Child Labour in Africa

Discuss about the some of the real threats to the eradication of child labour practices in Africa today.  

This paper tries to present an overview of what makes child labour in Africa so common. Africa is the child labour continent of the world. Decline in economics, war, famine and HIV/AIDS have caused greater strife among the population, leading to greater child labour in Africa.

Amartya Sen, Nobel winner of 1998 for economics, in his study of poverty and famine found famine resulted not just because of food scarcity but social and economic factors as well (Bhalotra, 2003). In the last 3 decades, world poverty has fallen to 20% from 40%. The situation is Africa is grim, with no change in the numbers. 40% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa are abjectly poor. Poverty results from the way society shares money. There is extreme inequality some of the leaders are rich while the general uneducated masses are poor, and grow poorer day by day (ILO, 2016; Anker, 2000; Boyden, 1994).

The state of affairs is complex. Each country has its own history and unique problems, with developmental issues at the fore. The society has to mature and work together to solve problems together. Most African countries are unstable, democracy is fragile and coups are always possible. Leaders elected work for their own pockets. The legal system is barely present, corruption is rampant and economic ethics and progress is hardly present or elusive. It is for this reason poverty, lack of economic help and neglect by authorities has pushed Africa to become the child labour capitals of the world (Edmonds, 2005).

Child labour was prevalent sub-Saharan Africa at 41% of age group 5-14 are working which is 80 million in 1998. Today it is at 21% at 59 million child labourers (ILO, 2016).

There has been a demographic explosion, lack of economic progress. ILO estimates 59 million in age the group 5-17 involved in hazardous labour. 1 in 5 African children work in stone cutting regions, quarries, mines and farms. Worldwide the number of child labourers has decline from 246 million to 168 Million. But sub-Saharan Africa still has 1 in 5 as labourers (ILO, 2016).

Let us take a look at the reasons for this rampant child labour below:


International Labour Organisation (ILO) has found poverty to be the greatest contributor to children working at young ages. The young are forced out of economic hardship, to work in the house or field or elsewhere just to survive. The poor families sometimes even sell their children as bounded labourers out of economic hardship. These children work on meager pay and get very little for the exploited work they put in. they are uneducated at times and take up very perilous work endangering their health and well-being. They are often injured at work and fall sick due to poisoning or unacceptable work standards and conditions, putting further burden on the society as a whole. The income generated this way may be between 25 and 40% (Case, 2001).

Poverty is biggest dominant factor in spurring child labour. A family may be on or below the poverty line forcing their children to work as a labourer to help supplement the family’s income. The abolishing of poverty will help in the fight against child labour. There are many other factors and reasons such as cutting of social spend. Education and health services being cut hurt the poor forcing them to supplement it with child labour. They have a have a direct impact on poverty. With little or no schooling, children are forced to seek employment at young ages just to survive. Children may also not be recognized as a family unit in agricultural households where they work as part of the family as the family cannot afford any paid help. Some act as unpaid domestics in the household as well taking care of family work. Sometimes they are sold to repay debts of the family due to poverty, or take an additional loan from a money lender (Edmonds, 2006).         

HIV/AIDS has also led to death of parents pushing young into poverty and then child labour.  Orphans must fend for themselves and become breadwinners. The exploiters hire the young desperate children at lower rates than their parents at narrow margins. The contractors exploit the children to do hazardous jobs such as working in looms, glass factories and mines. Some are even forced in sex trade and fighting as soldiers in wars in Africa. They are often not paid and highly exploited this way. Employers justify their use claiming that they have small, nimble hands needed to make carpets and glassware. Girls are often pushed into international sex trade as child prostitutes. Girls can be sold and kidnapped in networks to overseas markets. Poverty, sexual and racial bias also drives them to sex trade. Young children unaware of their rights are compelled and vulnerable to the trade. The laws and action by authorities is lacking in these countries (Edmonds, 2008).

Lack of education facilities

A major portion of children work in the household such as house-farms, sometimes the children are adopted or orphans as well and work to survive. The adopted child gets less attention and is forced to work compared to the biological child of such families. Orphans are less likely to go to school and often shun education. Education fees are not subsidized, free access to school and quality of education is also lacking (Siddiqi & Patrinos, 1999). There is no alternative to work for most, with the lack of adequate schools, meaningful alternatives, sustainable education, grants and economic aid. This too drives young into the vortex of child labour, as there is no alternative in the society as a whole. In rural areas 60-70% of children work as laboureres, as schooling is inadequate or very far from living regions, unsafe to travel, and no confidence by the parents in the worth of schooling. All of these reasons related to schooling and education have helped child labour processes (Boyden, 1994).

