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Child Labour
How many child labourers are there in the world? The numbers are staggering. They work for low or no wages because their family's survival depends on it.

How many child labourers are there in our world?
A few hundred thousand?
Twenty million?
One hundred million?

Guess again. The real numbers are absolutely staggering: 218 million children under 18—some as young as five—work for low or no wages because their family's survival depends on it. Of those labourers, 126 million are involved in work that is hazardous to their safety or health.

Whether in bondage as domestic help to pay off family debts, combing through landfill sites for recyclables, making rugs or garments, harvesting coffee or cotton, one out of every seven children in our world is engaged in some form of labour.

I remember meeting an eight-year-old boy at a garbage dump near Bangkok, Thailand who was the same age as my daughter at the time. With a rag over his face, but no shoes or gloves, he was rummaging through foul and toxic trash. His family lived hand-to-mouth.

When I asked what his dreams were, he smiled and announced that he wanted to go to school. It seemed impossible, but after some work by our local staff, his family joined one of our programs, and his dream became a reality.

Yet, there are still millions of children who don't have this opportunity, and who are losing the once-in-a-lifetime chance just to be kids. Their working conditions are damaging their development—physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual—and denying them their most fundamental human rights. In many cases, they're preyed upon by adults who know that children will work at a fraction of the price it would cost to hire an adult, and that the kids don't know enough to demand higher wages or better working conditions.

Jesus loved children. He invited their presence, lavished His attention upon them and showed the infinite value God ascribes to each and every person. As followers of Jesus and Christian leaders, we cannot respond to the global injustice of child labour with indifference or resignation.

What is child labour anyhow?

In any discussion of child labour, it's important to define your terms. Around 318 million children are involved in what's called "economic activity"—paid or unpaid work, whether for the market or not, that is done on a casual or regular basis. This type of work is acceptable: it can teach a sense of responsibility, isn't harmful to a child, may contribute to a family's well-being and doesn't interfere with a child's education.

Within that figure of 318 million children, however, about 218 million are classified as child labourers, working in much more exploitative conditions. "Child labour" is any work by a person under 18 that is damaging to their health, their physical, mental, social or moral development, or that interferes with their education. Many of these 218 million children work full-time. Their labour includes factory work, mining and quarrying, agriculture, helping in the family business or doing odd jobs.

The worst forms of child labour include slavery, prostitution, bonded labour, drug trafficking, child trafficking and recruitment for armed conflict.

Thirupathamma: One child's story

Not long ago, one of my Canadian colleagues met 12-year-old Thirupathamma during a visit to southern India. After losing her parents to AIDS in 2005, Thirupathamma went to live with her uncle's family. To help make ends meet and to buy medicine for her younger sister and brother, both of whom are HIV-positive, Thirupathamma works as a "rag picker" on the side of a major highway, sifting through garbage for recyclables. She works from dawn until evening, picking up pieces of plastic, metal, cardboard, paper and glass. It's dirty and dangerous work, and it pays between $5 and $8 a month.

Thirupathamma, 12, earns less than $8 a month working full-time, sifting through garbage.

Her uncle and aunt are Christians, but they simply cannot afford to provide for three extra children. "We must care for the poor and needy," says her 43-year-old aunt, Laxshmi, "but I pray daily for God to show me another way because I don't have the strength for this."

Thirapathamma has never attended school. "I have so many visions," she says. "I want to be like normal children. I want my brother and sister to have the things other children have. I feel very bad that my life has ended with rag picking."

What my church can do

With so much exploitative child labour tied to practices and policies in other countries, what can Canadian citizens and followers of Jesus do to help end the exploitation?

• Child labour is closely tied to poverty. Write a letter from your church or group encouraging Canada's government to live up to our country's long-standing commitments to fight poverty. Cut and paste the letter from World Vision's website urging the Prime Minister to remember his election promises for more and better aid to the poor. Download the letter at

• Encourage church members to be informed and responsible in what they buy and where they buy it. Diamonds, garments, tires and chocolate are all industries that are tied to exploitative child labour. Urge people to get beyond the notion that "the lowest price is the law" when shopping. Learn more about Fair Trade chocolate on the World Vision website.

• In November, Manitoba became the first Canadian province to adopt a policy that clothing and apparel used by government workers must only be purchased from responsible manufacturers. Items must be manufactured according to accepted labour standards and not involve practices such as child labour. Currently, Toronto and Vancouver have similar policies. Contact your local MPP to encourage your province or city to do the same.

• Encourage your church members to sign a petition to abolish modern-day slavery.

• One of the world's eight Millennium Development Goals is "achieving universal primary education" by 2015. When school fees are abolished and spots are created for every child, child labour decreases. Christians are rallying around the MDGs through a campaign called the Micah Challenge, a global campaign to engage Christians in issues of poverty and injustice.

Prayer Points

• 2007 is the mid-point year towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals. Pray for world leaders to take seriously their pledge to achieve "universal primary education" for all boys and girls by 2015.

• Pray that wealthy countries like Canada will make global education a priority. If the world spent about $10 billion a year—far less than what we now spend each year on luxury items such as makeup, perfumes and cruises—every child could receive free primary education.

• Pray for God's protection on children who are vulnerable to traffickers, and for children caught in exploitative conditions.

• Pray for organizations, ministries, churches and individuals working to end child labour. Pray that Canadian churches will get involved in the Micah Challenge, and follow Christ in seeking justice for children, the poorest of the poor.

Global resources

For current statistics, download the International Labour Organization's The End of Child Labour: Within Reach.

International Justice Mission Canada rescues victims of violence, sexual exploitation, slavery and oppression and brings perpetrators to justice. Sign a petition condemning human trafficking or to sign up for a prayer update.

The Global Fund for Children offers resources including books, photography and films.

Human Rights Watch provides in-depth reports, articles and news about children's rights and rights abuses.

Visit the UNICEF website for a summary on child labour.

The human rights group, Anti-Slavery International, offers facts and statistics.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child addresses child labour.


• Don't miss Amazing Grace, the new film by Walden Media. The Walden Media website makes available resources connected to the movie and a petition to abolish modern-day slavery.

• The short web movie on Child Labour from the International Labour Organization is worth reviewing.

• Learn more about the award-winning documentary by Galen Films, Stolen Childhoods.

World Vision resources

The video, Young Stars: India's Working Children Speak Out, tells the story of Akbar Ameerjhan, a young man who motivates working children in Bangalore, India to exercise their rights. Order through it through World Vision. It includes a study guide.

For a variety of downloadable publications on children's rights, including Protecting Children: A Biblical Perspective on Children's Rights; Children's Work-Adults' Play: Child Sex Tourism in Cambodia and Here We Stand: World Vision and Child Rights visit the World Vision website.

Dave Toycen is the president of World Vision Canada.

Originally published in World Watch, March/April 2007.




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