Child Labor Is Declining Worldwide, But It’s Thriving in These Six Countries

Child Labor Is Declining Worldwide, But It's Thriving in These Six Countries

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Eighty five million: That’s how many children are involved the worst forms of child labor, including prostitution, the handling of hazardous materials, and heavy labor. According to figures compiled by UNICEF, these 85 million make up some 10.5 percent of the world’s children.

Thursday marks the U.N.’s World Day Against Child Labour, and despite this grim snapshot, child labor is actually decreasing across the globe. The International Labour Organization (ILO), a U.N. body, estimates that the numbers of children being sent out to work in the harshest and most dangerous types of jobs have been cut in half since 2000 and says that an increasing number of countries are adopting legislation against child labor every year. But implementing those types of laws is difficult in countries beset by poverty, war, and human trafficking.

For many of the world’s children, working for a living is an unfortunate reality. Documenting child labor can be difficult to do, but below are six countries where child labor is particularly prevalent. These examples come from the 2014 Child Labour Index published by Maplecroft, a global risk consulting firm, and reflect two major trends responsible for governments failing to tackle the worst forms of child labor: insecurity created through poverty and war, and economies where child labor is a product of state-sponsored programs.


Eritrea is among the world’s most closed countries, with a government known for its abysmal human rights record and one-party rule. Under a program known as Mahtot, children from grades nine through 11 are conscripted into the workforce and forced to work two months every summer building roads and buildings on behalf of the state.

Moreover, the government recruits children under the age of 18 for mandatory military service that doubles as a work program. According to reports from the U.S. Department of Labor and Human Rights Watch, military conscripts are used as forced laborers at Bisha, the country’s largest gold mine. Eritrea’s economy overwhelmingly depends on mining, and the government appears to have no intention to reform its child labor practices.

"Not only is Eritrea one of the world’s few countries that still uses state-sponsored child labor," says Marilu Gresens, a senior human rights analyst for Maplecroft, "but there is very little indication that the government is concerned about the gravity of the situation."


With over two decades of civil war and endemic poverty, many Somali children are part of the country’s informal workforce. All too often, that work is soldiering. According to Human Rights Watch, the use of child soldiers hasn’t been limited to one side of the conflict. Both al-Shabab, the Islamist militant group, and the Transitional Federal Government, the Western-backed government in Mogadishu, have continued to commit serious abuses against children, including recruiting children into their forces, according to testimony given at the U.N. To its credit, Somalia’s TFG signed a plan of action against child recruitment in July 2012, but little progress has been made.

"You basically have a complete breakdown of governance and no rule of law in Somalia," says Gresens. "Even with political will, the resources are not present to stop the worst practices of child labor."

North Korea

While little data on child labor in North Korea is available to outsiders, defector testimonies describe extensive use of the practice. Forced labor has become a structural necessity for North Korea’s closed economy, frequently forcing children into the workforce. As one North Korean defector told Human Rights Watch in 2012:

"When I was between 11 and 15 years old I had to work on the government farm almost every day…. We finished class at 1 p.m. and had to rush back home to eat lunch because the school didn’t provide food for the students. The school would announce that we’d have to meet back at the school field and bring our own farm tools. They forced everyone, even the small children, to work."

Defectors have described horrible conditions, especially in political prison camps, where offenders’ entire families, including children, are sent to work. During testimony at the U.N. in February, Ahn Myeong Chul, a former prison guard, described torture as commonplace and said children were sometimes mauled to death by guard dogs for refusing to work.

Research from the Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights tells of teachers and administrators forcing children to work collecting food for resale and toiling on collective farms. According to the report, children usually begin working at age 11, but start as early as nine in rural areas.


Since winning independence from the United Kingdom nearly seven decades ago, Myanmar has been wracked by a series of internal conflicts, which have in turn contributed to the use of child labor. But with Myanmar gradually transitioning toward democratic rule, the government has begun to make commitments toward combating child labor. However, progress has been slow. "Due to a combination of desperate poverty and a history of conflict, child labor is now a pillar of Myanmar’s economy," Gresens says.

While some in the government are attempting to stop the worst forms of child labor, enforcement remains limited. Military personnel and insurgent militias remain the worst perpetrators of forced labor in Myanmar, with thousands of children estimated of have been forced to take up arms, according to a 2013 State Department report. Moreover, an increasing number of boys and girls, especially those from rural areas, are victims of sex trafficking to larger cities or sent to work as beggars in Thailand. It is estimated by the U.N. that over a third of children in Myanmar are child laborers.


Uzbekistan has become internationally infamous for state-sponsored forced labor in the cotton industry. The annual cotton harvest is integral to the Central Asian country’s economy and is estimated to supply around 10 percent of the global supply of the fiber. Human Rights Watch estimates that every year the government forces more than a million of its 29 million citizens, both adults and children, to work in the cotton fields. The government shuts down schools and workplaces in order for its citizens to pick cotton.

Traditionally, the cotton harvest has relied heavily on children, but there have been some signs that Tashkent is caving under international pressure, including a boycott by top clothing brands, among them Swedish retailer H&M. In 2008, Uzbekistan finally adopted the ILO’s conventions on the minimum age of work and barring children from dan
gerous work. However, the scope of the conventions’ enforcement remains up for debate. In 2013 the government finally allowed ILO monitors into the country to observe the cotton harvest, where they documented 41 cases of minors working in the fields. The government now claims that no children under the age of 15 are being used in the harvest.

Still, this leaves students from ages 15 to 18 participating in the state-sponsored cotton harvest, and human rights activists remain skeptical about the government’s pledges. Tashkent continues to persecute activists and journalists who try to document the cotton harvest.


Despite nearly 13 years of American military occupation and untold billions in development assistance, child labor remains endemic in Afghanistan. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, children as young as six can be found working in brick-making, carpet-weaving, mining, and construction. As in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, children are often used for the most dangerous tasks and are at high risk of being killed or maimed in mines or construction sites, according to the same report.

The exact number of child laborers in Afghanistan is not known, but children often find themselves working in Afghanistan’s booming underground economy. Children have been found working as drug mules, soldiers, and in commercial sexual exploitation. Girls, often forced to marry young and denied access to education, have been found in domestic servitude or forced into prostitution by their husbands, according to Human Rights Watch.  

Afghanistan does have laws that prohibit children 14 and younger from working full-time, but they are vaguely written and sparsely enforced. Moreover, the combination of insecurity, poverty, and the country’s large informal workforce, such as those paid under the table, mean that children in Afghanistan will take whatever work they can — no matter how dangerous.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola