Child labor is a growing problem; learn what you can do

child laboring at industrial sewing machine

Child labor isn’t going away. In fact, it’s on the rise.

And it’s not limited to some faraway land (though distance doesn’t make it any less heinous). Child labor is happening in the United States.

Further, it’s not just migrant children who are working, often in dangerous conditions (though ethnicity and country of origin don’t make it any less heinous). Children who are U.S. citizens also are laboring. 

Surprised? Many are. Read on to learn more about the issue and what you can do.

What Is Child Labor?

As UNICEF points out, many children around the world take on paid and unpaid forms of work that are not harmful to them. Broadly, work devolves to the level of child labor when employed children are too young to work or are conducting hazardous activities.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor, “child labor is defined by [International Labour Organization] Conventions 138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor. It includes employment below the minimum age as established in national legislation, hazardous unpaid household services, and the worst forms of child labor: all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale or trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom, or forced or compulsory labor; the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic purposes; the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities; and work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.“

Child labor reaches the level of child labor trafficking when force, fraud or coercion is involved. Considering the fact that children lack true autonomy, the line between the two is blurry. 

The Rise in Child Labor

Child labor often remains hidden from view, buried in lengthy supply chains or concealed in non-public positions. 

Almost 1 in 10 children worldwide is engaged in child labor.

As of 2020, an estimated 160 million children worldwide were engaged in child labor — a 6.5 million increase since 2016.

Roughly 80 million are working in hazardous conditions. “On tobacco farms, children work long hours in extreme heat, exposed to nicotine and toxic pesticides that can make them sick,” Human Rights Watch states on its website. “In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, child laborers in artisanal and small-scale gold mines work underground in pits that easily collapse and use toxic mercury to process the gold, risking brain damage and other serious health conditions.”

In the United States in fiscal year 2023, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division completed 955 investigations that found child labor violations, a 14 percent increase from the previous year. Nearly 5,800 children were employed in violation of the law, an 88 percent increase since 2019.

And some states are rolling back restrictions on child labor, such as the kinds of work that children can do, the hours that they can work and the paperwork required for minors to work. 

On the other hand, some states are leading the charge on strengthening protections for children. There are also advocates who are pushing for change on a national level. “One area that needs further alignment with global standards is agriculture. Hazardous work for children is prohibited under US federal legislation, except in agriculture. The acceptance of exposing children to conditions where they could be seriously injured, fall ill, or even die is both unconscionable and inconsistent with international law and not in the best interest of their well-being,” says Tori Curbelo, a children’s rights and business consultant for UNICEF USA.

An April 2024 study conducted by researchers including an expert at New York University reveals heartbreaking statistics about child labor trafficking in the United States.  

The study found that child labor trafficking traps both migrant children and domestic-born children in industries such as domestic work, forced criminality, entertainment and agriculture, according to a release from NYU.

Often, the person trafficking a child for labor is someone that child knows; in 40 percent of the cases, the perpetrator was a parent or other family member, the study revealed.

Consequences of Child Labor

Poverty, lack of access to education, and societal norms contribute to the prevalance of child labor. And the consequences are life-altering. Child labor not only robs children of their childhoods, causing stress and trauma; it also can disrupt their education, expose them to injuries, impact their long-term health, and lead to exploitation and abuse or even death. 

And a child who grows up in this environment is more vulnerable to the factors that lead a person to be trafficked for sex or labor as an adult,  perpetuating cycles of poverty and limiting their future prospects.

Beyond the consequences for the child worker, child labor has a negative effect on a community or country’s economic prospects, studies show. 

“Widespread child employment dampers future economic growth through its negative impact on child development and depresses current growth by reducing unskilled wages and discouraging the adoption of skill-intensive technologies,” according to a July 2020 study from researchers at Amherst College.

Child labor has a cyclical effect, suppressing an economy’s investment in technology and the development of an educated workforce. Adult workers who are competing with children for unskilled work are paid less, with the result of increasing the need for child laborers in a household to supplement income. The short-term investment in breaking the cycle can be high, but the long-term payoff is even greater.

