Causes: Why Do Children Work?

Whether children work is not a question of choice for many children or their families. The causes of child labor usually stem from poverty and underdevelopment, but this is not the only reason why children work. They also work as a result of other structural constraints, including the failure of the education system, unemployment and underemployment, vested interests of employers, and rapid rural–urban migration. In addition, children may work because of a lack of parental awareness of the implications for children’s health and development, social and cultural attitudes, and lack of political will for effective action. Also, children may choose to work to help their families, to enhance their independence and competencies, to gain access to consumer luxuries, to gain useful skills, and as a means of self actualization.

On the demand side, employers prefer to employ children as they can do labor intensive tasks for lower wages than adults, they are a good source of casual labor, and tend to be a docile labor force as they are unprotected by legislation and workers’ rights. On the supply side, whether children work or not tends to depend on the wealth of the household, the employment status and wage rates of employable adults within the household, the availability and cost of schooling, and the social and cultural environment. Family dynamics and household composition are also cited as influencing whether children work. For example, Boyden et al. noted that ‘‘in many places, a disproportionate number of working children appear to be from homes headed by a single woman’’ (1998:138). They observed that family emergencies, such as death or incapacitation of an adult earner, loss of a job, harvest failures, and severe weather may also increase the likelihood of children starting work.

The way in which society views childhood across time and space influences the nature of child work. Cultural expectations not only shape the types of work which children do but also impact upon the meaning and value of their work. Cunningham noted that changing concepts of childhood over time affect the growth and decline of child work. He observed that once childhood in the UK became viewed romantically as a special time of life to be protected, this helped to encourage the separation of children from the adult world of work.

In the Majority world, children are considered as economically valuable to their parents for two main reasons: in the short term because they contribute to the household with either unpaid work or financial contributions from paid work. In the longer term because children are a source of financial security in old age. The debate on the economic utility of children considers to what extent the economic benefits of having children outweigh their economic rearing costs. Studies exploring the economic contribution of children to peasant households provide contradictory results. For example, on the one hand, some have concluded that children’s economic costs outweigh their benefits as they consume more than they produce up until the age of 16. On the other hand, others have suggested that children make a significant economic contribution, and that boys in particular have produced more than they have consumed by the time they reach 16 years of age. It has also been argued that children are neither a net asset nor an economic liability to the peasant household: their work makes some contribution to the agricultural household but each child is also an additional mouth to feed. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the negative effect of nonproducing young children is compensated by the positive effect of the productivity of children when they are older.

Despite contradictory evidence regarding the economic utility of children, it is widely recognized that children are valuable to their parents particularly in rural areas for their work on peasant farms. Although the children’s contribution is considered important for family well being in poor households, it is debatable whether it is indispensable. The significance of the economic utility of rural children is that, to a certain extent, parents are dependent on their children both for their unpaid work and for security in old age, thereby reinforcing interdependent household relations.

It is widely acknowledged that many children in the Majority world are expected to undertake unpaid household labor on a routine basis and may contribute to the survival of the household with paid work. However, it is worth bearing in mind that many children in the Minority world may also work, although some argue that their participation in work tends to be more symbolic: for socialization purposes rather than because of economic need. Recent research has shown that children in the Minority world work for a variety of reasons which can be related to opportunities and constraints. For some children, work provides opportunities for increasing financial and social autonomy, developing new social networks, and accessing consumer and leisure cultures. For other children in the Minority world, poverty is the key reason why they work and their work experiences can be negative. They may begin work later than their peers in the Majority world, and they may work shorter hours, but children in the Minority world can also suffer from poor working conditions, such as unsociable hours and poor pay. Employment for children in the Minority world is part time rather than full time but, like children in the Majority world, their experiences of work are extremely diverse, encompassing both positive and negative features and consequences, and is often combined with school. Despite the complexity and variety of the nature and causes of work for children, one thing is certain: work is a common part of many rural and urban childhoods throughout the world.