Robbed of opportunity Child labor: Work at an early age cuts chances for education and a way out of poverty.


THERE WAS a time when all children worked from an early age, whether around the hearth or in the fields. But after reformers attacked the worst excesses of the Industrial Age, when less fortunate children were forced into factory work and other unsuitable jobs, governments in developed countries passed laws to make sure that their young people were at school, not at work.

Despite a consensus in much of the world that childhood should be reserved for schooling and that children should be spared the burdens of wage-earning, a recent report from the International Labor Organization highlights the persistence of the problem. According to the ILO, nearly one-fourth of the world's children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working either full time or part time, many of them in conditions that would be considered hazardous even for trained adults. Although some illegal child labor exists in industrialized countries, the vast majority of these young people live in developing countries. In the saddest cases, young children are sold by their families into slavery, debt bondage or prostitution.

If the statistics on child labor worldwide are shocking, the causes and consequences for this social evil are obvious. Poverty and the lack of alternatives for poor families ensure a ready supply of children. And the years they spend in back-breaking labor -- rather than school -- help to perpetuate that poverty.

As industrialized countries have recognized, education for both boys and girls is essential to raise living standards for the next generation. A child in school is preparing to contribute far more to a country's economy than his or her meager efforts could produce today.

Pub Date: 6/13/98

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