Child labour: an Ethiopian perspective

Child labour continues to be a major global development issue, mainly in developing countries where family-farm agriculture employs the majority of the labour force. A tracking study from rural Ethiopia looks at the impact of child labour on the job situation in adult life.

Exclusive childhood work has detrimental effects on early human capital formation and on earnings when adult. However, the authors of the study argue that beneficial impacts of child labour can be fostered by suitable policies limiting work participation among children and promoting their schooling.

In 2012, about 168 million children world-wide were child labourers, a one third decline since 2000 (ILO, 2006, 2013). Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of child labour, with about 21.4 per cent of the children being put to work (ILO, 2013). Estimates also indicate that almost 60 per cent of the global child labour takes place in the agriculture sector, where the lives of about 100 million children are affected (FAO, 2015; ILO, 2013). Various studies argue that child labour can harm the physical development and health of children and jeopardise their human capital formation. This situation may also lead to a cycle of poverty and precarious employment in later life. Other studies claim that, on the contrary, child labour might bring more resources into the family and thus improve child nutrition and schooling. We examined the effects of childhood work among four to fourteen-year-olds in rural Ethiopia, looking at these practices in 1999/2000 and their impact on human capital formation (grade attainment) during childhood and on earnings 15 years later, in 2015/2016.

Key messages

Our findings suggest that childhood work, mainly when it is combined with schooling, can facilitate early human capital formation and can boost the earnings of children when adults. However, the results also indicate that exclusive childhood work is likely to compromise the earning potentials of children as adults. These results therefore imply that developing countries need to incorporate an appropriate policy mix in their human capital development strategies. Governments should link early human capital policies with policies targeted specifically at youth and adults. For example, compulsory child education could be combined with conditional cash transfer and school feeding programmes, and with positive incentives such as parental recognition of a child’s specific skill attainments. These interventions, however, have to be accompanied and sustained by consistent youth and adult-targeted human capital policies, including technical and skills training, to keep up with the technical changes in the economy. Moreover, policies that limit children’s participation in work and promote schooling should be supported by a social capital approach to skills building and entrepreneurial training in adulthood.


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