Child labour: facts and how to help

Jul 12, 2018
15-minute read
Canadians might categorize child labour as something that happens in the dark corners of far off places, but the reality is, child labour remains a rampant issue today, both at home and abroad.
 
It’s estimated that there are 152 million victims of child labour, worldwide – forty-eight per cent of them engaged in dirty, dangerous and degrading work.
 
And while child labour may be illegal in Canada, that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own child labour problem.
 
Keep reading for more child labour facts and how you can help.
 
What is child labour?
Is there a problem with child labour in Canada today?
What is Canada doing to stop child labour?
You mentioned supply chains – what are those?
What are the causes of child labour?
What are the effects of child labour?
How can I stop child labour?
Quick read: child labour facts
 
A young woman who used to be engaged in child labour now runs her own garment business in Cambodia.
Saniyah left school at 12-years-old to earn an income for her family. Her years as a child labourer were lengthy, but they didn’t make a big difference in her family’s financial state. Today, with help from World Vision vocational training, she operates a successful sewing business. Photo: Ratha Ung/World Vision.
 
What is child labour?
Child labour is defined as the use of children in industry or business, especially when illegal or considered inhumane.

The work that these children do is often harmful to their health, interferes with their education, or inhibits their physical mental, spiritual, moral or social development.
 
Approximately 4.3 million children work in forced labour, which includes children in situations of debt bondage, slavery and commercial sexual exploitation.
 
A child’s age, the type of work and the hours of work performed are determining factors in whether a particular form of work can be classified as child labour.

Generally, unsafe child labour practices are defined in part by the number of working hours for a specific child’s age. Unsafe child labour includes:
  • Any of the worst forms of child labour: including excessively long hours, night work, work with heavy machinery or work that takes place underground or underwater.
  • Any labour performed by a child under the age of 12
  • More than 14 hours of work, per week, by a child aged 12-14
  • More than 43 hours of work, per week, by a child aged 15-17
In its most extreme forms, child labour causes children – at very young ages – to be separated from their families, exposed to hazardous work, left to fend for themselves or enslaved.
 
Is there a problem with child labour in Canada today?
Unfortunately, yes. Child labour laws in Canada were enacted at the beginning of the 20th century and outlawed the employment of children. But Canadians continue to be affected by child labour today.
 
Research conducted in 2016 found that over 1,200 companies operating in Canada are known to be importing goods at a high risk of being produced by a child or through forced labour. The majority of these companies are disclosing very little, if any, information on the policies, practices and processes they have in place to address these risks.

This means that the average Canadian is likely to be connected to child labour through the everyday products we buy and consume.
 
What is Canada doing to stop child labour?
Canada is a leader in promoting the respect and dignity of all people, regardless of where they live. But we’re not yet doing our part to call for greater transparency in global supply chains. With a growing number of jurisdictions taking legislative action, it’s time for Canada to join the list of countries with transparency laws to become a global leader in addressing child and forced labour around the world.
 
Read more about how Canadians have stepped up and spoken out against child labour.
 
You mentioned supply chains – what are those?
A supply chain is the system of organizations, people, activities, information and resources involved in moving a product or service from the supplier to the customer. Supply chains can include many touchpoints and be very difficult to follow. For example, a shoe might have its sole glued on in one factory, travel elsewhere to get laces, be packaged in a different facility and make a few additional stops before being shipped to Canada. A child labourer involved in any step of this lengthy process can connect the product, and the consumer, to child labour.
 
What are the causes of child labour?
1) Poverty: like so many other issues in the world, the root cause of child labour is poverty. Unemployment and the need to survive often lead families to make desperate decisions. Lack of education can also impact children – since their parents may not understand or see the short and long-term value of their child receiving an education instead of working.
 
2) Crisis: Natural disasters or the death of one of both parents can force children in to hazardous work in order to help their family survive day-to-day.
 
3) Chronic emergencies: things like repeat drought or famine can leave families in dire circumstances where working to survive is one of the few options.
 
