Admittedly, most child laborers come from poor families. However, poverty is not the only reason children work, nor is it as central as many people think. Recent studies examining the role poverty plays in child labor have found that other factors, such as parents' low regard for the education of children, particularly girls, and failing education systems contribute equally to child labor. Too often poverty is used as an excuse for child labor. Yet, it is a myth that child labor will never be eliminated until poverty is eradicated. Conversely, poverty will never be eradicated until child laborers are redirected to schools. Child labor perpetuates poverty.
While economic development tends to reduce child labor in the long run, poverty does not necessarily induce child labor or hinder children from attending school. The picture varies. In many poor households, some children (particularly boys) are singled out to attend school. Additionally, there are states within less developed countries where child labor is not extensively practiced. For instance, Kerala State in India has virtually abolished child labor.
At the country-level, a country may be poor, yet have relatively low levels of child labor compared to higher-income countries. For example, in 2001 only 18.5 percent of children ages 10-14 years were economically active in Yemen - a low-income country - whereas in 2000, 45.3 percent of children ages 6-14 years worked in Lebanon - an upper-middle-income country35. The incidence of child labor can be relatively low even at fairly low levels of national income. For example, in 1999 an estimated 15 percent of children ages 5-14 worked in Sri Lanka - a low-middle-income country.36
Thus, the relationship between economic development and child labor is not necessarily linear. While economic growth facilitates the reduction of child labor, the reduction of child labor contributes to development. Thus, the connection between child labor and economic development runs both ways.
When the topic of the elimination of child labor is raised, people often immediately object saying, "How will poor families survive without the additional income of the children?" Perhaps no concern about the desire to eliminate child labor is more rampant than the perception that households, particularly those in poverty, cannot afford to lose the contribution made by their children. Household poverty is widely regarded to be the chief cause of child labor. However, this is not necessarily true. As myth #1 indicates, other factors may be at work as well. Initially, some families have difficulty coping without the wages of their children. However, removing children from work may not present as much of a problem as initially perceived. Redirecting child laborers to school is better for families in the long run than letting them continue to work.
Regrettably, there is little systematic evidence regarding the economic value of child labor. Income from children typically accounts for some 10-40 percent of household income, which might be critical when household income is so low that it is spent mostly on food.37 In its 2003 Economic Study of the Costs and Benefits of Eliminating Child Labor, ILO-IPEC assumes that a child worker's contribution38 to household income is 20 percent of an adult's contribution. While child labor may increase household-income and contribute to its survival in the short run, it tends to have the opposite effect for future generations. See Diagram of the cycle of child labor, illiteracy and poverty.
Historically, it has been believed that children are better suited for some kinds of work than adults. This is commonly used as an excuse for using child labor in the carpet weaving industry, e.g., children's "nimble fingers" make it possible for them to tie smaller and tighter knots. Yet, evidence negates the idea that children make better workers than adults because they are endowed with special attributes that are superior to adults for particular work. Research carried out by the International Labor Organization has proved that this claim is often indefensible. The "nimble fingers" argument is entirely wrong in several hazardous industries, including carpet-making, glass manufacturing, mining, and gem polishing. Even in hand-knotting of carpets, which calls for considerable dexterity, an empirical study of over 2,000 weavers found that children were no more likely than adults to make the finest knots. Some of the best carpets, with the greatest density of small knots, are woven by adults. If a child's "nimble fingers" are not essential in such demanding work, it is difficult to imagine in which trades this claim might be valid.39
Myth 4: Child labor is needed for development or economic growth
There is no evidence to support the theory that children must work for a thriving industry until economic growth and technological advancements replace them. Historically, the elimination of child labor and its replacement with universal education has contributed to the economic growth of countries. Child labor reflects underinvestment in education and the future of a nation. Education is at the heart of development. Historically, the universal completion of free education of good quality has been identified as the key to economic growth. As long as 246 million children aged 5-17 are working how can they attend school? Child laborers are automatically denied their right to education. Clearly, Education for All will never be achieved if the needs of child laborers are unmet. Child labor hinders the full development of human capital. A less skilled workforce results in low productivity and income for countries.
