Child Labor Trafficking

Sara Bratton Bradbury, MSW, Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis

The first time I heard about child labor trafficking was six years ago in a class where I thought I was only going to be learning about sex trafficking, because I did not know anything about labor trafficking. The videos shown were devastating. Children as young as five years old making bricks in a brick “factory” in India. Two-year-olds rummaging around garbage dumps searching for something they could sell so that they could eat. How was this not being addressed or spoken about on an international scale like sex trafficking of children? Not that either one is worse or better than the other. Both are heartbreaking. Both deeply impact the world. Both show the lack of humanity and the devastating effects of poverty.

When we speak about labor trafficking it seems we speak only about adults who are trafficked, but when we speak about sex trafficking it seems we only speak about children who are trafficked. The reality is that children and adults are both labor and sex trafficked around the world. It is important that we address this reality, because otherwise we miss entire groups of people.

In Africa and Asia, young children are forced to work in industries such as mining, where their tiny bodies are able to fit in the smallest of spaces. They work in mines of precious metals, gold, diamonds, coal, and stone quarries. Their families experience such extreme poverty that sending their 5-year-old children to work is necessary just to feed them. In some situations, the children are the only ones able to work, in others, parents and children work side-by-side. They may be working for as little as $2 a day.

Risks for children working in the mining industries include risk of serious bodily injury due to both working with machinery built for adults and falling debris due to the explosions and blasting necessary to exhume the minerals from the earth, mercury poisoning, and lung diseases. Over 32,000 children die each year because of these conditions. They are uneducated and surrounded with others who are equally as impoverished, so seeking better work opportunities is not even a dream (Child forced labor part I: the mining industry, 2013)

In 2013, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India were “the world leaders in the number of products made by working children” (Child labor blog part III: manufacturing in Asia, 2013). Their tiny, nimble fingers are perfectly matched to the intricacies of carpet weaving in Pakistan. In Bangladesh, they sew garments to be sold to American companies. Soccer balls and footballs are sewn together by the tiny hands of children in India. In both Pakistan and India, many of these children are victims of debt bondage, in which their parents (or possibly grandparents or great-grandparents) owe money which is to be paid back through work. Unfortunately, it is only a very rare occasion that the debt is fully paid off and the family is no longer indebted to the lender. These children are also at risk for severe bodily injury due to unsafe working conditions (such as when a Bangladesh garment factory collapsed and many children were killed), in addition to the respiratory diseases, damaged eyesight and spinal injuries suffered by children in carpet weaving (Child labor blog part III: manufacturing in Asia, 2013).

Lest we believe that the United States is exempt from the labor trafficking of children, we also have children as young as eight-years-old working in the agricultural industries picking produce alongside their parents all across the country. Estimates in 2013 found that there were “400,000 children working as migrant laborers in the United States” (Child forced labor part II: agriculture in the Americas, 2013). However, this is not the only arena in which children in the United States are labor trafficked.

Homeless and runaway youth are often targeted to work traveling sales teams, selling magazines or candy bars—sometimes outside gas stations, at other times door-to-door. These children are driven around in vans, sleep in overcrowded hotel rooms, and receive little to no pay. The quotas expected are unreasonable, and they are working 10-hour days, regardless of the weather or their health. Some children are brought into the U.S. as documented or undocumented migrants for domestic work (nannies or housekeepers), restaurant workers, and agricultural or factory workers. Children who arrive at U.S. borders as unaccompanied minors often become victims of trafficking due to family debt, their own desire to cross the border and willingness to trade work for transportation (often in highly exploitive and illegal arenas such as drug cartels and gangs). These children are isolated and forced to trust people who are not necessarily there to help or protect them (Walts, 2017).

In 2017, the International Labor Organization estimated that over 152 million children from 5-17 are involved in forced labor worldwide. These children experience abuse (physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional), significant bodily injuries, respiratory and other serious health conditions, malnutrition, lack of educational opportunities, and further risk for victimization. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the risks of children being recruited, exploited, and trafficked as the world economy has fallen apart. It is crucial, then, that we educate ourselves and each other about the realities of child labor (Child labor, forced labor & human trafficking, 2021) and (Bigio & Welch, 2020).

To find out more about what goods are produced through child labor, forced labor, and trafficking world-wide, access the U.S. Department of Labor 2020 List of Goods here : https://www.dol.gov/sites/dolgov/files/ILAB/child_labor_reports/tda2019/2020_TVPRA_List_Online_Final.pdf


Bigio, J., & Welch, H. (2020, August 10). As the global economy melts down, human trafficking is booming. Retrieved from Foreign Policy: https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/08/10/as-the-global-economy-melts-down-human-trafficking-is-booming/

Child forced labor part I: the mining industry. (2013, July 18). Retrieved from Human Trafficking Search: https://humantraffickingsearch.org/forced-child-labor-in-the-mining-industry/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwktKFBhCkARIsAJeDT0hnxzOFrrL-am0zDfrFHcClDeTP0kbV1BSezC3hCTn4atY-Iy_xb3QaAj0SEALw_wcB

Child forced labor part II: agriculture in the Americas. (2013, July 27). Retrieved from Human Traffickng Search: https://humantraffickingsearch.org/child-forced-labor-part-ii-agriculture-in-the-americas/

Child labor blog part III: manufacturing in Asia. (2013, August 13). Retrieved from Human Trafficking Search: https://humantraffickingsearch.org/child-labor-blog-part-iii-manufacturing-in-asia/

Child labor, forced labor & human trafficking. (2021, May). Retrieved from U. S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs: https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/our-work/child-forced-labor-trafficking

Walts, K. K. (2017, June 23). Child labor trafficking in the United States: a hidden crime. Social Inclusion, 5(2), 59-68.

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