By Kathleen Beegle

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When you hear the words “child labor”, you probably picture a small child, maybe not older than 5 or 6 working in a small, airless room stitching footballs; or maybe you picture the same child working in stone quarrying, carrying loads far too heavy for his body size, using explosives and other dangerous tools to work with and laboring from dusk to dawn to make ends meet. There are so many different and horrific things we hear about child labor, but so little we actually know about it.

Last week, on June 12, was World Day Against Child Labour. The most recent spot light on child labor came from the global financial crisis, which rang alarm bells about set-backs progress on poverty reduction and reaching the 2015 targets for the Millennium Development Goals. These concerns stem from widely accepted notions that short-run responses of families can have long-run consequences for children.

A recent World Bank publication on this topic addressed the many dimensions these impacts might take and the body of evidence on these effects. For education and health outcomes, we (generally) have a clear vision of what is good and what is bad – and some evidence on how crises impacts play out. When it comes to child labor, it is a different and more complex story as Alice Wuermli and I discuss in our contribution to the World Bank Report 2013.

First, let’s take a look at the different forms of child labor. Perhaps contrary to popular perception, the ILO/International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour notes that not all forms of child labor should be targeted for elimination. Some forms of child labor can, in fact, be positive, contributes to children’s development, their skills, and household welfare.

The forms of labor we should be seriously concerned about include activities which expose children to physically harmful tasks, to dangerous tools or machinery, or to toxins; activities which deny children positive stimulation; or expose children to situations and experiences such as drugs, violence, or prostitution. Children involved in these severest forms of labor often are enslaved, separated from their families, or abandoned altogether. The worst forms of child labor are, as it is widely recognized, hard to measure with our standard household survey tools as people do not report them easily.

There are many misconceptions about children’s work. First, while poverty is the main driver of child labor, it is not the only factor. In some cases, in fact, a wealth paradox has been observed.That is, in certain instances children work more in wealthier, land-owning households. Other factors, such as preferences, insurance failures, land and labor markets, and household specialization — all very context specific — also explain why children work. Most working children are in agriculture, outside of traded sectors, and their work is not in the cash economy. More important perhaps, the work these kids do may not deprive them of education. Most children combine work with school. In some settings, working children are more likely to attend school than non-working children.

In regards to financial crises specifically, theory, unfortunately, doesn’t offer us clear predictions. Given the work they do, children are most likely to be affected indirectly through the effects of the crises on labor opportunities of the adults in the family – complicating the pathways of impact. Intuitively, children’s work will be connected with their schooling. In times of crisis, deterioration in the quality of the educational system could lower the returns to the time spent in school and therefore increase working time. But (there is always a but!), tightening of work opportunities for children during a downturn may encourage kids to stay in school longer. For example, one study found that kids stayed in school longer in response to Peru’s 1988–92 macroeconomic crises. Making the story even more confusing, Alice and I found studies showing that children actually work more during economic booms. In Northeast Brazil children worked more and went to school less when the value of coffee exports was temporarily high, as families took advantage of higher wages in the local labor market.

Like all compelling development issues, child labor is a tough one to study. There are two big questions at the heart of policy debates about child labor : “What is in the best interest of the child?” and “What are the consequences of child labor?” Perhaps unsatisfying, our conclusion was that the answer to both will vary greatly depending on context.

Kathleen Beegle is a Senior Economist in the Development Research Group at the World Bank. Her research interests include the study of poverty dynamics, the socio-economic dimensions of economic shocks, the causes and consequences of child labor, and methodological studies on household survey data collection including measuring labor in low-income settings.

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