What is Child Labor?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

When people under the age of majority are employed in continuous work, this practice is considered “child labor.” The definition of child labor can be challenging to pin down, because different cultures have different definitions of “child” and “sustained labor,” and this can make the formulation and enforcement of laws which are designed to eliminate child labor rather difficult. Opponents of the practice of hiring children argue that child labor is exploitative and often very dangerous.

The historic use of child labor is now considered to be unethical.
The historic use of child labor is now considered to be unethical.

According to the United Nations, a “child” is any person under the age of 18. Specific labor laws may consider people under the age of 16 children for legal purposes, and in some countries the cut off may be even lower, around 12 or 14. Statistics on this type of labor usually focus on children between the ages of five and 14, because many nations in which child labor is a problem have laws which allow people to work full time after the age of 14.

The use of child labor in U.S. industrial facilities has been restricted for most of the past century.
The use of child labor in U.S. industrial facilities has been restricted for most of the past century.

Sustained labor could be any form of full time employment, ranging from agricultural work to factory work. Child labor tends to involve rote tasks such as manufacturing, farming, and cleaning, although children may also work in other industries, such as the sex industry. In order to be considered child labor, rather than simple work experience, the child must generally be unable to attend school because of his or her work schedule, and the working conditions must be hard or dangerous.

There are several issues with child labor. The first issue is that minors are not empowered under the law to make choices on their own, and in many cases, children are working because they are forced to do so, not because they want to work. In some instances, the children used for manufacturing and other tasks are actually slaves who were sold by their parents for such work. Children who are not slaves may receive minimal wages for their work, and they are often forced to turn the wages over to family members, rather than keeping them for themselves. Child laborers also do not have a chance to go to school, or to socialize with friends and live normal lives.

Children have been working on family farms and in family businesses for centuries, and historically it was common to apprentice children as young as eight. Apprenticeships were quite valued, as they gave children an opportunity to create careers for themselves by training with experienced people, and everyone from doctors to weavers learned through apprenticeship systems. The tradition of encouraging children to engage in family farm work or help out with family-owned businesses endures today in many regions of the world.

Using children as laborers became an issue in the industrial age, when factories began to arise to manufacture goods which had historically been made at home or by artisans. With the rise of factories came a number of labor issues, ranging from the length of the work day to workplace safety, and children were often documented in factories performing grueling work like weaving and tailoring. Children also worked in hazardous environments like mines. The first child labor laws were passed in the 1800s, reflecting social unease about the employment of children in factories.

While child labor is a very serious issue, many nations have taken steps to allow people under the age of 18 to work in certain circumstances. In many societies, work is viewed as a valuable experience and contribution to society, and the availability of part time work and apprenticeships to people under the age of 18 is considered important. In these cases, a minor must generally obtain a permit for work, and his or her working hours and conditions are limited by law to prevent exploitation and ensure that the minor has time to go to school and socialize.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - Often child labor laws target jobs that are particularly dangerous or cruel and inhumane for children, like sex work. These kinds of exploitive jobs for children should be completely stamped out. You're right that the children should be able to get the necessities of life, but usually these are available in some other way and the child has simply not been made aware of it.

They are often being forced to work just to provide luxuries for others.

It isn't a completely black and white situation but, we should make it one, and do whatever it takes to allow kids to have a childhood.


In a lot of poor countries, children have to work or they will starve. Often it's not a choice between school and work, because the child can't afford to go to school anyway.

Child labor laws (if they are enforced) in these situations can do more harm than good. They need to be coupled with child welfare programs, so that they don't end up leaving the children in more dire straits than when they started.

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