Child Labor in the 21st Century

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Updated: Mar 28, 2022
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It is the 21st century and in the comforts of America the thought of child labor is far from the minds of the average individual. What has failed to be realized is that still in many rural areas of America we still have children working in the agriculture industry for food so that we may eat and have clothes to wear. Or that children in poverty stricken countries are mining metals such as cobalt or precious diamonds so that we may have the best new smart phones and fancy jewelry.

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Those Godiva chocolates that everyone loves so much? Most likely made from cocoa produced in Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire, countries that when combined produce 60% of the worlds chocolate, and often picked by children. Many people are fighting the good fight in courts and with regulations to halt industries from practicing child labor either by legal legislation or by tactics such as boycotting particular companies. However is this the best solution? And will any of these efforts truly make the lives of the children working these industries any better? The bottom line is that many industries in countries all around the globe still have jobs that are filled by children and often they are dangerous.

These children work alongside their families practically from birth to assist their family in making ends meet. It is part of their childhood, while other children are playing sports, dance lessons, and involved in other extracurricular activities these children are working away their youth to help put food on the table. However in America, including North Carolina who is one of the top 10 states participating by population, the children are responsible for the food on our tables as well. Every year thousands of children who live in rural communities are seriously injured while at least another 100 lose their lives and their childhood merely by trying to help their families survive. This hasn’t been overlooked by the communities. There have been heated debates among many groups including farm safety groups and individuals in online discussion boards about whether or not it is acceptable for these children to assist in their families survival. It has become a focal point of these discussions on where the line between individual businesses and government responsibility to keep the people safe truly lies.

Farm safety advocates have taken these families who are merely trying to survive by any means necessary and buried them under guilt and legal fees and nearly destroyed them, albeit within reason. When 3-year-old children are killed by 5-year-olds driving diesel equipment who is to blame? The family trying to make ends meet or the lack of federal regulation on where the line lays between a job demanding regulation and safety checks and a children’s chores. Should someone intervene and prevent these parents from passing on the lessons of hard work and responsibility, which they had learned in much the same matter, or should these parents be free to take care of their businesses and families the only way they know how even if it means losing one of those children in whom they are trying to instill these character traits? A 1938 law, The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the US Department of Labor’s summary of exceptions for agriculture allows children 12 year of age and sometime even younger to legally work in an industry around heavy machinery and dangerous animals while the same set of laws prevents children and what some would even consider young adults from participating in work environments that are much safer. This doesn’t only apply to family farms, but commercial farms as well.

Every child in the farm who was interviewed had one dream in common. The hope that the money they earn will help them and their families break the cycle of hard labor and to help their families to lead a better, more comfortable life where they are not breaking their breaks for minimum wage. However opponents of the law’s that allow these children to work in the farms blame these laws on the relentless cycle of these same children not being able to complete their high school education because they are forced into working in the fields to help their families survive. Not thrive but survive. Only 55% of these children graduate from high school per the Human Rights Watch. Child labor laws in the United States while generally good and well-intended and over all well-formed has missed the children working harder and longer in agriculture. Their conditions are also more dangerous than that of the children say working at movie theaters. The children who are able to get jobs at the movie theater with air conditioning and a regular 8 hour work day are required to be at least 15 years of age. The child who is 15 years of age is still required to obtain their parents’ permission and a license stating that they are allowed to work whereas a 14 year old child pursuing the long hard hours of labor on the farm is not required to have their parents’ permission nor any type of documentation stating that they are allowed to work.

Typically children work on farms under 3 different scenarios: Working on their parents’ or family member’s farm, local farms part-time or during the summer to earn extra money, or those driven by economic necessity who typically migrate alone or with their family from farm to farm. These migrant workers are almost always given a lower hourly wage causing them to need more hands on the farm to make ends meet at home. This cycle then will continue for generations with no end in sight. Luckily for the approximate half million children working in farms and whose families are caught in the horrendous cycle there are people trying to help such as the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs which is based Washington, D.C. While there have been attempts made at changing the legislation that has these children trapped the growers who employee these workers have banded together and made it near impossible for the Department of Labor to pass any new legislation on the basis that the new legislation would hurt small family farms. We also see repeatedly, be it the legislators or employers, that they refuse to even make a statement regarding their opinions or suggestions on how to resolve the issue of child labor in America with the exception of California’s Farm Bureau Federation whom states that “If there are children working on California farms in violation of the law, that it is an illegal activity that should be reported to the state labor commissioner…” However in all reality who is going to speak out against their employer when they are already struggling or tell on themselves?

