Traces of Childhood Exploitation A Comprehensive Study on the Forms, Causes and Consequences of Child Labour – Conferences Presentation

Presented at the 2nd International Eurasian Conferences on Educational and Social Studies

Hosted by The Polytechnic of Guarda PORTUGAL August 27 – 28, 2022

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Traces of Childhood Exploitation
A Comprehensive Study on the Forms, Causes and Consequences of Child Labour

Kameel Ahmady


Several research works have studied certain forms of child labour, including street work, but there are no studies that systematically address the various forms of child labour and their contexts, characteristics and consequences in Tehran. Using a qualitative method, this research studies these various forms and aspects of child labour in the city of Tehran. The study was conducted using grounded theory, and, for data collection, various forms of interview and observation techniques were used according to theoretical, snowballing and purposive sampling methods.

The study population consists of three groups of children, their employers and field experts. To analyse the findings, a three-step coding method was used to construct a theory for child labour. The findings indicate that working children in Tehran are exploited in various, including the worst, forms of work. These forms of work are divided into three categories: kinship, employer-based and large organisations. The main settings for child labour include the development gap throughout the country, war and poverty in Afghanistan, family poverty, the prevalent attitudes in some communities on children and child labour, the informal labour market, and some aspects of legal and law-enforcement settings.

Also, the reasons that children and their families work include the participation of children in the provision of family expenses, learning skills in the absence of correspondence between education and employment, and the failure to attend school. The main strategies used by children and their families include some actions to increase and improve their incomes and reduce workplace hazards. Apart from exploiting children and depending on their conditions and features, various forms of work damage children’s physical and mental health and disrupt their effective socialisation processes.

Keywords: Exploitation, the worst form of child labour, child labour, poverty, characteristics of child labour forms, child labour risks.

Traces of Childhood Exploitation:
A Comprehensive Study on the Forms, Causes and Consequences of Child Labour



There is an alarmingly high rate of child labour in the world, especially in developing countries. At the beginning of 2020, before the COVID-19 outbreak, 160 million children – 97 million boys and 63 million girls – were working; this means roughly one in ten children worldwide. This number was disproportionately distributed among the countries of the world; i.e. among developed and developing countries.

Child labour is common in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa (86.6 million), Central and South Asia (26.3 million), East and Southeast Asia (23.4 million), North Africa and West Asia (10.1 million), Latin America and the Caribbean (8.2 million) and Europe and North America (3.8 million) (International Labour Organization and UNICEF, 2021). According to estimates, child labour in Iran, including domestic work, is performed by 15% of children aged 10 to 18, making the population of active children equal to 1.62 million (Vameghi and Yazdani, 2019).

UNICEF defines ‘child labour’‎ as ‘work that exceeds a minimum number of hours, depending on the age of a child and on the type of work’. Such work is considered harmful to the child and should therefore be eliminated (UNICEF, 2007). In many parts of the world, child labour is seen as a violation of children’s rights (United Nations, 1990). Working children are constantly exposed to exploitation, abuse and violence by employers and family members (Jaha, 2009).

In the last two decades, several useful studies were conducted on the subject of child labour in Iran, especially focusing on certain forms of work, such as street work. However, other forms of child labour, such as employment in workshops, the informal sector, domestic work and labour in rural areas, have not been adequately addressed in past studies. The expansion of the informal sector has exacerbated such problems as poverty, inequality and the over-exploitation of the poor, so that the weaker in terms of gender and age, namely women and children, carry out most of the jobs in the informal economy.

Many jobs in the informal economy bear several physical and psychological consequences for children. Hidden child labour in closed environments, such as in the workshops, is also a type of high-risk occupation, as it is hidden from the public view. Working in small workshops, home workshops and, in many cases, illegal workshops in the informal sector causes serious damage to children. Children have less freedom of action and are unable to defend and care for themselves in such closed and hidden work conditions. The depressing, miserable and dangerous spaces and settings of the underground workshops raises the possibility of child exploitation and abuse.

The least amount of information available is in relation to the various workshops and working circumstances of children in these environments, as it is unclear how many hours a day children work, how they are paid and so on. In addition to working on the streets, in the informal sector, and in workshops, children labour‎ in a variety of work environments including agricultural and manufacturing. Evidence suggests that a large proportion of children labour‎ in these environments, which are connected with numerous risks (UNICEF, 2007). Thus, it is necessary to identify the different forms of child labour and study their characteristics, such as their nature, conditions, and associated risks. This research aims to use grounded theory to study the background of different forms of child labour and their characteristics in Tehran.

Research Questions

What are the main forms of child labour in Tehran and their characteristics?

What are the contexts for these activities, and what are their consequences for children?

