Child labor is work done by persons under age eighteen (or younger, depending on applicable national law) that is harmful to them for being abusive, exploitive, hazardous, or otherwise contrary to their best interests. It is a subset of a larger class of children’s work, some of which may be compatible with children’s best interests (variously expressed as beneficial, benign, or harmless children’s work). Broadly defined, child labor recognizes that childhood is a culturally specific concept and that the particular contexts within which children’s work is assigned and organized tend to determine both its costs and its benefits (Ennew, Myers, and Plateau 2005). While in most cultures some work by children is viewed as healthy for maturation and socialization, child labor is not. It is understood to violate human rights law and policy.

The number of children who are engaged in child labor globally is uncertain. The answer to this question varies according to activity, place, society, and other factors. It is estimated that in 2007 there exist some 250 million child workers worldwide (predominantly in developing countries), with perhaps as many as 75 percent of them working in agriculture and related activities, most of the remainder in the nonagricultural informal sector, and only a small portion in the formal sector. Yet unknown is the exact percentage of these working children who experience child labor specifically.

It nevertheless is widely accepted that large numbers of the world’s working children toil in appalling conditions, are ruthlessly exploited to perform dangerous jobs with little or no pay, and are thus often made to suffer severe physical and emotional abuse—in brick factories, carpet-weaving centers, fishing platforms, leather tanning shops, mines, and other hazardous places, often as cogs in the global economy; in domestic service, vulnerable to sexual and other indignities that escape public scrutiny and accountability; on the streets as prostitutes, forced to trade in sex against their will; and as soldiers in life-threatening conflict situations. Working long hours, often beaten or otherwise abused, and commonly trafficked from one country to another, their health is severely threatened, their very lives endangered. Many, if they survive, are deformed and disabled before they can mature physically, mentally, or emotionally. Typically, they are unable to obtain the education that can liberate and improve their lives, a condition that is deemed generally to constitute child abuse in and of itself (Bissell 2005; Bissell and Shiefelbein 2003).

The causes of child labor, while steeped in culture, are linked to economics—primarily poverty, necessitating that children contribute to family income. Likewise, the reduction and eradication of child labor is tied fundamentally to economics. In North America and western Europe, for example, major economically based trends (e.g., industrial development, higher wages, technological innovation, more accessible and prolonged education, lower birth rates, the entry of women into the workforce) best explain, along with state regulation and changing popular ideas about childhood, most of the long-term declines in child labor. Labor movements and other forms of social action also have played an important role, shaping public perceptions and values about children and child rearing.

Because of this variety and complexity, economists and other experts point out that effective policies to combat child labor require flexibility to accommodate the many and diverse factors involved in its reduction and eradication. They especially emphasize the critical importance of presenting poor families and children with economic opportunities and incentives that can free them from having to rely on child labor for survival (Basu 1999; Basu and Tzannatos 2003; Anker 2000, 2001; Grootaert and Patrinos 1999).

Human rights discourse and activism—especially since the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—have likewise become influential in combating child labor, advancing the case for at least minimal standards of socioeconomic and political justice to hasten its elimination. Increasingly child labor is understood to be a multidimensional human rights problem in violation of a broad panoply of entitlements with which all members of the human family are endowed (Weston and Teerink 2005a, 2005b). The Convention on the Rights of the Child ensures that children specifically, including working children, are not overlooked in this regard. Thus does Article 3(1) stipulate that “in all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”; and thus, to this end, does Article 32(1) recognize “the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development.”