Estimates indicate that around 218 million children between 5 and 17 years of age perform some type of work. Of those, 10.7 million, or 1 in 19 children, live in Latin America and the Caribbean.
But before we talk about the number, let’s think about “how we define child labor”. Is it considered child labor when children help in their family business? If children grow agricultural products for subsistence farming, for example, do you call that child labor? While children working in factories or on the street are the most common images of child labor, many quantitative studies have defined child labor as children working at least one hour per week in any given circumstance.
The prevailing question on the matter has now switched from “whether children work or not” to “whether children work in an environment that is harmful to their physical and mental development.” Responding to this shift in public attention, the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), implemented in more than 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean with the support of UNICEF, now includes a module to determine whether the working environment of children is hazardous. Their new official report includes statistics about “the worst/hazardous forms of child labor” and refers to children working in environments that are detrimental to child development. The 2015 Mexican MICS final report, for instance, revealed that the percentage of children aged 5 through 17 working in hazardous environments is 8.2% (11.1% for boys and 5.2% for girls).
While there are still a few quantitative studies on “the worst/hazardous forms of child labor” using large-scale data, studies from Brazil and Nepal have shown emerging patterns about the household characteristics of children working in hazardous occupations.
Targeting Households: Characteristics of children working in hazardous industries
In order to effectively deliver social protection benefits, it is important to target interventions to the right households. Research suggests several factors should be considered as possible causes of hazardous child labor and considered when targeting social programs to help reduce them, including:
- Among children reported to be working, those working in dangerous environments come from more impoverished families.
- Children whose father is deceased, absent or physically disabled are more likely to work in hazardous occupations.
- Many children working in unsafe environments come from households without parental protection (their biological parents are absent in the home).
While household characteristics such as lower wealth or parental absence/disability are already used as criteria for social protection programs not necessarily aimed at reducing child labor, findings emphasize that the social programs that consider those criteria are also beneficial for reducing incidences of hazardous child labor.
However, the study of hazardous forms of child labor is still in its infancy. Questions such as how to reach those children living without parental protection or what kinds of programs eliminate hazardous child labor effectively need to be discussed. For example, an impact evaluation study already investigates the effect of school scholarships in Nepal. The attendance-conditioned stipend was effective for reducing the instances of children working at factories, especially for girls. However, no persistent impact on increased schooling or reduced child labor was registered at the end of the incentive program. To reduce hazardous forms of child labor further, evidenced-based investigation is necessary.
It is time for the international community to gather and openly discuss the working environment of children. What are the other predictors of vulnerable households in your country? Are there any innovative intervention ideas to reduce the incidence of children working in hazardous environments? Tell us in the comments section below or follow the conversation on Twitter @BIDgente.
Akito Kamei is a Research Intern in the Social Protection and Health (SPH) at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).