Literature Review: Theoretical Literature

The International Labour Organization (the ‘ILO’) (undated a) defines the term ‘child labour’ as

work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially, or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely, or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

The International Union of Workers presents a list of forms of child labour that includes the most extensive and worst forms of it, although it does not include all its existing forms. That list is:

  • Domestic work: A prevalent and sometimes acceptable form of child labour; this form of work is done either at home or outdoors.
  • Agricultural work: Many children are employed in the agriculture sector. They usually work on family farms for their family or other employers.
  • Industrial Work: Work in the industrial sector can happen regularly or occasionally, legally or illegally, as part of family work or for other employers. This form of work exposes children to chemicals that can lead to poisoning, respiratory and skin diseases, burning and explosions, vision and hearing damage, fracture, and even death.
  • Mining: In many countries, children have been exploited as a labour‎ force in the mining sector.
  • Slavery and forced labour: This form of labour is more common in rural areas and is perpetuated through the oppression of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples.
  • Prostitution and child trafficking: Children face heavy and severe risks in this sector that range from personality and moral corruption to the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases and death.
  • Working in the informal economy: Work in this sector also includes a wide range of activities including shoe waxing, begging, selling newspapers, or scavenging. Some of these works are hidden from public view and others are exposed to the public. The work environment of this sector is generally the street (Diallo, Etienne & Mehran, 2013).

Some forms of child labour – the worst forms – cause children to be enslaved, separated from their families and exposed to a variety of risks and serious illnesses, or they cause children to be on the streets of metropolitan areas, especially at a young age. These forms include:

  • all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom, and forced or compulsory labour‎, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;
  • the use, procuring, or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography, or for pornographic performances;
  • the use, procuring, or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties; and
  • work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children (International Labour Organization, undated a).

Several theories and studies seek to explain child labour. To properly study child labour‎, all social, economic, cultural and legal factors must be considered; these factors are interrelated and are intertwined with children’s close environments (such as family and school) and distant environments (political, cultural and social). The theory of Ecological Systems as developed by Bronfenbrenner (1994) is used here to explain child labour, as it provides an integrated framework for understanding multilevel factors affecting child labour.

This theory serves as a framework for guiding the process of thinking, and its various details are provided through studies in the field of childhood. According to the proposed ecological framework, the underlying factors include chronosystem, macrosystem, exosystem, mesosystem and microsystem, which interact with each other. The upper layers cover the lower layers; hence the trickle-down effect that leads to the problem of child labour.

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Figure 1: Contextual factors contributing to child labour, according to Bronfenbrenner’s ecological framework (1994) adopted from Liao & Hong (2011, p. 568)

The chronosystem, according to Bronfenbrenner, is the passage of time that mediates the change or constancy over time in an individual’s characteristics or the environment in which the individual is situated. In the field of child labour, this system refers to the changes and transformations of child labour over time.

The macrosystem is regarded as a cultural blueprint for the social structures and activities in the other system levels. The macrosystem level includes cultural beliefs, opportunity structures and hazards that shape microsystem conditions and processes. ‎Factors at the macrosystem level that are relevant to child labour include the politico-economic system, child labour laws and cultural values. Inequality skews distribution among the strata of society and ‎contributes to the poverty of the lower strata, where the families send their children into the work cycle to compensate for part of their expenses.

According to Ranjan (2001), income inequality is positively related to child labour‎. since workers with lower productivity and, as a consequence, lower incomes are less able to invest in their children’s educations (White, 2009). Even if there are educational opportunities in the community, parents forbid their children from attending or continuing school because they believe that education is a waste of time for learning job skills and finding employment (Emerson & Nab, 2006).

Inequality also encourages rural-urban migration and contributes to urban poverty (Sansoy Bahar, 2014). Migration can even occur internationally. Legal contexts refer to laws that do not prohibit child labour or, if they do prohibit it, do not provide the required enforcement mechanisms.

The way society defines childhood impacts children’s labour. Some communities believe that working can prepare children for healthy socialisation in the workplace and adulthood (Fyfe, 1989). Before the Industrial Revolution, child labour‎ was prevalent, and children worked on farms or at home with their parents. Even if the child’s work is unusual and unrelated to the family environment, it may be regarded as beneficial as it contributes to the family’s income and prepares them to enter the labour‎ market in the future, by keeping them away from dangerous street activities such as crime and prostitution (Wolfe & Dickson, 2002).

The exosystem is composed of relationships between two or more microsystems, but the individual is directly involved in one. For example, although government policies and public perceptions of children’s rights do not directly affect children, they can shape the family and school environments in which children are embedded. The lack of public recognition of child labour as a human-rights violation generates apathy and tolerance for child labour (Liao & Hong, 2011).