This catastrophe of child labor isn’t limited to just rural farms in the middle of nowhere, it indeed has taken place right here in North Carolina. We are all familiar with North Carolina being a large tobacco producing state. I myself have worked in tabacco farms when I was less than 10 years old and not once had I ever considered the danger that I was put in as a child as it was part of a family right of passage if you will. My father, my fathers father and even his father have all worked on the family farm at one point or another, leaving the farm covered in the sticky tobacco sap. Wake up at 5:30 am with the family, pack a lunch typically consisting of the best soda and pack of nabs one could ever enjoy after such a long hot morning and the splitting headaches, nausea and dizziness which are typically indicative of green tobacco sickness. Green tobacco sickness is a form of nicotine poising also known as “the green monster” that occurs when the tobacco sap consisting of a high concentration of nicotine is absorbed through the skin. As a young child working on the tobacco farms in summer we would cover ourselves in plastic bags, despite the heat, in hopes of avoiding the nicotine sickness, however everyday by the time we would call it quits the nausea and pounding headaches were present. 75 percent of children working on tobacco farms have experienced the green monster. Although companies such as Reynolds American, a tobacco company with farms in factories in North Carolina and the second largest tobacco company in the United States, have introduced guidelines such as banning growers from hiring children under 16 and the E.P.A (Environmental Protection Agency) changing standards to require pesticide training and requiring it to be applied by people 18 years of age, advocacy groups and employees of the farms say that children are still working.

The Hershey Company, which is probably the most recognized name in chocolate the world over, wants to make changes in the cocoa farming industry. They are driven to assist in community needs while providing overwatch on farms practicing child labor in 32 communities across Côte d’Ivoire. They too recognize that in countries around the world that we are seeing the children laborers because of poverty. Their idea is that the local communities are who are responsible for putting an end to the child labor. They believe that strong communities, when educated, can take the fight into their own hands. He believes that by providing farmers with training in areas of child protection, education, and women’ empowerment while providing families with school kits and alternative work that they will see a decrease of child labor among these communities. It is up to the International Cocoa Initiative, also known as the ICI, to deliver these training programs and watch over the up coming years to determine if there is any difference made. In the Western African chocolate industry alone we find a staggering 2.1 million child laborers. The reason these children are laboring away for our own guilty satisfaction?

They are poor. The entire house hold of these children bring in an average of 78 cents a day, less than a third of what would be considered a livable wage per the Fairtrade International. Often farms aren’t large enough, or the methods and plants are far outdated to keep up with the demands. There have been numerous governments, businesses, and charities fighting the problem of child labor in these cocoa farming countries by building schools and introducing more efficient and up to date grow methods. The ICI’s executive director brings up the topic of transparency as a reason to progress being slow. His thought is that if the commercial companies buying the cocoa knew which farms had substandard working practices that these buyers would then cut them out. Due to this logic we have seen new certifications being required by the commercial buyers, however its impossible to watch 100 per cent of the farms throughout the entire year. Also members hid cases of child labor or move them to other, non-certified farms.

Other corporate giants of the chocolate such as Nestlé and MilkyBar have a different approach in mind. Instead of a strict compliance approach they hope to have farmers to state instances of child labor happening on their own farms, and then have the communities work together to resolve instances of child labor. By not making child labor a point of punishment it prevents burial of the problem, and instead keeps it visible. An initial 3 year pilot consisting of 26,000 farmers saw a decrease of 51 per cent in child laborers completing hazardous task. However everyone agrees that the major players need to do more. This includes paying a fair market value for the goods they purchase as well as having a purchasing process in which they declare the farms they are purchasing from and the price they are paying for the cocoa. It is proposed that this transparent purchasing price will help to keep farmers stable and insure that they are getting fair prices for their business. These farmers aren’t hiring children for any reason other than necessity. The labor completed on the backs of these children help to make ends meet. The hope is that by establishing profitable relationships then the farmers will be more productive and have better quality goods. They have had luck on a small scale and hope that larger buyers implement the same business model.