Many studies have recognized the historical link between the reduction of child labor, the increase in school attendance, and the economic growth of industrialized countries. Both the enactment of mandatory education laws and the provision of schools have naturally helped to reduce child labor and are preconditions for rapid economic growth. Educational attainment has played an important role in the rapid economic growth of many countries in East Asia, such as Korea.
Millions of child laborers miss a critical time in their physical and mental development to work day and night. Primary and secondary education imparts not only the knowledge and skills children need to obtain adequate employment as adults, but also provides children with an opportunity to relate to people in social settings. Moreover, education empowers children by enabling them to gain knowledge of their basic rights and realize their potential.
Findings disprove the claim that children benefit later in life from working at a young age. Child laborers often end up draining national economies. With no to little education, they grow up to be less healthy and less productive than adult who did not work until they reached adulthood.40 Findings using data from Brazil demonstrate that entry into the workforce before age 13 years reduces adult lifetime earnings by 13-17 percent, and increases the probability of persons falling to the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution later in life by 7-8 percent. Results suggest that policies that delay the age of entry into work may have significant positive impacts on adult incidence of poverty.41
Some groups advocate protecting the right of children to work and to bargain for better working conditions. However, the very concept of children working violates standards set by international conventions related to children. A child's rights are non-negotiable. All children are equally entitled to their rights without discrimination, regardless of their economic, social or biological background. Their need to work because of economic necessity, or other reasons, does not create a new children's "right" to work replacing their rights to education, play, and protection from economic exploitation. Forcing children to work for their own survival is society's refutation of their fundamental rights.
Govind, a former child laborer from Nepal and a current activist with the South Asian Coalition Against Child Servitude (SACCS) in India says, "We want a world where the same system works for all children. I have heard that some people are talking about the right of children to work. I do not understand how those people are thinking against the feelings of children. Are they ready to send their own children to work? Who gave these people the right to make children their way of business?"
Myth 7: Children are "cheaper"; they cost less to hire
The "economic" argument that it costs much less to employ children than adults collapses under close scrutiny. Children are usually paid less than adults. Yet, the International Labor Organization has found that the labor-cost savings from the use of child labor is very small: less than 5 percent compared to the final foreign retail price of bangles; and less than 5-10 percent compared to the final foreign retail price of carpets.42 Foreign retailers typically mark up carpets approximately 200 percent. Carpets can easily cost four times as much to the consumer as the Indian export price.43
35 2003 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2004, pp. 233 and 432; Country Groups are based on World Bank groupings. 36 2003 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, 2004, pp. 377; Country Groups are based on World Bank groupings. 37 Mainstreaming action against child labor in development and poverty reduction strategies, Hamid Tabatabai, ILO-IPEC, Geneva, June 2003, p. 4, available from http://training.itcilo.it/decentwork/staffconf2003-sep/ resources/session%20IV%20tabatabai.pdf; Internet accessed March 2005. 38 Investing in Every Child: An Economic Study of the Costs and Benefits of Eliminating Child Labor, International Labor Organization, 2004, p. 10. 39 Child Labour: Targeting the Intolerable, ILO-IPEC, Geneva, 1998, Section 1, available from http://nird.org.in/clic/Rrdl12.html; Internet accessed March 2005. 40 Weissman, Robert, "Stolen Youth: brutalized Children, Globalization and the campaign to End Child Labor," Multinational Monitor, Jan-Feb 1997, v18, n1-2, p. 10. 41 The Implications of Child Labor for Adult Wages, Income and Poverty: Retrospective Evidence from Brazil, Nadeem Ilahi, International Monetary Fund; Peter F. Orazem, Iowa State University; and Guilherme Sedlacek, World Bank, August 2000, available from http://22.214.171.124/search?q=cache:caQ3PKJosYkJ:www.arts.cornell.edu/econ/ orazem.doc+child+laborers+and+less+productive&hl=en; Internet accessed March 2005. 42 Child Labour: What is to be done, ILO-IPEC, June 1996, available from http://www.ilo.org/public/english/standards/ipec/publ/policy/what/what1.htm; Internet accessed March 1005. 43 Refuting the "nimble fingers" argument, WORLD OF WORK, No. 17, September/October 1996, ILO, available from http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/inf/magazine/17/finger.htm; Internet accessed March 2004.