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What (if anything) is wrong with child labour?

Looking at Lewis Hine’s photographic chronicles of working children in the United States (see video above) gives me a particularly conflicting feeling. While his pictures provide a surprisingly sensitive, personal, and even sweet approximation to the life and plights of the children he snapped, I cannot help but feel discomforted by the reality he is portraying. Personally, I think that my discomfort when looking at these pictures lies in the tension between, on the one hand, the moral reflexes that inevitably pop-up, telling me how wrong the condition of these children is; and, on the other hand, the sensation that many of these children seem absolutely comfortable and at ease (maybe even happy?) with their working life.

If I were to ask whether you consider that there is something wrong with child labour, the standard response would be, “Definitely yes”. At least within our contemporary liberal-minded existences in the Global North, imagining a child who spends most of her waking day working in the fields, a factory or in the city streets seems deplorable. Children should not work; work is bad for children. In this post, I want to offer a superficial exploration at what is inside this intuition. What is it that sparks our moral concern when we think about the lives of children who work? And, what is the appropriate normative response to address the problems that affect child workers?

The standard response to the question of the morality of child labour, both in policy circles and in day-to-day life, is that children should not be working; this is called the Abolitionist position. Children should be in school, free from financial responsibilities, and protected from the harms that the working life may have on their development and opportunities. Labour is harmful, restricts opportunities and exploits children, thus, child labour should be abolished. I will introduce in this post the three most relevant arguments given to justify the eradication of child labour, and will briefly look at what they have right and what they have wrong. I’ll attempt to show why its arguments fail, and will propose an alternative account based on an assessment of vulnerability which highlights more precisely where the wrongness lies.


Before looking at the arguments, it’s important to clarify what we are talking about when we talk about ‘child labour’. There are problems with the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) current classification and definition of different forms of child work, but, for simplicity, I’ll use it here. The ILO distinguishes between child work, child labour, hazardous labour and the worst forms of child labour (see Figure 1 below).

Child labour is an ample category of forms of paid or unpaid work which deprives children of their childhood, potential, dignity and is harmful to their mental and physical development. It refers to all kinds of work which can be mentally, physically, socially or morally harmful to the child, and which interferes with the child’s schooling. Child work, on the other hand, is taken to be all paid or unpaid work which does not harm children’s health or personal development, and which does not interfere with their schooling. Although as a conceptual classification this distinction between work and labour is useful, in practice it has proven to be problematically flawed, difficult to use as an evaluative tool, and potentially biased, as a recent UNICEF report shows.

Within the child labour category, two manifestations of it are highlighted by the ILO as of special concern: hazardous work and its worst forms. Hazardous work, as opposed to other forms of child labour, is work that due to its nature and intrinsic characteristics makes it especially harmful to children (i.e. sexual work, underground work or at high altitudes, work with dangerous machinery, chemicals or substances). Within hazardous work, the ILO has focused its priority on tackling what it terms “the worst forms of child labour”. These are usually illicit activities entailing enslavement, exposure to serious hazards, violence, and prostitution.

When asking here, “what (if anything) is wrong with child labour?” I intend to assess the moral (un)justifiability of the grey area in which children’s employment is categorised as ‘labour’. The position presented at the end of this post aims to provide an argument to refute the justifiability of abolishing child labour tout court, while accounting for the existence, and successfully protecting children from work that harms and exploits them.

The Abolitionist position

Fighting for the abolition of child labour is a more than century old endeavour. By the turn of the twentieth century, massive social pressures led to relevant changes in child labour laws in industrialised countries (such as the US or the UK). But it was the ILO Conventions of 1976 (C138 – Minimum Age) and 1999 (C182 – Worst Forms) which have structured how abolitionism is understood. C138 compiles and standardises all previous industry-specific Conventions on child labour, by defining the minimum ages for engaging in employment activities of any kind (that is, by the end of schooling, minimum age 14-15); and minimum age for engaging in any hazardous work (minimum age 18). It was ratified with “a view to achieving the total abolition of child labour” (C138, Preamble). In 1992, the ILO created the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) “with the overall goal of the progressive elimination of child labour”. This is currently the leading programme led by a UN organisation to address the question of child labour.

Due to pressures from various civil society groups, and especially from social leaders, researchers and activists in the Global South, by the end of the 1990s a different approach was being taken: the sudden imposition of minimum age laws for child work was having more negative than positive effects on the child working population. They had their working rights taken away and now they had to work underground. This either meant keeping their old jobs but without contract and securities, or working outside of the law. C182, on the worst forms of child labour, shifted the abolitionist discourse, from the previous sudden and radical abolition of all types of child labour to a more gradual approach, which prioritised tackling the most urgent and harmful forms of child labour (slavery, sexual exploitation and illicit activities), and working from there to less harmful manifestations of child work.

Political philosophers who work on the subject have followed this gradualist understanding of the abolition of child labour. The work of Pierik and Houwerzijl or Debra Satz‘s take on child labour, both follow a dual moral assessment of the issue, by taking ideal and non-ideal considerations into account: in principle, child work should be considered as a moral wrong and should not exist (in ideal theory); however, as policy for our present far-from-ideal situation, certain forms of child work must be tolerated, in order to no create adverse effects. Thus, our focus should be on addressing the worst forms of child labour first, and building from there the eradication of all labour and work done by children.

The reason why the inclusion of children in the labour market is problematic is because their weak agency and their vulnerability to extreme forms of mental and physical injury makes them inevitably exploited and harmed by their working condition. It is not a question of if, it is a question of when. Children’s status as weak agents means that they are incapable of understanding what they are getting into when they accept to work (whatever the work may be); this asymmetry in their bargaining position as employees, argues Satz, is already enough to prove their condition as exploited. Also, the fact that the time that they should be spending in school is used for economic activities implies that an important harm (or fail-to-benefit, depending on how it is interpreted; see Philip Cook’s wonderful work on the subject) is being inflicted both on their short-term interests (as being deprived of a ‘normal’ childhood), and their long-term interests (due to the restriction of opportunities that not going to school will impose on them).

Based on an assumption of children’s condition as vulnerable agents, three arguments are given in favour of the need to (gradually) abolish all forms of child labour (I follow Cook’s account of the abolitionist arguments):

  • The Harm Argument: Children’s condition as mentally and physically developing beings makes them especially vulnerable to harms (in general). Working conditions (some more than others) threaten children’s short- and long-term interests. Long hours, harsh conditions, contact with hazardous materials and use of complex machinery threatens children’s well-being. All work that can have a negative effect on children’s well-being ought to be banned.

  • Fail-to-Benefit Argument: Working conditions not only can harm children (in the sense of reducing their well-being as compared to a counterfactual in which they don’t work), but it also arrests their potential development. Spending time working which should be spent at school limits their opportunities to develop fundamental capabilities and motivations which will open many doors in the future. All work that conflicts with children’s schooling should be banned.

  • Exploitation Argument: Children’s condition as “weak agents” (as Satz calls it), makes them especially vulnerable to exploitation in the labour market. Children’s lack of understanding of the consequences of their choices, their limited capacity to foresee the consequences of their working decisions, and their limited social and economic skills puts them, inevitably, in an asymmetric power position in front of employers who may exploit them. All contracts and relations in which a child might be exploited due to her weak agency and asymmetric power should be banned.

The Problem of Ascription and Two False Equivalences

Although I consider that the abolitionist concern with protecting children from exploitation and harm is in the right place, I wish to explore whether the absolute abolition of child labour is (and can be) the best solution to address the issues of exploitation and harm of the child working population. Although vulnerability to harm and exploitation are, indeed, fundamental issues which ought to be address, I consider that there are three reasons why abolition is not the most appropriate nor fairest way to solve them. The first, and from which the other two derive, relates to the problematic ascription of vulnerability as inherent to childhood; the second considers the false equivalence between child labour and harm/failure-to-benefit; and finally, a concern with the claim that child workers are inevitably exploited. Here, I will look at length only the first issue (the ascription of vulnerability to childhood), and will only briefly glance at the other two.

The main problem with current philosophical defences of abolitionism is their assumption that children’s vulnerability to harm and exploitation in the workplace is inherent to their condition qua children. That is, vulnerability to working conditions is ascribed as an intrinsic part of what being a ‘child’ entails. It is this core assumption of abolitionist positions which offers them the justification for banning child labour: if children’s threat of being harmed and exploited is inherent to their developmental condition and inevitable in the workplace, then there is little space to argue that anything but absolute restriction of the activities which harm and exploit them would be sufficient to tackle their plight. I consider, however, that this is a false statement.

Claiming the vulnerability of a subject to a certain activity does not necessarily imply or justify the incapacitation and restriction of the subject to exercise the activity. For example, the fact the women are much more vulnerable than men to being sexually assaulted if walking alone at night does not necessarily imply nor justify the incapacitation and restriction of women walking alone at night. Policies that promote such a solution in order to end sexual assault are absolutely out of date, at least in contemporary liberal societies. In order to decide whether incapacitation or restriction of an activity based on vulnerability is justified requires an assessment of the sources that give rise to the subject’s vulnerability (see the wonderful work by Catriona Mackenzie et al. on the subject). That is, we need to explore whether the vulnerability is: one, intrinsic to the relation between the subject and the activity (inherent vulnerability); two, conditional to external circumstances (situational vulnerability); or three, forcefully created by oppressive practices (pathogenic vulnerability). Depending on the source of vulnerability, our moral response to and our normative prescriptions for the situation change radically.

