservative estimates peg the number of child workers at 20 million. For a country with aspirations of being seated at the high table of global economic powers, this is one problem that cannot be swept under the carpet.