Child labor persists even though laws and standards to eliminate it exist. Current causes of global child labor are similar to its causes in the U.S. 100 years ago, including poverty, limited access to education, repression of workers’ rights, and limited prohibitions on child labor.

Poverty and unemployment levels are high.

Poor children and their families may rely upon child labor in order to improve their chances of attaining basic necessities. More than one-fourth of the world's people live in extreme poverty, according to 2005 U.N. statistics. The intensified poverty in parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America causes many children there to become child laborers.

Access to compulsory, free education is limited.

school-aged child working

Photo: David Parker

In 2006, approximately 75 million children were not in school, limiting future opportunities for the children and their communities. A 2009 report by the United Nations estimated that achieving universal education for the world's children would cost $10-30 billion -- about 0.7% - 2.0% of the annual cost of global military spending.

Existing laws or codes of conduct are often violated.

Even when laws or codes of conduct exist, they are often violated. For example, the manufacture and export of products often involves multiple layers of production and outsourcing, which can make it difficult to monitor who is performing labor at each step of the process. Extensive subcontracting can intentionally or unintentionally hide the use of child labor.

Carpet Weaver

Carpet Weaver
Nepal, 1993
Photo: David Parker

Laws and enforcement are often inadequate.

Child labor laws around the world are often not enforced or include exemptions that allow for child labor to persist in certain sectors, such as agriculture or domestic work. Even in countries where strong child labor laws exist, labor departments and labor inspection offices are often under-funded and under-staffed, or courts may fail to enforce the laws. Similarly, many state governments allocate few resources to enforcing child labor laws.

National Laws Often Include Exemptions



minimum age of 14 for most work...
plantations and brick kilns are exempt.


prohibits children under 16 from industrial work...
but excludes agriculture.


specifies a minimum age for work...
but sets no regulations on domestic work or agricultural work.

Workers’ rights are repressed.

Workers’ abilities to organize unions affect the international protection of core labor standards, including child labor. Attacks on workers’ abilities to organize make it more difficult to improve labor standards and living standards in order to eliminate child labor. For example, in 2010, 5,000 workers were fired and 2,500 workers were arrested as a result of their union activity, according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

The global economy intensifies the effects of some factors.

Boy pushing a cart

Photo: David Parker

As multinational corporations expand across borders, countries often compete for jobs, investment, and industry. This competition sometimes slows child labor reform by encouraging corporations and governments to seek low labor costs by resisting international standards. Some U.S. legislation has begun to include labor standards and child labor as criteria for preferential trade and federal contracts. However, international free trade rules may prohibit consideration of child labor or workers’ rights.

The effects of poverty in developing countries are often worsened by the large interest payments on development loans. The structural adjustments associated with these loans often require governments to cut education, health, and other public programs, further harming children and increasing pressure on them to become child laborers.

Debt and Child Welfare

The example of Sub-Saharan Africa

Though the region receives $10 billion in aid per year, it loses more than $14 billion in debt payments annually, according to MediaGlobal.

In Malawi, the country spends 40% of its GDP to repay foreign creditors, while only 15% of GDP is spent on healthcare and education combined.