Assuming that children’s vulnerability to harm and exploitation in the labour market is always inherent to their condition fails to perceive the structural role that external conditioning factors, other agents and institutional support (or lack thereof) play in framing how vulnerable they are, and how this speaks to defining the most appropriate and fair mechanisms to tackle the potential threat of harm and exploitation.

Of course, depending on a child’s stage of development, her physical and mental condition may entail that she bares certain incapacities or limitations which, if confronted to certain working conditions, may severely threaten her well-being and agency. Although harmful to everyone, working in contact with dangerous substances (such as working in the mining industry) can be especially harmful to a child as it may impede their appropriate physical or mental development. Also, working with heavy machinery, which under control of stronger individuals is much less threatening, may impose a severe burden on children who cannot fully control them. One could argue, as well, that work in the sex industry [although highly harmful in emotional and mental terms for a large section of all those (especially women of any age) who work in it], can be severely damaging to a child’s life, as the probability of her understanding what she is getting into are close to nil; that is, the argument of “weak agency” defended by Satz accounts well for the wrongness in this case.

The former are clear cases in which children are inherently vulnerable to harm and/or exploitation by their working conditions, and thus, it is justifiable to prioritise the exclusion of children from such practices. However, not all situations of working children follow the pattern presented above. In many cases, the source of the vulnerability of working children is not inherent to their biological state as children, but rather strongly conditioned by systemic social, legal and economic practices that enable, and even foster, their vulnerability to exploitation and harm. The simple fact of prohibiting the inclusion of children in the labour market is already a structural source for one of child workers’ most problematic vulnerabilities: their lack of protections, securities and assurances in the form of working rights (see Manfred Liebel’s analysis of Bolivia’s Code of Childhood which intends to address this issue). Being forbidden from working when you need to do so in order to subsist exacerbates your vulnerabilities rather than protecting you from them. A child in poverty who requires an income, and who is banned from working, will be put in a position in which she has no protections against predatory employers, in which she cannot claim a decent wage, working hours, or securities of any kind. This is pathogenic as it is a vulnerability created by a social and political system which turns a blind eye to certain externalities that may arise from their legal provisions.

The point that I want to make is very simple: it is not child labour in itself which is morally problematic; the actual locus of concern, in most cases beyond those in which children’s inherent vulnerability is a clear determinant of exploitation and harm, is (and should be) on tackling the harm and exploitation themselves. For example, the harms that come from lacking formal education is one of the core issues that concern child labour researchers. But the abolition of child labour does not correlate, nor does it ensure that school attendance and completion will increase. If we are concerned with the harm (and fail-to-benefit) caused by lack of schooling, then the focus should be on looking at ways to improve access, quality and success in schools, and on reducing the economic dependence of families on their school-aged children. Forbidding children from working is not the solution improve their educational deficits. As long as children’s income is required for the subsistence of their family, these children will most likely keep on fulfilling economic tasks instead of going to school.

As to exploitation, vulnerability to being exploited is not inherent to being a child. Banning work to children simply to avoid exploitation puts the burden on the victim, not on the perpetrator. If a child needs to work, she will do so regardless of whether she is aware that she may be exploited or not. The highest correlate to exploitation in the labour market is not age but socioeconomic status. If you are poor, and have an urgency for an income in order to survive, it does not matter if you are 8 or 80, you will be in a weaker bargaining position which will enable exploitative power relations to develop. If one adds to this not having any status or rights as a worker (as is the case of children), their situational vulnerability (as poor) is compounded with the lack of legal protections as a worker (pathogenic vulnerability).

Closing Remarks

Unfortunately, I cannot do justice to the full length of arguments in favour or against the justifiability of abolishing child labour, nor of the moral wrongness of such a practice. I’ve attempted to provide a very superficial glimpse at one of the problems with defending the eradication of child labour, and a brief analysis of a more fruitful way to look at the problem.

NOTE: I’ve consciously only provided links to sources which are accessible to everyone: either open-access papers, or public sources. I’ve thus omitted all sources which are only accessible to the academic community (such as paywalled academic publishers) This is done in order to ensure that everyone can follow the debate.

The author would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Grant Agency of the Czech Academy of Sciences through a project on ‘ Taking age discrimination seriously ’ (grant ID: 17 – 26629S) awarded to the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Centre for Law and Public Affairs (CeLAPA), created under subsidies for a long-term conceptual development (RVO: 68378122).

Nicolás works on questions related to discrimination of and justice for vulnerable groups. He is particularly interested in issues related to the status of children in theories of justice. He is a Derby Fellow at the School of Law and Social Justice (University of Liverpool). He is currently working on a monograph entitled “A Political Theory of Childhood.”



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1 Comment

  1. Aliya

    So informative! Thank you so much for a lovely post.

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