Weak Foundation for Countries and Their Futures: Child Labor and the Lack of Structured Education Systems’ Impacts

Ruby Guo, USA, High Technology High School, 9th Grade, 2nd Place Winner

I peered out my window as the car bumped along a narrow dirt road. The atmosphere in the car consisted of excitement and restlessness, everyone anticipating the Great Wall that would “come into view any minute.” I thought little of the journey as I packed for it the previous night, but I now look back and can confidently say that the car ride offered more experience and insight than clambering the tourist-worn paths of BaDaLing. I was unprepared for the disparity between the children of the wealthy host family I was staying with and those who I saw as we passed by. Young children in straw hats sat on the side of the road, roasting under the sun but taking no notice of the searing heat. I could not see anything in their futures more than that of following in their parents footsteps—doing what generations had done before them, farming the land but taking little notice of their potential to offer more to society than a handful of green beans.

As child labor grows in countries, some more rapidly than others, educational reforms become scarce and useless. What happened to incur the millions of children toiling away in factories and sweatshops, receiving substantially less than America’s standard of “minimum wage”? This labor might be beneficial for the country, but it cannot compare to the impact it has on children. They receive minimal education, spending most of their childhood years working, and thus have little knowledge to go onto better jobs with. A large portion of that generation is doomed to continue menial labor into old age, becoming mechanized and ignorant about the world around them. This legacy progresses down the line, condemning their children to the same fate. Unless there is substantial reform intervention, there would be little to no social change in this tight-wrought system of monetary and social standards. The poor get poorer while the governments of these countries, a mere few percent of the population, take up most of the nation’s wealth. The pooling of this wealth means the concentration of education in some portions of the countries, while there is little to no organized schooling in rural parts. The impact on the underprivileged individuals of these countries is unapparent when looking at the country as a whole—of course, the country being represented by those were brought up in a privileged household. Thus, there is a need to focus on the effects of the labor and the negative consequences upon children.

Although difficult to provide concrete support for, there is a theory that the role of birth order and sibling composition plays a large role in the extensive empirical determinants of child labor. Older children leave school early to help support the family, while younger siblings get a more extensive education. Furthermore, children born by older mothers may have lower body weights, thus viewed as incompetent in terms of correlations to ability and access to resources. This could result in sending these inferior, in some sense of the term, children off to factories simply because in their parents’ minds, they couldn’t amount to anything substantial and thus not worth the expenses of an education. Another factor could be that of gender preference—sons generally have more investment in their education versus that of their female counterparts mainly because of the ideals in traditional societies.

Many people argue that the issue of child labor needs to gain more public attention because the children’s labor force is “disinvesting in human capital formation, which might hurt them in the future and thus affect the economic development of a country” (Dammert 200). Traditionally, child labor has been considered a household response to the threat of poverty, but a more recent string of discoveries suggests that this type of work is a way to manage socioeconomic disasters, reducing investments in education to blunt expenses and gain the wages made by their progenies. Other than the recent market crash experiences in the United States, countries with stable funds rarely experience such shocks to their citizens, financially or socially. Perhaps awareness will divert this inevitable path for underprivileged countries, because “. . . an increase in the opportunity for mothers to work in the labour-intensive agricultural sector makes child labour more likely” (Self 315).

Some parents in rural areas cannot appreciate the value of education, never having been exposed to the riches of knowledge. Children sent to work in factories often back the family’s income, a contribution that is both beneficial and harmful. Working paycheck by paycheck, in some sense of the phrase, is not efficient when considering the possible effects the future has. Education is an investment that is profitable in the long-run, but cannot be afforded by some. More importantly, children’s rights are being skewed. As mentioned in the International Journal of Children’s Rights, “But a major change has been wrought by the CRC [Convention on the Rights of Children] and the discussion on the rights of the child: that is, a focus on the issue as a right of the child rather than an issue of regulating labour standards.” It is not the economic policies that are rather disturbing, but the humanity of manipulating children in this way. Children in Kenya are forced to work in hazardous environments “characterized by economic exploitation…those who did [attend school] had to contend with a rigid school structure and an authoritarian class environment” (Munene and Ruto 127). The 1984 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognized basic education as a human right—why aren’t more steps taken to assure these rights? Re-evaluation of the millions of dollars that end up failing to make it to those who need it because of corruption and improper organization can make a substantial change in this dysfunctional system of failure to siphon these resources efficiently.