4) Conflict: war or government corruption can turn the lives of children upside down, forcing them to abandon schooling and regular routines to earn a living.
 
5) Demand: the demand for low prices and cheap obedient labour can trap children in hazardous work.
 
What are the effects of child labour?
There are a number of ways that child labour can affect children, and these can vary depending on which industry the child is working in. Generally, child labourers can suffer from long-term health problems due to malnutrition, exposure to chemicals, abuse, injuries, exhaustion and psychological harm.
  • In agriculture, children may be exposed to toxic pesticides or fertilizers. They work with dangerous blades and tools and carry heavy loads. 

  • In mining, children may use poisonous chemicals, face the risk of mine collapse, and sometimes work with explosives. 

  • In construction, children may carry heavy loads, work at heights without safety equipment, and risk injury from dangerous machinery. 

  • In manufacturing, children may use toxic solvents, perform repetitive tasks in painful positions, and risk injury from sharp tools. 

  • In domestic work, children risk abuse, work long hours, and often live in isolation from their families and friends. 


It is also true that children who work often don’t get a proper education. Long, strenuous work days can leave kids exhausted and unable to attend classes or do their homework. For parents who are struggling to keep their families afloat, sending kids to school is a luxury they cannot afford.

Children study in a classroom in Kenya. Kids engaged in child labour often have to leave school.
Children in their classroom in Kenya. Kids engaged in child labour often have to drop out of school or are unable to keep up with their school work. Photo: World Vision. 

How can I stop child labour?
After everything you’ve read, you may be wondering how to stop child labour? Rest assured that there are ways for Canadians to take action, in fact many already have.
 
1) One of the most effective ways to address the worst forms of child labour is by demanding greater transparency within global supply chains. Join us in calling on our government to introduce Supply Chain Transparency legislation in Canada.
 
2) Every child has the right to be protected. Yet millions of children around the world are subjected to exploitation, violence and abuse daily. Let’s change that. For good. Give a donation today.

Canadians can also combat harmful child labour practices by being more aware of their purchases, choosing goods that are ethically sourced, ethically made and ethically distributed. When consumers shop in a conscious way, companies are more likely to take notice and address their supply chain practices. These tips can help you become a more ethically conscious shopper.
 
Quick facts: don’t have time to read the entire article?
Here are some child labour facts to help you understand the issue:
  • It’s estimated that there are 152 million victims of child labour, worldwide
  • 48 per cent per cent of child labour victims work in dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs.
  • Almost half of all child labourers are between ages 5 and 11.
  • Approximately 4.3 million children work in forced labour, including debt bondage, slavery and commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Over 1,200 companies operating in Canada are known to be importing goods at a high risk of being produced by a child or through forced labour.
  • 62 per cent of child labour victims are boys, however the number of girls is underreported because they’re often involved in “hidden” forms of work, such as domestic labour.
  • 71 per cent of child labour victims are in agriculture: fishing, forestry, livestock herding, commercial farming.
  • 17 per cent of child labour victims are in services: sex trafficking and tourism, domestic services, food services, housekeeping.
  • 12 per cent are in industry: sweatshops, factories, mining, brick making, stone quarries.
  • The number of children involved in child labour has declined by one third since 2000.
  • By 2025, UN member states—which includes Canada—are committed to ending all forms of forced labour, modern slavery and child labour.
 
Robert, a 14-year-old charcoal maker
Robert’s situation is a prime example of the complexity of child labour, its causes and its effects.
A young man who works as a charcoal maker in the Philippines. 
At just 14, Robert spends his days making charcoal with his mom in their urban community in the Philippines, where gang violence is an everyday threat. Working is a necessity for Robert as the oldest sibling and it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make to ensure his siblings stay safe and in school.
 
For so many families, having their children work is an inevitable reality – one that could change if parents had reliable income-earning opportunities in their communities, and children had the stability and resources needed to attend school.
 
Read more about Robert’s story here, to gain a deeper understanding of the complex nature of child labour.