07 September 2008

Child labor: economic activity and household chores

Child labor is one of the obstacles on the way to the Millennium Development Goal of universal primary education by 2015. In a report on global child labor trends, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 218 million child laborers worldwide. 126 million of these children are estimated to be engaged in hazardous work (ILO 2006). The concept of child labor used by the ILO is derived from two conventions: ILO Convention 138, which sets 15 years as the general minimum age for employment, and ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labor. Any work in violation of Conventions 138 and 182 is considered illegal child labor that should be eliminated.

One limitation of statistics like those published by the ILO is that they only refer to economic activity, that is work related to the production of goods and services, as defined in the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSD 2001). This definition excludes chores undertaken in a person's own household like cooking, cleaning or caring for children.

Statistics of child labor that ignore household chores are problematic because they underestimate the burden of work on children, especially for girls. To examine the relative burden of economic activities and household chores carried out by children, data from 35 household surveys were analyzed for this article. Grouped by Millennium Development Region, these surveys are:
  • Developed countries: Albania.
  • Eastern Asia: Mongolia.
  • South-eastern Asia: Lao PDR, Philippines.
  • Southern Asia: India.
  • Western Asia: Bahrain, Lebanon, Palestinians in Syria.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean: Bolivia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Trinidad and Tobago.
The surveys were conducted between 1999 and 2005. 26 of the surveys were Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) and 9 were Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). All 35 surveys collected data on work by children in the week preceding the survey. Surveys conducted during school vacation were excluded because the focus of the present analysis is work by children that should have been in school at the time of the survey.

The share of children aged 7 to 14 years in economic activity and household chores is depicted in the following graph. The graph also displays the number of hours spent per week on both types of work. All numbers are averages across the 35 surveys, weighted by each country's population between 7 and 14 years.

Economic activity and household chores, children 7-14 years
Graph showing the link between household wealth and average years of education
Data source: 35 DHS and MICS surveys, 1999-2005.

The results confirm that boys are more likely to be engaged in economic activity while girls are more likely to do household chores. On average across the 35 surveys, 22 percent of all boys and 19 percent of all girls between 7 and 14 years are engaged in economic activity. Boys also spend more hours on economic activity than girls, 20 compared to 19 hours. By comparison, girls are much more likely than boys to do household chores. 70 percent of all girls and 47 percent of all boys did household chores in the week preceding the survey. On average, girls spent 13 hours and boys 10 hours per week on household chores.

What are the implications of these findings for statistics of child labor, as currently defined by the ILO? Take the case of two families that need additional income to provide food for everyone in the household. In the first family, a 10-year-old boy is withdrawn from school and put to work on a farm. Because such work is considered economic activity the number of child laborers goes up. In the second family, the mother decides to start working on a farm and her 10-year-old daughter is asked to stay at home to care for her younger siblings. Because the girl is engaged in household chores the number of child laborers does not change. The consequences are the same for both children: they no longer go to school and miss out on the benefits from education.

To address the limitations of the ILO's definition of child labor, UNICEF has developed an expanded definition that covers household chores in addition to economic activity. This revised indicator is the basis for the child labor estimates that are reported in publications like Progress for Children (UNICEF 2007a) or The State of the World’s Children (UNICEF 2007b). For children 5 to 17 years of age, UNICEF defines child labor as follows:
  • 5 to 11 years: any economic activity, or 28 hours or more household chores per week;
  • 12 to 14 years: any economic activity (except light work for less than 14 hours per week), or 28 hours or more household chores per week;
  • 15 to 17 years: any hazardous work, including any work for 43 hours or more per week.
The goal of UNICEF's child labor indicator is the measurement of work that should be eliminated because it violates international child labor conventions and interferes with school attendance. The threshold for household chores is set relatively high because it is assumed that household chores are less harmful than economic activity. Moreover, the high threshold of 28 hours household chores per week avoids a possible overestimation of the number of child laborers.

  • International Labour Organization (ILO). 2006. Global child labour trends 2000-2004. Geneva: ILO. (Download PDF, 640 KB)
  • United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). 2007a. Progress for children: A World Fit for Children statistical review. New York: UNICEF. (Download PDF, 3.6 MB)
  • United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). 2007b. The state of the world's children 2008: Child survival. New York: UNICEF. (Download PDF, 4.3 MB)
  • United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD). 2001. System of national accounts 1993. http://unstats.un.org/unsd/sna1993/toctop.asp.
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Friedrich Huebler, 7 September 2008 (edited 5 October 2008), Creative Commons License
Permanent URL: http://huebler.blogspot.com/2008/09/child-labor.html