In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Child Labor

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • History
  • Children’s Views on Child Labor
  • Illustrations and Films
  • Analysis of Policy, Monitoring, Law Enforcement
  • Action and Campaigns against Child Labor
  • NGOs

Childhood Studies Child Labor
Mary Lorena Kenny, Kathie Carpenter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0092


Approaches to research on child labor, and the development of appropriate action to combat it, have shifted in the past few decades. Children’s labor was previously considered “natural” as an inherent aspect of being poor, and rarely were their voices included in collection of data. Today, both quantitative and qualitative studies include first-person accounts to bolster their analysis. The umbrella term, “child labor,” has been disaggregated to order to highlight how context—gender, race, sexuality, urbanization and global shifts in labor and consumption, natural disasters—shape the nature, extent, interpretation, and representation of children’s work. Together with scholarship historicizing “childhood,” the family and household, and the ongoing efforts by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a rich source of information is available to help navigate the complexity of children’s work and the significance it has for children, their families, and the world. Special acknowledgement: This entry has been updated by guest reviewer Dr. Kathie Carpenter, associate professor and department head of global studies, University of Oregon. Her expertise has proven invaluable to this article.

General Overviews

This is a suggestive, not exhaustive, list. It draws from the thousands of books, articles, government reports, essays, newspaper commentaries, dissertations, traveler accounts, photographs, and films produced by political, academic, and humanitarian agencies that describe, decry, and advocate against child labor. Economic transformations and policies create new forms of labor, migration, and consumption. Emphasis on child labor may be embedded in studies on street children, human trafficking and modern-day slavery, human rights, domestic labor, sex work, and illicit drug production and distribution. Simply defining child labor is complex and contested, as pointed out by the International Labour Organization (ILO; see “What Is Child Labour”). Included here are websites that provide broad overviews of the causes and consequences of child labor, brief essays on their sociocultural contexts, and efforts to eliminate child labor (Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking; International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour; Understanding Children’s Work; see Becker 2017). Important emerging research areas include child labor and health (Kuimi, et al. 2018; Ibrahim, et al. 2019) and the impact of global environmental change on child labor (Brashares, et al. 2014). Posso 2020 contains case studies by a range of specialists linking policy prescriptions to theoretical and empirical studies. The website for Children and Work Network contains up-to-date listings of events such as speaker series and webinars, as well as detailed, informative case studies. Two overviews (Lesson Plan: Child Labor in America, Child Labor Public Education Project) and UNICEF’s website on Child Labour provide materials suitable for teaching at K–12 levels as well as higher education.

  • Becker, Jo. “Child Labor.” In Campaigning for Children. By Jo Becker, 59–82. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017.

    Uses case studies and storytelling to introduce the main issues surrounding child labor, including current challenges and considerations, and to document actions against it. Very accessible approach to complex issues.

  • Brashares, Justin S., Briana Abrahms, Kathryn J. Fiorella, et al. “Wildlife Decline and Social Conflict.” Science 345.6195 (2014): 376–377.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1256734

    Shows how global environmental change is implicated in child labor, especially the worst forms. The pressure to exploit increasingly scarce wildlife while lowering production costs increases demand for labor. The authors argue against approaches that fail to address root causes, which are exacerbated by climate change.

  • Child Labor Public Education Project. University of Iowa Labor Center.

    Comprehensive workshop materials for adults and K–12 students. Covers both historical and contemporary approaches. Includes activities and information sheets focused on causes and consequences from both US and international perspectives.

  • Child Labour. UNICEF.

    Comprehensive overview of UNICEF’s child labor position and programming, with links to data, reports, and project descriptions. Written from an advocacy rather than academic perspective. Frequently updated, with sections on very current events, such as COVID-19 and child labor.

  • Children and Work Network.

    A global group of researchers and practitioners dedicated to understanding and disseminating information about children’s work that is evidence based, informed by working children’s own experiences, and takes into account children’s overall well-being. Sponsors workshops, webinars, policy positions, and research series.

  • Ibrahim, Abdalla, Salma M. Abdalla, Mohammed Jafer, Jihad Abdelgadir, and Nanne de Vries. “Child Labor and Health: A Systematic Literature Review of the Impacts of Child Labor on Child’s Health in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.” Journal of Public Health 41.1 (2019): 18–26.

    DOI: 10.1093/pubmed/fdy018

    Review article linking child labor with adverse physical and mental health outcomes. Concludes that current policy approaches are inadequate. Primary research recommendation is that more comparative and longitudinal studies are urgently needed in order to clarify causal relationships and suitable policy solutions.

  • Kuimi, Brice L. B., Oduro Oppong-Nkrumah, Jay Kaufman, Jose I. Nazif-Munoz, and Arijit Nandi. “Child Labor and Health: A Systematic Review.” International Journal of Public Health 65.3 (2018): 663–672.

    Review article noting strong correlation between poor health and child labor, but points out impossibility of determining causality due to lack of longitudinal studies. Highlights methodological problems, such as difficulty researching agricultural work, which is the greatest source of injuries because it often occurs within family context.

  • Lesson Plan: Child Labor in America. US Library of Congress.

    Compiled by Joyce Kasman Valenza and Carl Atkinson, a complete unit on history of child labor in the United States, including primary-source material, activities, discussion topics, assignments, and teachers’ guides

  • Posso, Alberto, ed. Child Labor in the Developing World: Theory, Practice and Policy. Singapore: Springer Singapore, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-981-15-3106-4

    Edited volume with chapters analyzing causes and consequences of child labor in a range of regions and across a variety of sectors. Empirical grounding is used to inform policy analysis and make recommendations as well as provide new theoretical insights.

  • What Is Child Labour. International Labour Organization.

    Presents ILO position on child labor, distinguishes between child labor and child work, and introduces the idea of “worst forms of child labor.” Provides links to other ILO information and positions on child labor. Includes a subheading on the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). IPEC is a clearinghouse for information on the nature and extent of child labor worldwide policies, laws, and action plans. Brief factsheets provide basic information on types of labor.

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