Banning child labour a ‘mistake’ say experts

Stitch up: According to ODI, 15% of 6–14 year-olds work full time in Bangladesh. © PA

Around 168 million children go to work across the globe. The UN has vowed to end child labour by 2025 — but now a group of experts says that this would be ‘harmful and unnecessary’. Why?

Shilpa is 14 years old. She studied for just two years of primary school as a young girl, and got good grades. But when she moved from rural Bangladesh to the capital city, Dhaka, she was forced to take a job sewing clothes in a garment factory. ‘I’m happy to help my family, but I don’t have dreams,’ she says. ‘I will not be returning to school.’

She is one of some 168 million child labourers working around the world. Over half of them do so in ‘hazardous’ conditions.

That number has gone down from 246 million since 2000 — but last year the UN said that it was not enough. It vowed, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, to end child labour ‘in all its forms’ by 2025. It is an ‘ethical and legal imperative that we cannot afford to ignore,’ said a spokesperson earlier this year.

But yesterday a group of academics wrote a letter to The Observer condemning this goal. Of course children should be protected from ‘nasty situations’, they said; but banning child labour altogether could hurt them far more than it helps.

‘Banning children from work doesn’t bring them back into school,’ explained one — in fact, the opposite can happen if they were working to earn their school fees. Instead, banning child labour could force young people ‘underground’ into far more dangerous jobs.

When child labour restrictions were introduced to Victorian Britain, they helped the youngest workers to leave the dangerous factories behind and get an education.

Now, the UK and other Western countries have very strict rules about how and when their children can work. When big companies like Apple or H&M are accused of using child labour, it seriously hurts their reputation.

But the belief that child labour is always wrong is a Western prejudice, said the academics yesterday. In many cases, ‘work doesn’t end a childhood’ at all — it can even ‘enhance it’. Instead of making their livelihoods illegal, the UN should listen to the children’s views: ‘How do they want things changed for them?’

Worked up

Of course children should not work, say some. Our earliest years should be about going to school, playing with friends, and enjoying the world around us. It is totally unfair for some children to miss out just because they come from poor backgrounds; we should not make excuses for it. Some things are always wrong. Child labour is one of them.

A very naive view, say others. Attitudes about work vary between cultures. As long as children have time for school as well, then there is plenty of evidence that ‘age-appropriate’ work can teach them resilience and boost their self-esteem. If it helps poor families improve their lives too, then what is the harm? Banning it is too simplistic.

You Decide

  1. When do children become old enough to work?
  2. Is child labour always wrong, no matter what?


  1. Write down three questions that you would ask a person your age who is working instead of going to school.
  2. Choose another of the UN’s sustainable development goals (there is a link under Become An Expert). Produce a report which explains why it is important and how it can be achieved.

Some People Say...

“All children should get a job at 14.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Child labour is illegal in my country — does this affect me?
Just because your country has banned child labour does not mean that the products you use were not made by children from elsewhere. Around 60% of child labour is in the agriculture industry, meaning imported food and ingredients can be affected. Fast fashion and gold mines also have a child labour problem.
How do I know if something I buy was made by kids?
The quickest way is to search for the company’s name and ‘child labour’ on the internet — if they have been caught out, you will soon know. But it is not always so easy. For some products, global supply chains are so complicated that manufacturers claim to have no idea where certain materials came from. If in doubt, try to buy from companies with a clear sustainability policy.

Word Watch

Garment factory
Clothes manufacturing is a £24bn industry in Bangladesh. Last month the Overseas Development Institute found that child labourers in slums were working 64 hours a week.
168 million
According to the International Labour Organization. Around 85 million are in ‘hazardous’ work.
Sustainable Development Goals
These were agreed by 193 countries in September 2015. Goal 8 (decent work and economic growth) addresses child labour.
The researchers are from all over the world, and specialise in child development or human rights.
The Factory Act (1833) banned children under 9 from working. More laws were introduced in 1842 and 1878. By the end of Victoria’s reign, most children up to age 12 were in school.
Strict rules
In the UK, the minimum age for a part-time job is 13, with exceptions for TV, modelling and theatre.
In January this year, Amnesty International accused tech companies Apple, Sony and Samsung of using cobalt which was mined by children in Africa.
In August, it was found that H&M factories in Myanmar were employing 14-year-old workers.


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