The U.S. and Child Labor

Defining child labor

Not all child labor, of course, is as repugnant as the most hazardous and exploitative forms. Even the most ardent anti-child labor advocates recognize that appropriate work tasks may teach children skills and responsibility, bind families together and contribute to family incomes. In assessing the scope of child labor and shaping solutions, it is critical to define child labor, and to distinguish exploitative child labor from appropriate forms.

UNICEF has developed a set of rough criteria to determine if child labor is exploitative. It designates child labor as inappropriate if it involves: full-time work at too early an age, too many hours spent working, work that exerts undue physical, social or psychological stress, work and life on the streets in bad conditions, inadequate pay, too much responsibility, work that hampers access to education, work that undermines children's dignity and self-esteem, such as slavery or bonded labor and sexual exploitation, work that is detrimental to full social and psychological development.

The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child - signed by every country except the Cook Islands, Oman, Somalia, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates and the United States - obligates governments to protect children "from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development."

Nearly 50 countries have ratified ILO Convention 138 on minimum working ages. Convention 138 establishes more stringent guidelines than the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It sets 15 as the minimum acceptable working age for industrialized countries, and 14 for developing nations. It permits children to perform light work-an undefined term-at age 13 in industrialized countries and 12 in poorer nations. The convention prohibits work likely to jeopardize health, safety or morals by children under 18.

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