Human Rights

Child Labor: A Global Epidemic

You peel your eyes open, a half-hearted response to your father shaking you awake. The sun isn’t up, but you are, like you were yesterday, and the day before that, and every day since you were seven. You shuffle outside and rinse your face off with brown-tinted water from the rusty communal faucet. Your family didn’t have enough food to eat for dinner last night, so you skip breakfast, as you do most days. You begin the trek to the sugar cane fields. You will spend the day chopping sugar cane with a machete that’s a fifth of your weight until your back aches. You are unaware that somewhere in America, a student your age is ripping open a packet of sugar, tapping a bit into a coffee mug, sipping it, and rushing off to class. You continue chopping, trying to scrape together a few pesos.

Anecdote loosely based on CNN article, “Life not sweet for Philippines’ sugar cane child workers” 

The Problem

“Child labor” is defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, potential and dignity. This work is harmful to the laborer’s physical and mental development. In its most extreme forms, child labor involves slavery, separation from families, exposure to serious hazards and abandonment at a young age. Child labor is mainly caused by poverty, unemployment, and lack of education. There are currently 168 million child laborers in the world.

Child laborers work instead of going to school and are forced to work in dirty, dangerous conditions for measly wages.

In fact, there are 21 million slaves in the world today – more than at any other time in history.

It’s strange to think that now is the peak of slavery. We learn about legal slavery and the emancipation of the 1860s. We learn about segregation and its legal end with Brown vs. Board of Education. We don’t generally hear about modern child labor, but it is a worldwide epidemic.

In 2014, I interviewed Reid Maki, the Director of the Child Labor Coalition in Washington, DC– an organization which raises awareness for the plight of child laborers and testifies before state and federal legislatures and agencies on child labor. Mr. Maki noted that child labor is not only a global problem, but also that it degrades the fundamental dignity of each affected individual. Mr. Maki also commented on the “cycle of poverty.” For example, if a parent sells his child into labor, then the child never receives a proper education. If the child never gets an education, he, too, will be impoverished. If the child lives in poverty as an adult, he will send his child to work. Ending this disease, child labor, takes ending the cycle of poverty by changing the mindsets of populations. Education is the antidote, the key to ending child labor.

Child Labor By Continent

Child labor still occurs in North America. Though it is illegal in the United States by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, young children, usually immigrants, still toil in fields picking food. In Mexico, child laborers harvest crops that usually end up on American tables. It is estimated that 100,000 children in Mexico under the age of 14 pick crops for pay.

Children in South America normally participate in one of three economic sectors: agriculture (the most common), industry, and the informal economy. Children in agriculture hold unpaid positions on family farms or they work on plantations. In the industrial sector, labor is comprised of factory work, mining, manufacturing, and other similar activities. The third sector, the informal economy, is a much broader sector which includes prostitution, domestic servitude, drug trade, and other unregistered work.

Africa has the greatest incidence of child labor. In Sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 59 million children ages 5-17 are engaged in child labor. That’s more than one in five children in the region. Nearly 29 million of these child laborers are engaged in hazardous work, especially agriculture and mining. For example, the United Nations’ International Labor Organization estimates that as many as a million children work in Africa’s gold mines for as little as $2 a day.

Many children in Europe, specifically Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine, have extremely hazardous occupations in agriculture, construction, small factories or on the street. Work in agriculture involves dangerous machinery, carrying heavy loads and spraying poisonous pesticides. In Bulgaria, for example, child laborers work in the tobacco industry, some 10 hours a day. Likewise, children working in the streets are vulnerable to abuse and trafficking.

Although there has been some progress in reducing child labor in many countries, in Asia, the problem persists. Research by the ILO’s International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) has found child labor in the sectors of domestic labor, seafood processing, garment factories, mining, pyrotechnics, scavenging, rubber and sugar-cane plantations, entertainment and other services.

Information provided by the ILO,

Finding A Solution: What Can the Penn Community Do?

How do we begin to stop this problem that has overrun the globe? What can one college student do about a small girl’s fingers bleeding at the loom in Bangladesh? While the problem is widespread, we should not be overwhelmed. We can do a lot to help end child labor.

1. Raise Awareness
Let other people know about the problem. The more people who are aware of the problem, the more people who can stop buying items linked to child labor. Albeit difficult, this is the sole best way for consumers to alleviate child labor. If we stop purchasing goods made by child labor, there is simply no reason for child labor to continue.

2. Shop Fair Trade

Everyday, we consume products connected in some way to child labor. Do you know whether the sugar you put in your coffee, the chocolate bar  bought on your way home from work, the cotton in your sweater, or the diamond ring on your finger is fair trade? The “fair trade” label requires that fair prices are paid to producers in developing countries. Fair trade products are not made with child labor. According to the World Fair Trade Organization, fair trade is more than just compensation: “It proves that greater justice in world trade is possible. It highlights the need for change in the rules and practice of conventional trade and shows how a successful business can also put people first. It is a tangible contribution to the fight against poverty, climate change and economic crisis.” So, buy fair trade!

Fair Trade in Philadelphia:


  • Café Renata – 4305 Locust Street
  • Green Line Café – 4426 Locust Street
  • Metropolitan Bakery – 4013 Walnut
  • White Dog Café – 3420 Sanson Street
  • Trader Joe’s – 2121 Market St


  • Penn Bookstore
  • Ten Thousand Villages, located at 1122 Walnut, is a nonprofit fair trade organization that markets handcrafted products made by disadvantaged artisans from more than 120 artisan groups in more than 35 countries.

For more information on fair trade options in Philadelphia, click here.

For a list of goods, by country, known to be made by child laborers, click here.

3. Stay Informed
The International Labor Organization (ILO) is at the forefront of the fight against child labor. In the ILO’s 2015 World Report on Child Labor, the organization lists ways that it is alleviating child labor worldwide.

  • Creating the conditions for change: Building an enabling economic and legal environment
  • Intervening early: Getting children out of child labor and into school
  • Facilitating the transition from school to work: Promoting decent work opportunities for youth
  • Addressing adolescents in hazardous work: Eliminating child labor among those aged 15 to 17 years
  • Mainstreaming gender: Accounting for the special vulnerabilities of female children and youth
  • Ensuring informed policy development: Filling knowledge gaps relating to child labour and youth employment


For more information, please go to:


Child Labor Coalition: