A Haunting Picture of Poor Health: The Risks for Child Laborers

NOTE: This is a guest blog post from David Parker, MD, Physician, Author and Photographer

Why do we care about child labor? If we do care about it, do we care about all, most, or just some forms of work? What makes work bad? These are a few of the many questions I have grappled with on my journey as a physician, photographer and child rights advocate.

During my first trip to Asia to photograph working children, I visited more than 15 carpet factories in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley. Upon entering the first of many factories, I saw a large number of small children sitting in front of dimly lit looms in a small, musty and chilly room. The children were wheezing, many had rashes, and all were disheveled and dirty. The exploitation of these children was obvious. Witnessing this scene, I felt the compelling global need to eliminate child labor, and remember it clearly nearly 20 years later.

However, many things were not immediately apparent in observing the children. For example, were the children bonded laborers or being held against their will? Did they have an opportunity for education? Were they sexually abused or beaten? Were meals adequate? Was potable water available? Were parents cognizant of their child’s whereabouts? These questions and many others helped to frame my research and work over the next 20 years, leading to my work on the book “Child Labour: A Public Health Perspective” and numerous scientific manuscripts on the impact of early work on children’s health, education and status.

There is no simple way to classify the effects of child labor on the health of children and communities. Many people discuss job-related exposure to harmful chemical, biological and physical agents and their subsequent impact on health, while psychosocial hazards such as long work hours, abusive work practices and bullying are not always recognized. Hazards may also be discussed in relationship to job tasks within specific industries, such as brick making, carpet weaving or steel polishing, in which children frequently work.

We can also look at health hazards in terms of acute illness, such as injury or pesticide poisoning, versus chronic illness, including developmental problems. However, the nature of child labor is that several hazards almost always co-exist, and many exposures — for example, fiber dust inhaled by child weavers — can result in both acute and chronic illness. Some occupational hazards may also result in health problems within the greater community, such as the aerial spraying of pesticides or the use of mercury in gold mining.

Both children and adults in the rug industry may be subject to an abusive work environment. This may include inadequate wages, bonded and forced labor, and generally poor working conditions. It is likely that none of the children who were sitting at the loom 20 years ago ever had any educational opportunities. Illiteracy itself leads to poor health outcomes for individuals as well as their future families. Child labor does not simply stop with the child being exploited today; it leads to a pattern of poor health for the generations to come.

An occupational physician and epidemiologist from Minneapolis, Minn., David L. Parker, MD has photographed working children, labor conditions and public health problems around the world since 1992. His books include “By These Hands: Portraits from the Factory Floor,” “Stolen Dreams: Portraits of Working Children,” and “Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor.”

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post from GoodWeave USA’s April Thompson to learn how the organization is helping build healthy weaving communities.

Related Stories:

Fighting For the Right to Pee in India

Nicaragua: The Continued Struggle to End Child Labor

Workers with Asperger’s and Autism Are Not Cheaper Labor

Photo credit: David Parker, MD; An underage worker spinning wool for carpets in India.


Rin S.
Rin S5 years ago

Not enough people are aware of child labour, and how common it is. The world needs to be more aware of the injustices of it, so we can begin to eliminate this exploitation and make way for a better future.

Alexandra Rodda
Alexandra Rodda5 years ago

The GOP is quite keen on child labor and doing away with education except for the wealthy. All this could be America in 10 years if people don't wake up and vote them all out.

Cheryl B.
Cheryl B5 years ago

I agree.. pure evil

Robyn Brice
Robyn Vorsa5 years ago

No child should be forced into labouring like this. It's evil.

Catherine D.
Catherine D5 years ago


That could be you, enslaved to weave carpets or make sneakers or some other product.

Do not buy products that are not Ethically Produced. Inform the manufacture of this.

It really is that simple.

Ngachi L.
Ngachi L5 years ago


Carl Oerke
Carl O5 years ago

I see nothing wrong with children working to a point. In this country these days kids are given everything that they desire and they do not work to earn anything. They grow up with a feeling of entitelment and do not know how to put in a fair;s day work for a fair day's pay. They have no work ethic. That being said in many occassions children are exploited and abused and that must end. There have to be strong controls put in place to investigate and end expolitation and abuse of child laborers.

ei Feldman
ei Feldman5 years ago

I agree Winn, Ian, Wendy, Terri! but good 2 also hear another perspective... thanks mary!

still, this is obvious suffering, and exploitation of children-no way around it. why can't these companies pay fair wages to adults?

Winn Adams
Winn A5 years ago

Child labor has been here for centuries. When will it end? When people are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and have to pay out lots of money in penalties.

Luvenia V.
Luvenia V5 years ago

I am going to play the devil’s advocate here and say that these crimes are being fed by Globalization and LOL, FREE TRADE. Corporations have taken their tax cuts and tax loopholes and fled to the countries where child and slave labor runs rapid. I am sick to death of hearing how these poor children at least can help their families eat. Imagine how well they could be living if there were labor laws to protect the workers and laws to stop slavery.

I have not bought an electric device in years and I am NOT going to. Every time I see their advertisements on TV I think of these children and the poor Chinese people so repressed they will jump to their deaths. Globalization and LOL, FREE TRADE has brought down the quality of life in every industrialized nation and allowed child and slave labor to blossom. Sadly Corporations can be called the manure fertilizing it all.