Instead of making broad generalizations about this issue, it would be best to look into the countries with the largest amount of child labor and need for education reform. Asia and Africa account for nearly 90% of all child labor performed globally. Thus, looking at statistics and studies focusing on countries included in those boundaries gives us more insight into the true nature of these problems various areas are facing today.

Kenya, a nation with traditions collapsed by increased urbanization, has been one of the main regions where child labor, as much effort is expedited against it, continues to grow at an alarming pace. UNICEF estimated that from 1999 to 2003, approximately one out of four children between the ages of 5 and 14 were partaking in child labor. More recently, the numbers have fluctuated. There are more children in Kenyan schools now; however, this is offset by the increase in child labor as well. There have been previous attempts at reform—Kenya’s 2001 Children’s Act being one of them—but, as referenced in the Appendix, education must be recognized as a financially profitable and personally rewarding area that might not be conceived as an option—that is, until more change occurs.

In Cambodia, the major constraints surrounding the education sector, including the issue of its governance, are the basis of the wide gap between official education policies and the actual practice of them, thus diminishing working children’s chances to benefit from a proper school education. An article in the International Journal of Educational Development addresses the issue surrounding the Cambodian education sector—why have policy makers not reformed or even acknowledged the adverse impact their passive response to child labor has on children’s educations? In the long run, the lack of a new generation of scientists to create new technology, of doctors to create new cures, of great minds to ponder the essence of society will be felt by the society. Without scientists creating new tools or discovering new ways for the country to function, natural resources will not be exploited accordingly. Looking back in history, we can see that powerful nations were the ones located at just the right latitude with just the right livestock and crops. Exports—basically, raw or finished materials which gain countries profit—may be the epitome of economic wellbeing, which is a deciding factor in whether or not children live in poverty, without education, spending their lives without realizing any human potential or personal attainment.

ILO and other international organizations have noted the strong correlation between increased access to basic education and the decrease in child labor. Four decades after the UN made the declaration of commitment to such education, delegates from 155 nations and 150 organizations congregated at the WCEFA (World Conference on Education) to make new proposals and goals by the year 2000. When this year rolled around, the World Educational Forum held in Dakar, Senegal, voted to push back this “deadline” another 15 years. Every few years we spend debating is another portion of millions of children’s lives, years that should’ve been spent learning in a bright classroom setting. However, the harsh reality is that such conditions are unattainable in some regions of the world—that is, without raising awareness.

Students in today’s countries have schooling taken for granting, pupils cutting class or even dropping out. We, as I speak from my perspective as student in this country, have never felt the responsibility on our shoulders to support families by working day after day in sometimes cruel conditions. We have yet to encounter a life of monotony, one lacking in knowledge about the world around us.

Children’s rights are at stake here. In the US, we need to focus the energies we’ve placed on other organizations to those outside of our apparent control. It is our time to take a stand, our time to show compassion for those who do not know the conditions under which they suffer. Ignorance is not acceptable. Moreover, taking advantage of this ignorance cannot be condoned. For the good of countries economically, socially, politically, and plain morally, it is for the children of Cambodia, Vietnam, of Benin, Namibia, of countries tucked away in Asia that we, even as educated students, have never heard of, that we take a stand.


By: Shafiq, M. Najeeb. Education Economics, Sep2007, Vol. 15 Issue 3, p343-358, 16p, Graph; p351

The above chart shows the return on investments for education. This provides a basis for the idea that child labor is only a short-term solution to poverty and other problems confronting people of underprivileged countries.


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