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Have you ever been required to work overtime without compensation? The International Labour Organization estimates that around 110 million children, aged between 5 and 14 years, are engaged in labor that could be classified as intolerable. Various forms of child abuse exist, but child labor remains one of the most pervasive. According to several articles, it is particularly common in Asia and the Pacific. However, the largest number of instances appears to be in Africa, where children under 14 make up a third of the workforce. Child labor existed long before it was recognized and denounced as intolerable, with serious discussions about the issue starting in the early 1900s. Reports indicate numerous reasons why a child might be forced to work to survive and why some regions are more susceptible to this occurrence. Efforts to combat child labor and their prevention are reflected in laws worldwide. Nonetheless, its eradication remains uncertain, especially in underdeveloped regions where living conditions are deemed unbearable for children.
The issue of child labor gained significant prominence in the early 1900s. The rise in the number of child laborers drew attention to this escalating problem. The Archives and Records Administration estimated that around 2 million children under the age of 15 worked in factories and industries (Kowalski). During this time, the number of child laborers increased significantly, eliciting heightened concern about child labor. While historical numbers of child labor are appalling, current figures indicate that more American children live below the poverty line today than 20 years ago (Pediatrics). This implies that more children may be forced to work to survive. Restricting our focus to America, the situation is already distressing. However, when assessing the issue globally, the numbers become intolerable. Approximately 168 million children between the ages of 5 and 17 are working worldwide (Kowalski). Despite the shocking history of child labor, several laws have been enacted in America and worldwide to alleviate and reduce this issue.
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Numerous laws have been passed globally in an effort to prevent children from working at a tender age. The first notable law was enacted in 1904 when the National Child Labor Committee, with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, sought to introduce a national law (Kowalski). This law aimed to reduce the number of child laborers. Although the first law was activated in 1904, the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act was passed by Congress in 1916 to accelerate progress. This Act targeted hidden labor forms, such as mines and factories where countless children worked in obscurity (Kowalski). Despite the enactment of laws globally, additional measures were needed to protect children in the United States. With the endorsement of the President, a critical law was passed in the 1930s. Since 1938, child labor in the United States has been regulated under the Federal Fair Labor (Pediatrics). Although these laws helped curb child labor, it is evident that they are not a panacea for the problem and are not without their complications.
The impacts of laws passed throughout America and worldwide have complicated consequences. Violations of child labor laws are perpetrated not only by children but also employers. Between 1983 and 1989, detections of underage employment significantly increased (Pediatrics). This means many employers, disregarding existing laws, hired underage children and made them work in intense conditions. While these laws did not reach some regions, certain states continued to permit child labor in textile mills, factories, and mines for more than 60 hours per week (Kowalski). Worldwide, the statistics of enduring child labor, despite signs of improvement, remain horrifying. ‘Change is better than nothing,’ yet with 12 countries identified for making ‘no advancement’ at all, these laws often are ignored while the brutal practices persist (Abdulla). The issue of child labor has always existed. When it was finally exposed, proactive actions were necessary. As each attempted law failed, another was enacted. Some states, perhaps due to better conditions, saw impacts of these laws. However, the enormity of child labor persisting is astounding.
There are various reasons child labor happens in certain areas; reasons derived from the many articles I’ve read. As it is impossible to choose where you grow up, children are thrust into these perilous situations. In countries with a low child population, or nonexistent child development, these issues are more prevalent (Abdulla). With fewer children, they do not experience traditional childhood activities and camaraderie. As Thomas Scanlon states, “Child labor today represents the largest cause of child abuse across the globe. Most of it takes place in economically less developed countries, and much is hidden.” Without awareness of where child labor is prevalent, aid can’t be provided, and children continue to suffer in grueling jobs. This problem is deeply rooted within countries’ labor markets, hence, addressing child labor is contingent on resolving challenges that plague developing country labor markets (Palley). These issues are more common in places with problematic labor markets and economic development.