The mesosystem is composed of interrelationships between two or more micro­systems that contain the individual. Interactions in one microsystem (e.g. the family) may affect interactions in another (e.g. school). Lack of access to adequate schooling is a factor that determines child labour. Rural children are likely to drop out of school, primarily because of poor school environments. Lack of educational resources, underqualified teachers and substandard school facilities gradually lead to increased school drop-out. Youngsters with little or no access to adequate educational resources have few options other than to end up as child labourers. In this subsystem, the lack of involvement of parents affects the propagation of child labour. Parents’ lack of involvement in their children’s educations, combined with inadequate schooling, increases the likelihood of child labour. Parents’ educational levels and their perceptions about the importance of education are the main determinants of children’s school attendance (Liao & Hong, 2011).

The microsystem consists of direct influences on the individuals or groups of individuals. The microsystem is a pattern of activities, social roles and interpersonal relations that the individual experiences in a direct setting (Bronfenbrenner, 1994).

The family environment (more specifically, family poverty) is one of the main causes of child labour. For many poor households, their survival depends on the participation of all family members in meeting their needs. Child labour is a rational behaviour as part of maintaining families’ incomes. For example, in some countries, such as China, primary education is not free and the family incurs costs for school fees and transportation when sending a child to school. Parents in such poor, rural areas cannot afford the school costs for their children, leaving few options for children other than to work (Liao & Hong, 2011). Also, the level of family education (low), its size (large) and parents’ conceptions lead to children’s involvement in work. How parents perceive childhood and child labour impacts their decision-making processes and parenting practices (Sensoy Bahar, 2014).

Characteristics such as age, geographic location and gender can determine which children are more likely to be in the labour force. In a family with two or more children, older children are more likely to engage in labour, as they are perceived to be more marketable due to their physical abilities, social skills or maturity levels (Grootaert and Kanbur, 1995). Also, child labour is more common in rural areas, and girls work more frequently in these areas than in urban areas (Vameghi & Yazdani, 2019). Age and gender also determine the form of a child’s labour. For example, child labour‎ on the street tends to decline after the age of 15 because these children lose their attractiveness to potential clients and they may turn to other fields of work (Sensoy Bahar, 2014).

Experimental Literature

Many global studies look at child labour as a result of family poverty, when parts and even all of the living expenses of the households are provided by child labour (Khan & Hesketh, 2010; Canagarajah & Nielsen, 2001; Salmon, 2005; Sensoy Bahar, 2014 and 2016; Kazeem, 2012; Maconachie & Hilson, 2016). Domestic research also identifies family poverty as an important driver of child labour. Family poverty manifests itself in a variety of ways, the most significant of which are the illiteracy or poor literacy of parents, unemployment, seasonal and temporary employment, the lack of sufficient income, female-headed households, and large families. Such manifestations of poverty as addiction and prostitution cause children to leave their families; furthermore, children from addicted families may provide for drug expenses besides family expenses (Afrasiabi et al., 2021; Hosseini, 2004; Zare et al., 2009; Ghasemi et al., 2018; Vameghi et al., 2011; 2013 and 2015).

Raisdana (2003) considers the policies of market orientation and extreme structural adjustment to be the causes of poverty and consequent child labour in some families. In addition to these causes, he points to such factors as injustice, a lack of government oversight in defence of children’s rights and a lack of guaranteed oversight.

Rising education costs are another manifestation of poverty, and some studies reveal how high education costs lead to child labour. Also, the inability to pay for education triggers children to leave school and enter the professional job venue. Lack of citizenship documents, such as identity cards, makes children unable to attend school, and they are, therefore, left in the world of direct labour (Afrasiabi et al., 2021; Vameghi & Dejman, 2013).

Some studies also indicate that the impracticality of curricula causes families to drop their children out of school to enter the work cycle – because they believe such education will not lead to employment (Karmian, Mirakzadeh & Zarafshani, 2016).

Sansoy Bahar (2016), examining the views of Kurdish mothers in Turkey, indicates how order of birth, gender and success with education are important factors in the determination process of whether a child begins labour. Older children are more involved in work and birth order affects children’s educational prospects. According to this study, gender does not affect whether children work or not, but it does affect children’s workplaces. Also, a reciprocal relationship is revealed between child labour and education – child labour influences education, while school attendance and success shape child labour decisions.

Internal and external migration, affected by inequality and conflict, have resulted in the settlement of a broad group of poorer people and war victims in metropolitan areas. Many of these immigrants are unable to adjust to new urban lifestyles and must rely on their children as an alternative labour‎ force (Khan & Hesketh, 2010, Zare et al., 2009; Vameghi et al., 2011).

