Child labor laws are intended to protect children from exploitation in a wide range of industries. Most nations around the world do have laws regarding child labor, although these laws may not always be strictly enforced. This illustrates a serious problem with trying to reform long-established practices; banning child labor does not, unfortunately, cause it to disappear. In order to fight child labor, nations must take an active role in enforcing their child labor laws, and in addressing the larger issues which lead to child labor.
As a general rule, most countries consider a “child” to be anyone under the age of 18. In most cases, someone between the age of 15 and 18 can engage in “non-hazardous” labor, and some countries have restrictions on the number of hours that these laborers work, to ensure that their work does not interfere with their education. Some countries also have an additional category, between 13 and 15, for “light labor.” These ages are in line with an international standard promoted by the International Labor Organization, and no countries are entirely without child labor laws. However, despite clear laws on the books, child labor is a major problem in many regions throughout the world, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
While most people think of children laboring in sweat shops when they think about child labor, children are also pressed into service in the sex trade, military, agricultural industry, and as domestic servants. Many child laborers work exclusively in domestic industry, making international boycotts or sanctions rather pointless. Child labor laws in theory protect children in all of these industries, but they may be indifferently enforced, if at all. Inspectors who do visit sites with child laborers are often give rote answers by the children, who are trained to respond with answers which will conceal their age and labor status.
In an attempt to combat the issue of child labor and generally minimal rights for children, the United Nations introduced the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. Almost all of the member nations of the organization signed the convention, except for the United States and Somalia. Signatories of the convention must agree to fight the exploitation of children, submitting to regular review by a committee and promoting a healthier and safer world for children to live in. Since many of these countries allow severe violations of their own laws on child labor, the effectiveness of this convention is debatable.
In industrialized nations, child labor laws are very restrictive, and they are heavily enforced. In developing nations, however, these laws tend to allow more leeway, and they are still almost impossible to enforce. Cultural values may promote child labor as acceptable, for example, or children may work under their parents so that they cannot be identified as child laborers. Since poverty is a major factor in child labor, critics of child labor laws have pointed out that they may, tragically, force children into more dangerous industries, and that poverty needs to be eliminated so that children do not feel obligated to work.