Today, more than a quarter of the world’s slaves are children. These children are forced to commit commercial sex acts, forced into a system of domestic servitude or employed in occupations that are mentally, physically, socially and morally harmful.
Supply needs and industry demand for cheap, unskilled labor are some of the leading causes of child labor. Specifically, production processes that require certain physical attributes, such as small stature and agility, lead to the employment of children. In addition, price pressures encourage suppliers - especially those at the top of the supply chain - to find the cheapest labor. Poverty leads these children to accept the job, or their parents ask them to work to supplement the family income. These supply and demand factors are reinforced by systemic, structural issues such as lack of access to education, inadequate employment opportunities for the educated, corruption and social stratification.
According to the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, child labor is the enslavement (i.e., sale, trafficking, debt bondage, serfdom, compulsory labor) of anyone under the age of 18. The definition includes the use of children in armed conflict, prostitution and illegal activities such as drug trafficking. Lastly, any work deemed to be harmful to the health, safety or morals of a child is considered to be child labor.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 prohibits the employment of minors in “oppressive child labor.” Oppressive child labor is the employment of a child under 16 by anyone other than that child’s parent(s) or guardian(s). However, the Secretary of Labor permits the employment of individuals between 14 and 16 so long as the work is not in the manufacturing or mining industries and so long as the child’s health, well-being and education are not negatively affected. Occupations that are deemed hazardous to the health or well-being of individuals between 16 and 18 years old are also considered to be “oppressive child labor.”
Children have always worked in the United States. Child labor was significantly present during industrialization, the Great Depression and the 19th and 20th centuries when a number of poor immigrants migrated to the U.S. Today, American and foreign children who are forced into prostitution, domestic servitude and other forms slavery fall into the child labor category.
Around the world, an influx in sex tourism, the insatiable demand for child pornography and greed play key roles in the prevalence of child sex slavery and trafficking. In addition to strangers, family and close friends have been known to sell children off to individuals, businesses and groups involved in the sex industry. Once sold, the children are forced to perform commercial sex acts. In the U.S. and in most countries abroad, any commercial sex with a minor is considered sex trafficking.
These adolescents are chosen by traffickers for different reasons. Although kids from broken families, runaways and poor children are at higher risk of being trafficked, middle and upper class children may also be targeted. Generally, online predators and individuals looking to profit from the sex trade pick children that have certain insecurities and vulnerabilities – someone they can manipulate and dominate. It is through this manipulation and domination that traffickers are able to continuously sell and profit from the children.
The standard price for sex at a brothel in the U.S. is $30. Typically, trafficked children see 25-48 customers a day. They work up to 12 hours a day, every day of the week; every year, a pimp earns between $150,000 and $200,000 per child.
Abuse and indoctrination, mixed with alcohol and drug addiction, enable traffickers to enslave these children for years.
Children still face challenges even when they reach out for help, escape or are rescued. Some survivors of child sex trafficking are, at first, arrested and treated as delinquents. Society prescribed labels for those in the sex industry are often degrading, and children feel as if they can’t live a normal life anymore. They might think that they’re stuck living a life of prostitution and that they don’t have any options. In some cases and in many cultures, children – particularly girls – that have been sexually violated are no longer accepted in their families or communities because they are seen as tainted.
Child sexual slavery and trafficking are connected to other forms of slavery. Children may be forced into domestic servitude and, along the way, are sexually abused by their new family. At times, minors are forced into marrying to give the family financial stability or to pay off a debt.