Why Does Distinction between Working Children and Child Labor May Put More Children at Risk?

About 160 million children ages 5 to 17 worldwide are engaged in work. In general, although it is difficult to pinpoint one single cause, poverty is one of the key drivers that pushes children to the world of work, paid or unpaid. By comparing the global poverty rate of 9.2% in 2021 with 8.6% in 2018, it is safe to assume that more children will be pushed to work as many families face financial challenges or uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Labor Organization and UNICEF forecast that by 2022 the increase in poverty associated with the global pandemic will likely increase child labor by 8.9 million. In 2021, it was estimated that approximately 4.05 million children work in Indonesia. Of this figure, 1.76 million are deemed to be child labor.

Not all working children are considered child labor. According to the International Labor Organization, child labor is often defined as work depriving children of their childhood, potential, and dignity, harming their physical and mental development. Whether or not particular forms of work can be called child labor depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of work performed, the conditions under which it is performed and the objectives pursued by individual countries. Thus the distinction between child labor and working children is that child labor refers to work that is harmful to children. It is work that is mentally or physically dangerous and interferes with their ability to go to school, which can affect their income-earning potential as adults.

The distinction might stop in the theoretical or regulatory terminology only. Unlike household chores, which many experts assert are beneficial for children because it helps children learn responsibility and self-reliance, any structured and scheduled paid work is likely harmful physically and mentally to children. Typical workplace and/or work tools are designed for adults without reasonable accommodation for children. Some employers likely undervalue the children’s contribution to the workplace. As children have the lowest bargaining position in the world of work, if not non-existence, a person under 15 (or 18 in Indonesia) would not receive suitable payment and benefits for their effort. Over time, working children may put more interest in the material side of work, which can deter them from studying at school.

Moreover, it is safe to assume that working children constantly socialize with non-family-member adults in supervisory-subordinate relationships or as co-workers. Children’s interactions with adults are vertical interactions or interactions with more powerful others. Vertical interactions are likely to lead to a heteronomous morality, a morality oriented by the ideas of fear, obedience, and unilateral respect. Continuous vertical interaction may be detrimental to children’s development as they likely grow into adults deprived of equality, cooperation, and mutual respect, which ideas are usually obtained in horizontal interactions with their peers.

To conclude, children are somewhat at risk of harm from their workplace, although the type of work they perform falls into non-hazardous light work. Tacking the root causes that drive children to enter the paid work sphere without being tied to different definitions is crucial in deterring children from performing paid work. A comprehensive government policy to increase awareness, eradicate poverty, and provide quality public education that includes vocational/skills training may dissuade children from entering the workforce. Engaging many stakeholders may also help to make a sustainable change over time.