Eliminating child labor provides opportunities for greater education, increasing an economy’s human capital, studies show. It also decreases an economy’s health costs for treating child laborers. 

Industries Employing Child Labor

Common settings for child labor include factories, agriculture, mining (including for technology materials) and domestic servitude. 

Recent investigations in the United States have found children laboring in meatpacking plants, automotive plants, the fast food industry and more.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs regularly updates a list of products suspected to be made or supplied with child labor with the goal of focusing attention on these industries. 

Recognizing Signs of Child Labor

Communities and individuals play a vital role in reporting suspicions of child labor and providing support to vulnerable children. The Minnesota Department of Human Services has developed comprehensive list of common indicators of child labor trafficking: 

  • Cannot move freely or not allowed to come and go at will
  • Accompanied by a person who speaks for them
  • Not permitted to use phone or other communications, restricted from contacting family
  • Someone controls their transportation
  • Unsure of day, date, month or year
  • Frequently moves or does not know where they live
  • Unusual living/work space (may include tinted windows, security cameras, barbed wire, people sleeping/living at worksite)
  • Wears the same clothes over and over, or routinely wears clothes not in season
  • Not in control of personal identification
  • Someone else controls their money, or collects their earnings from work
  • Explanation of work situation does not make sense or seems scripted
  • Seems afraid to answer questions
  • Fearful of employer or another person who makes them work
  • Long work hours, exhausted, hungry, poor hygiene
  • Owes a debt to employer or another person making them work
  • Foreign national children living with people who are not their parents or guardians, and their relationship is unclear.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division provides information on what jobs are permitted for young people in the United States and which are prohibited. It also aggregates a number of resources, such as an employer self-assessment tool, links to state child labor laws and information about regulations in specific industries. 

What We Can Do About Child Labor

Education and awareness programs are essential tools in combating child labor and trafficking. Support services, such as shelters and counseling, offer vital assistance to victims and survivors. Additionally, empowerment and rehabilitation initiatives help reintegrate survivors into society and provide them with opportunities for a better future.

The researchers and authors of “Child Labor Trafficking Is Ensnaring Both US- and Foreign-Born, Study Finds,” identified some specific community tactics:

“Among several recommendations in the report is improved training for first responders such as police, immigration officials, schools, child welfare systems, juvenile justice systems, and labor inspectors,” a release from NYU states.

“Among the remedies needed, according to the researchers, is expansion of vocational programs to provide valuable skills while offering safe, lawful employment opportunities for children. The study also underlines the need for creating safe, rapid, subsidized alternative housing options for minors, regardless of immigration status, in order to help reduce their vulnerability to dangerous forms of illegal employment.”

Individuals can contribute to the fight against child labor and trafficking as well. 

You can advocate for stronger laws and enforcement mechanisms and raise awareness in your communities. Current penalties don’t often serve as a deterrent; (the maximum civil penalty right now is just $15,138 per violation). Lawmakers are seeking passage of the CHILD Labor Act of 2023 to make sure that employers, contractors and subcontractors are held accountable.

You can encourage businesses to root out child labor in their supply chains — or examine your own, if you’re a business owner.

And even if it’s not practical for every single purchase you make, you can find slavery-free resources for goods that you purchase repeatedly. An article from Syracuse University offers these suggestions for how consumers can find businesses with ethical supply chains

If you suspect a child is working in violation of labor laws, you can contact the Department of Labor confidentially at 1-866-4-US-WAGE (1-866-487-9243).


June 12 is World Day Against Child Labour, a time to focus specifically on this issue. But as a society we should be working every day to put an end to this disturbing issue.

Child labor and human trafficking are complex and deeply entrenched, requiring a concerted effort from governments, civil society, businesses and individuals to address. 

By understanding the root causes, recognizing the warning signs and taking concrete actions, we can make a difference in the lives of vulnerable children at home and around the world, helping offer kids the opportunity to grow up healthy, safe and educated.