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."

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