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READ: Data Exploration – Child Labor

Children have always worked. During the nineteenth and twentieth century, reform movements sought to limit this, but even today, 265 million children still work.
The data exploration article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview – what do we have?

This will be your quickest read. It should help you get the general idea of what this chart is about and the information it contains. Pay attention to:
  • Labels and titles. What is the title? How are the axes labeled? Is anything else on the chart labeled?
  • Data representation. How many variables are there and what are they? What are the scales? What time period does the chart cover? Is the chart interactive?
  • Data source. Where did the data for this chart come from? Do you trust it? Who created the chart?

Second read: key ideas – what do we know?

In this read, you will pay attention to the information that most helps you understand the chart and the information it is trying to convey. Pay attention to:
  • Claim(s). What can you say about the data? What story does it tell? Can you make any claims about this data? Does it change when you zoom in compared to when you look at the data as a whole?
  • Evidence. What data from the chart supports this story? Does this change if you change the scale or variables?
  • Presentation. How does the way this chart is presented influence how you read it? Has the author selected certain variables or scales that change the conclusions that can be drawn? Is there anything missing from this chart?
By the end of the second read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How are Charts 1, 2, and 3 similar? How are they different?
  2. Chart 1 shows a spike, when child labor in Italy started rising again instead of falling. Why do you think this spike occurred? Why don’t we see a similar spike in the UK or US?
  3. Charts 1 and 3 show really dramatic decreases in child labor. Why does Chart 2 not show this sort of dramatic decline?
  4. What does Chart 4 measure? Why do you think the percentages are so much higher than at the ends of Charts 1, 2, and 3?
  5. Is there anything missing from Chart 5?
  6. Why do you think Chart 5 lists “no data” for wealthy countries in Europe, North America, and elsewhere?
  7. There’s a lot of data missing from the “global” information in Charts 4 and 5. What impact does this have on our understanding of child labor?

Third read: making connections – what does this tell us?

The third reading is really about why the chart is important and what it can tell us about the past and help us think about the future. Pay attention to:
  • Significance. Why does this matter? Does this impact me, and if so, how? How does it connect what is going on in the world right now? How does it relate to what was happening at the time it was created?
  • Back to the future. How does this data compare to today? Based on what you now know, what are your thoughts on this phenomenon 25 years, 50 years, and 100 years from now?
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Why does this chart matter? What do these charts about child labor tell us about human communities since the Industrial Revolution? What do they tell us about the way humans produce things?
  2. Using these charts, make one prediction about how child labor will change in your lifetime. What evidence from the charts supports your prediction? What evidence challenges it?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Child Labor Data Introduction

By Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser, adapted by Mike Papritz and Trevor R. Getz
Children have always worked. During the nineteenth and twentieth century, reform movements sought to limit this, but even today, 265 million children still work.


It’s estimated that globally there are around 265 million children engaged in work. This represents 17 percent of all children in the world. These figures are the latest estimates available from the International Labour Organisation’s “World Report on Child Labour,” published in 2013.
In the past century, many countries have managed to virtually eliminate child labor. Today, child labor is most common in the region of sub-Saharan Africa. But there are examples of countries around the world where child labor was the norm at some time in the past.
This data exploration looks at child labor from around 1850 to present in order to analyze how the prevalence of child labor has changed over time. Labor, in this case, means paid employment outside of the home. The Industrial Revolution expanded work opportunities for adults. When a country industrialized, wage labor tended to increase overall. This was true both in cities and in rural areas. But was it true for children?

Analyzing child labor since the Industrial Revolution

We don’t have very reliable estimates of child labor for many countries before the twentieth century. But most scholars believe that industrialization initially led to an increase in child labor. Then, during the twentieth century, child labor began to decrease. But this fall in child labor over the twentieth century was not constant. There were some events that caused child labor rates to temporarily increase for several years. For example, in some countries, the First and Second World Wars led to children reentering the workforce.
Presented below in Charts 1, 2, and 3 is data for three countries where we do have good records of child labor rates—Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In all three countries, we see child labor fall dramatically over the twentieth century. In Italy, for example, child labor was very common at the beginning of the century—half of all children were employed. By the middle of the century, this number had fallen to less than 10 percent.
Chart 1:
Chart 2:
Chart 3:

Child labor today

In Chart 4, you can see that on a global scale, child labor rates continue to fall today. In the year 2000, 23 percent of all children in the world were engaged in work. By 2012, this had fallen to 17 percent. This is an encouraging decline, but child labor is still common in many countries in the world. In the map below, you can see in which countries child labor remains common in the twenty-first century. Child labor can prevent children from experiencing important opportunities like going to school.
Chart 4:
Chart 5:
Will this trend continue? What factors might be contributing to this overall decline? What could disrupt it?
Author bios
Esteban is Senior Researcher and Content Lead at Our World In Data, as well as executive co-director of Global Change Data Lab, the non-profit organization that publishes and maintains the website and the data tools that make OWID’s work possible. Esteban does research on economic development, the public sector, education, and a wide range of related topics. Esteban completed his doctoral studies at the University of Oxford (DPhil Economics).
Max is the founder and director of Our World in Data. He began the project in 2011 and for several years was the sole author, until receiving funding for the formation of a team. Max’s research focuses on poverty, global health, and the distribution of incomes. He is also Programme Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on Global Development at the University of Oxford, and Co-executive Director of Global Change Data Lab, the non-profit organization that publishes and maintains the website and the data tools that make OWID’s work possible.

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