Lack of economic growth and opportunity

It has been suggested that the main cause is a demand and supply side. The rampant poverty and Lack of good education facilities help explain why children fall into labour. This is because the economy is growing on the lower end and not high end of pay causing child labour. If the high end spectrum grew there would not be much poverty and child labour would reduce. Some scholars think that the child labour has resulted due to an inflexible labour market (Osita-Oleribe, 2007). The entire regional market has not been able to scale up due to the lack of modern methods and technology of the 21st century. Old methods means no skilled labour and the cheapest one can find is in children. Hence, child labour cannot be eradicated due to the dynamics of the economy in Africa.

Often MNCs that come in like mining operations do not employ them as adults either. They too exploit the young children in their operations (Freedman, R., 1998).

Neglect by authorities:

Another reason for child labour is the fact most of the vulnerable are orphaned at young ages. They do not have any guardian and are thus forced to work as labourers at very young ages out of economic and social difficulty. They have to mend for their well-being, health clothes and food. Often siblings help each other but most of them are often living alone. The authorities do not have social and economic funding to deal with the crisis hence it has led to a problem.

Child labour can have negative impacts on child’s wellbeing if not fully addressed by concerned authorities. The authorities either take bribes, as they themselves are poor or want to turn a situation into a source of livelihood. School districts and teachers also turn a blind eye to the situation. The poor infrastructure, schooling, awareness, monitoring authorities and law enforcement all do very substandard jobs of reporting cases and dealing with the issue of child labour.  Africa has numerous regions where the child labour problem goes unnoticed and has become social acceptable in spite of work done by UNICEF, and ILO (Guarcello, Lyon, & Rosati, F., 2004; Guarcello, Mealli, & Rosati, 2010).

Often the charters that have been talked about and the legislature is only a piece of paper. There is no enforcing body or legal help in most cases, where children are forced to work. Often the families do not have enough money to seek legal help, and also shun paying authorities who are corrupt and take legal bribes from innocent families. Hence the legal way is very much hampered.

There is some optimism, Sub-Saharan Africa even though has high child labour and is not changing but the numbers are declining. African nations are using National Action Plans. The progress is slow but they are working towards the target.  Half Africa’s regions still need to formulate a plan. The others need to implement theirs and scale it up. This is difficult as it is hardly considered a priority and gains less attention (UCW, 2004).

Economic aid and technology transfers are also helping. These will help bring about better practices in work and boost the economy. It creates more jobs, higher paying jobs, more secure and long term jobs. This will reduce the low paid jobs and reliance on child labour for low paid work. The scale of pay will go up eventually and the children will be found to be redundant in work (Kielland,  & Tovo, 2006).

The ill-effect on children

This practice of child labour deprives the children of their education and future. They do not develop well as sound individuals. The mental and social health is found lacking. Their physical and well-being is compromised. Because they are immature and inexperienced they are often unaware of medium to long term risks of the work they are doing. They take unnecessary risks without knowing them. They often get poisoned or injured at work, without any laws or help (Edström et al, 2008). They work long hours, as child labourers and are lacking in basic schooling, social interactions, development and emotional support. They often face death. They gain physical injuries and mutilations from ill maintained machinery, farms and factories. They get hurt on the field due to machete accidents. They face hazards such as mining, ceramics, pesticide and fireworks making (Hazan, & Berdugo, 2002).  They often get very bad food and water leading to growth deficiencies and thus poor life when they become adults. In adult life they may suffer from numerous illnesses such as, respiratory disease, asbestosis, and cancer. They may even contract HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases forced into prostitution; pregnancy, drug addiction and mental illnesses. The constant exhaustion and malnutrition with heavy manual labour, working long hours and risks put great strain on children.  Africa faces problems encouraging them to risk their lives (UCW, 2004). Child labourers have risen due to poverty, neglect, and lack of proper interventions (Admassie, A., 2002).


In order for child labour to reduce in Africa steps to stop domestic work of children, economic alleviation, better social support and schooling and better monitoring, reporting and adherence to the UN child labour charters is the need of the hour. The situation can only be improved with greater awareness of the evils of child labour and better societal alternatives. There is however good prospects and hope for the future of children in Africa if the society and leaders address this issue with heart. Much more needs to be done to eradicate the dependence on children for work and poverty that has caused so many to be forced into labour. The societal thinking and policies of the region will have to also change for anything concrete to take shape in the fight against child labour. 


Admassie, A. (2002). Explaining the high incidence of child labour in sub–Saharan Africa.

African Development Review, 14(2), 251-275. 

Anker, R. (2000). The economics of child labour: A framework for measurement. International  

Labour Review, 139(3), 257–280. 

Bhalotra, S. (2003). Child labour in Africa. OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers. 

Boyden, J. (1994). The Relationship between Education and Child Work. UNICEF. 

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