Childhood Lost

The cries of working children can be heard the world over. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 90 million children between eight and fifteen years old work in the labor forces of developing countries; worldwide the figure is higher. They often labor under hazardous conditions, handling poisonous chemicals, inhaling noxious fumes, and hauling excessive weights. They are usually overworked, underfed, and underpaid--if they are paid at all.

Though many countries have enacted laws forbidding the use--and abuse--of children in the work force, optimism about the conditions faced by working children is unwarranted. That conclusion stems from an inescapable fact: the families of most working children depend on their labors to survive.

Because child labor means cheap labor, the young are often the most employable in developing and recession-plagued economies. The director of a medium-size textile enterprise in Bangladesh admits without hesitation that 70% of his employees are between the ages of 13 and 17. "They provide the same productivity as adults," he says, "but for a fraction of the cost."

Children, of course, are unlikely to organize or complain to authorities when they are overworked and underpaid. They are not aware of their legal rights. It verges on slavery when children are locked up without proper lighting, food, and healthcare. But they don't question long hours and dire working conditions. Instead, most are grateful to be working at all.

In Asia and the Pacific, children routinely work endless hours, sleep on factory floors and subsist on scanty rations. Young Indian factory workers who fail to follow instructions are sometimes regret branded with red-hot iron rods, and some teenage Thai prostitutes are disciplined by having acid thrown in their faces.

For thousands of South American, Caribbean, and African children rented out as maids and houseboys, there is no recourse when they are overworked, beaten, and raped. As an official of Kenya's Child Welfare Society concedes, "There is little we can do to help when a child is ill-treated unless the case becomes known to us or to the police."

Even when an employer is reasonable, working conditions may still prove dangerous. Children in Central America harvest crops sprayed with pesticides. Colombian children squeeze through the narrowest shafts of coalmines. Thai children toil in unventilated factories, working with glass heated to 1,500 degrees Celsius. Indian children inhale large doses of sulphur and potassium chlorate to fashion flammable powder into matches. Youthful glassmakers in Brazil breathe toxic silicone and arsenic fumes.

Sometimes the physical damage from such labors is permanent. Brazilian, Colombian, and Egyptian youngsters who work in brickyards often suffer irreparable spinal damage from carrying heavy loads. More generally, children who spend long hours in factories all over the world often enter their teens with permanently deformed limbs.

If they live that long. Thousands of children don't. In India safety conditions are so neglected in many factories that numerous children have died in electrical fires and chemical explosions.

Laws exist to protect children from hazardous conditions in many occupations, but they are seldom enforced. The agricultural sector--the largest employer of children in both developing and industrialized countries--is particularly difficult to oversee. There is little that officials can do to monitor or modify the children's workloads on large farms or small family enterprises.

In fact, parents often appear to be the harshest taskmasters. Indian fathers still sometimes repay debts by committing their children to bonded labor. Pakistani parents occasionally maim their children to make them beguiling beggars. Sadly, families are often the last to protest exploitation of their children.

The ILO contends that children suffer greatly when they are forced to perform as "small adults." "The child's creativeness and ability to transcend reality are blunted," states one ILO report, "and his whole mental world is impoverished." The young worker does not learn how to play, or how to read and write; worse, he smokes and, in the Caribbean, he drinks cane rum to keep going, as he doesn't have enough to eat.

In 1973, an ILO convention called for a worldwide minimum working age of 15. In ten years, only 27 of the ILO's 150 member nations ratified that convention. Several more countries have laws that set the minimum work age between 12 and 16, but the ILO cautions that few countries "have what could be considered a comprehensive prohibition of dangerous work for young children," and that even fewer have "measures to protect young persons from moral degradation."

Since laws are not the answer to child labor, many experts propose compulsory education as a means to curb it. But education laws have proved elusive too. In practically all impoverished societies, parents place wages above education. As a result, the percentage of dropouts is rising at an alarming rate. A recent study by UNESCO shows that in developing countries up to 60% of children do not complete primary school.

Relief agencies agree that the total abolition of child labor is an unrealistic goal. So, for millions of such children, the future holds little promise or hope. Working children are entitled to something better, regardless of whether they know it.