Recently, an Indian activist named Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to protect the rights of children in the global labor force. Satyarthi created a South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude which has battled child labor by raiding factories across India and liberating more than 40,000 bonded workers. He has also campaigned for increased legislature banning child labor and created a global campaign against the issue, made up of over 2,000 civil society organizations around the world. Despite Satyarthi’s efforts, child labor is still prevalent in many poor countries, and laws that directly ban the practice can do more bad than good.
According to the International Labor Office, there are currently about 168 million child laborers in the world. This figure amounts to about 1 in 10 of the world’s children. Fortunately, the statistic has reduced by one-third in the past 14 years and only 4% of these children are in forced or bonded labor. However, children working on family farms or other businesses are still particularly at risk. These children work on average 27 hours per week. This makes them less likely to attend school, and if they still choose to, their performance may suffer due to over exhaustion. Exposure to dangerous chemicals such as pesticides also accounts for a 12% injury rate for children in the agriculture industry, as opposed to a 9% overall rate.
Passing laws entirely banning child labor can prove to be detrimental to family finances and the battle against the issue as a whole. In 1986, India passed the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation Act) which defines working conditions for children under the age of 14. The legislation was meant to improve working environments for child laborers but instead drove down wages. As a result, families still needing money were forced to have their children increase hours worked to earn pay equivalent with earnings prior to the act. Fewer children enrolled in school because they were so busy earning money that education was not a viable option. These types of laws are a major threat for poor economies, such as Tanzania and Ethiopia, in which one-third of children are currently working. Countries with GDPs per capita higher than $10,000 by comparison only see child labor rates of about 0 to 5%.
One method with proven past success is providing families with money to send their kids to school through cash transfer programs. In Mexico, the Oportunidades program gives a child’s parents approximately the equivalent of two-thirds the pay that their child would have earned working so that they may instead attend school. The program has helped to reduce child labor rates in the country by almost a quarter. In less economically developed countries, simply giving the money unconditionally to families in need has helped to reduce overall child labor rates. Any incentivizing program which rewards the family for allowing children to attend school rather than punishing them for allowing their children to work seems to be more beneficial.