We also have the mining industry where we find children mining metals such as cobalt. The Democratic Republic of Congo, located in Central Africa, is guilty of employing children in both instances. Cobalt is a mineral essential to batteries in smartphones and laptops therefore making it important to companies such as Apple and Samsung who pocket billions annually. However the employees mining this mineral make as little as 8p a day or roughly 11 cents. Again we see that poverty is the root of the issue. A child working in the cobalt mines, working 12 hours a day had no shoes and hadn’t been able to eat for 2 days. These mines have no support and often collapse, especially in rainy conditions. Often the people of the Congo are working in unofficial, unregulated and unmonitored mines. In these conditions we can find children as young as 4 working in the mines. No one is required to wear gloves or masks even though cobalt is known to cause long term health problems, therefore its not a surprise that many of these employee’s are suffering poor health as a result. They only drink water that comes from the mining site after this dangerous metal has been washed in it. We also see women who are weak during pregnancy, babies born with infections, rations and occasionally covered in spots.

No country is required to report where they receive their cobalt making it easy to practice immoral trading. However in 2016 Donald Trump was to issue an executive order that would prevent American companies from profiting off of conflict minerals. Companies such as Apple however would rather improve conditions than to risk a threat to their supply chain, after being forced to cut ties with the largest artisanal supplier. They claim to have set the bar for strict standard for suppliers but that the work is never done. They were to suspend sourcing from artisanal mines but were also sure to say that they would never sever ties as it would do more harm than good. These companies would fail and most likely be sent into chaos without the ability to count on the mines for income, whose employees consist of 40,000 children, if not more. This industry is much like the agricultural industry as well in saying that the entire family spends their days at the mines as opposed to the farms.

Cobalt poisoning is caused by either swallowing it, breathing it in, or constantly having it within contact of your skin. Children as young as 4 have been witnessed mining the cobalt, mothers carrying children on their backs, and toddlers playing in the water used to wash the cobalt. All of them are exposed to the dangerous properties of cobalt. When working 12 hour days with no protective equipment these children and mothers as well as any other workers are exposed to cobalt at dangerous levels across the board.

It is widely known that there is a problem with the supply chain of cobalt, yet suppliers are supposed to follow responsible sourcing guidelines. Yet when large transports are leaving across every mode of transport and boxes are crisscrossed and not labeled then how do you know where the mineral is before it has ever left the country. Not to mention buyers pay little attention to where the metal has come from in comparison to quality. In all reality there is little regulation on the mining of cobalt, however with it being the backbone of the global tech boom by providing power, it is easy to tun a blind eye when pocketing billions.

We find poverty everywhere. It can be found in the poor country of the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as one of the worlds strongest, the United States of America. We can also find child labor in both countries. This is the largest problem with regulating and ultimately ending child labor. It is often the families already struggling to survive who are subjugated to these cruel youths. And since it is nothing new have been for generations. Generations of lost youth. However if we were to put an end to the income produced by these families children we would be dooming them to harsher lives and less food for the family to eat. It’s hard to disagree with child laboring being wrong however when compared to missing a few meals, children dying and living with life long health conditions as a result of their labor being hungry doesn’t sound so bad.

While corporate entities, farmers, government and farmers are working together to find a resolution to child labor it doesn’t appear a viable one is in sight. What can be done is spreading the knowledge of the atrocities that are happening globally to make a dollar while children are trading their youth and health as the leg work. Pressure can continue to be applied to governments and corporate players, letting them know that as a purchaser of goods that products aren’t bought blindly by their consumers. There are also many companies put together with the intention of putting together long-term trade partnerships that are economically fair by paying higher prices to exporters for goods while improving environmental and social standards.. Between the fair trade arrangement, government, farmers and consumers working together transparently a tomorrow can be built where children are free to play, learn, and grow in healthy environments the world over.

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Child Labor In The 21st Century. (2020, Sep 01). Retrieved from