Laws prohibiting children from working in certain industries and preventing employers from hiring them exist. However, this doesn’t prevent children from lying about their age or employers from hiring them. Some laws accept parents’ claims about a child’s age, leading to many poor parents lying to support their families. If the parents aren’t the liars, then it is the children. It’s mostly a survival strategy; working children have been known to contribute up to almost 90% of their family income (Scanlon).
The problem of child labor is consistently overlooked by many today, who behave as if the issue no longer exists. “Some countries still do not recognize that ignoring or promoting child labor is not consistent with long-term economic development,” Scanlon says. Many fail to comprehend the magnitude of child labor as a problem and choose to ignore the escalating issue while they simultaneously promote it. Most of those advocating to ban the practice are in developed nations. However, their calls for prohibition can seem insincere to developing nations, which assert that the developed ones heavily relied on child labor at a similar stage of economic growth (Palley). People are concentrating on the wrong issues, not the concealed ones. International sanctions and consumer boycotts alone cannot eradicate child labor, especially when their sole focus is the export industry, representing only a fraction of all child labor (Scanlon). Some even exploit the problem, with landlords bonding child workers for as little as US$1.50, and family debts are manipulated to eliminate any hope of repayment (Scanlon). Given the disregard by many who could potentially help, the hard, more concealed issues associated with child labor are unlikely to be addressed openly.
Child labor exerts a heavy toll on the children involved as it detrimentally affects them both physically and emotionally. “All children subjected to intolerable and hazardous labor face a life of fear, isolation, hunger, emotional and physical abuse,” states the British Medical Journal. Emotionally, it induces lifelong fear, even if they manage to escape, isolating them from their contemporaries. A child may be hesitant to disclose that work was the origin of their trauma due to fear of job loss, castigation, or even deportation (Pediatrics).
Physically, as a child’s body is still developing, harmful practices can stymie their growth, leading to long-lasting consequences. Although there’s limited data on the physical health of working children, the available information suggests only negative outcomes. These children face a broad range of diseases and injuries (Scanlon). Numerous reports list health issues from poisoning, serious skin and other infections, chronic lung disease, cancers, burns, and amputations, to skeletal deformities and impairments to hearing, vision, and immune function (Scanlon). The problem with children in the labor force is that they can be occupationally exposed to toxins like benzene (from pumping gasoline), pesticides (from lawn care and agriculture), and asbestos (from construction and maintenance work) (Pediatrics). These hazards may not immediately manifest during their working years but can significantly affect their health and adulthood.
Child labor presents myriad problems, often forcing children to confront grave hazards earlier in life. This can lead to premature death due to the harsh nature of their work. Furthermore, the toll this arduous labor takes on their health is not insignificant. The number of children who die prematurely due to work is essentially equivalent to the estimated number of 15-19 year olds killed each year from falls (103), fires (126), bicycle accidents (129), and poisoning (19) according to Pediatrics. While injuries are an inevitable part of any workforce, children are more susceptible than adults—despite the similar workload. Pediatrics states, “Injuries are the leading cause of death in children older than 1 year and the leading cause of potential years of life lost in the United States. Approximately 20,000 American children die of injuries each year.” The work they undertake is harmful and physically affects them more than adults because their bodies are still developing. “Children on farms are permitted under the FLSA to operate heavy equipment at younger ages than in other sectors of American industry”. They are faced with harmful situations that obstruct their normal physical development. This may result in long-lasting damage that they have to endure for the rest of their lives. In the short-term, the potential risk is death.
Child labor predominates in less developed countries where the living conditions are often intolerable for children. It is estimated that millions of children worldwide are subjected to labor, making it an immense child exploitation issue. From the enactment of the first law to the most recent legislations, many have tried to revitalize the regulations for child labor worldwide. The increasing discourse around this topic might provide the required assistance to these children, as it brings more attention to the problem. However, to see significant changes, child labor eradication requires more action, not just dialogues or articles circulating on social media. The problem may not affect those residing in developed countries, yet it plays a devastating role in the lives of countless children in less affluent regions.
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