Cultural attitudes that child labour is a way to prepare children for future life is the other determining factor. These attitudes and their effects are different in different communities, such as Romani and villagers (Vameghi & Dejman, 2013; Imani and Nercissians, 2011).

Further factors, such as family disorder, homelessness, poor parenting, living with step-parents, ethnicity (there is more child labour‎ in ethnic groups), gender (boys work more than girls) and age (older children work more), are reinforced by other issues, such as social harms, and lead to child labour‎. Several studies have found that children who experience family violence turn to the streets to find work and to get away from the family environment (Ghasemi et al., 2018 and Vameghi et al., 2011).

On the demand side, studies show that children are inexpensive, obedient, undemanding and unaware of their rights, so employers frequently prefer children to adult workers (Karmian, Mirakzadeh & Zarafshani, 2016).

Work has numerous consequences for children. Many studies have focused on identifying the consequences of street children’s work, such as long working hours, poor nutrition, starvation, extreme weather, car accidents, experiencing violence, being victims of crime, arrest and confiscation of goods, feelings of shame and humiliation, deprivation of protection from institutions such as family and school, contact with street gangsters, learning high-risk behaviours, such as addiction and delinquency, illness and diseases (internal, skeletal and muscular; skin diseases like leishmania; and viral diseases like hepatitis), and being kidnapped, particularly girls (Ghasemi et al., 2018; Vameghi et al., 2011 and 2013).

Children who work in the agricultural sector, particularly rural children, are also at high risk of health problems, but these are difficult to address due to factors such as the large number of people working in this sector, the fact that children start to work at a young age, the dangerous nature of the work, the lack of regulations, the invisibility of the work, deprivation from schooling, the decisive role of poverty, and the deeply ingrained attitudes and perceptions about child labour‎ in rural areas. Long working hours, physically demanding work, hot and sun-damage causing conditions, working with hazardous and sharp cutting tools, harm and injury from falling objects, skeletal disorders, dislocations and twisting of muscles and joints, skin irritations, machine-related injuries and deaths, exposure to damagingly loud noises, exposure to toxic pesticides and dust, insect bites, and domestic and wild animal-borne diseases are some of the major health concerns in this field (Arnold et al., 2020; Mull & Kirkhorn, 2005; Hurst, 2007; Mirakzadeh, Zarafshani & Karmian, 2016).

Working in brick kilns also has many negative consequences, including poor living conditions and a lack of access to urban services, working in extremely hot conditions, a lack of health facilities and being deprived of healthcare, as well as skin and motor injuries (Safikhani, 2016). Children who work in workshops are exposed to dangerous chemicals and may experience paralysis, physical and psychological injuries, violence and exploitation, and are confined to the limited space of the workshop (Vameghi & Dejman, 2013).

Long working hours, injuries from contact with sharp objects in garbage, contact with pathogenic microbes, the transmission of the hepatitis virus, contagious skin diseases, criminal violence and victimhood situations and exploitation are among the issues that children face when scavenging (Association for the Protection of Children’s Rights, 2019). Other types of work, such as domestic work and work in the informal sector, construction and mining, endanger children’s health in a variety of ways. Dropping out of school, combining work and education (which puts additional pressure on children) and being deprived of play and childish activities are among the common consequences of all forms of child labour‎ (c.f. Zandrazavi & Rahimi Pooranaraki, 2011; Firoozabadi & Rezeniakan, 2014; Ghasemi et al., 2018, Liao & Hong, 2011).


The current study used a qualitative research method that was conducted in Tehran in 2020. Grounded theory was used as a methodology. Children (318 people), employers (17 people), child specialists (i.e. child activists in non-governmental organisations), professors and experts in the Ministry of Welfare and the Welfare Organisation (20 people) make up the study population. The sampling method used was a mix of targeted and snowball sampling. Data collection tools included semi-structured, in-depth interviews and observation.

The fact that the same research group conducted the interviews, made observations and even analysed the results increases the validity of the research. The open, axial and selective coding methods were used to analyse the data. To ensure the reliability of the findings, the data were collected and analysed using a variety of people and techniques; the data were collected from various groups; and the resulting categories, together with the research findings, were reviewed by the research team and child study specialists to both enhance the richness of the data and reduce potential biases.


Demographics and Related Findings

Findings indicate that 84% of working children are boys and 16% are girls. Of those, 1.02% are in the age-range of three to seven years, 44.89% are in the age-range of eight to thirteen years, and 54.08% are in the age-range of 14 to 17 years.

Roughly 3% of working children are natives, 3% are Romani, 18% are internal immigrants and some 6% are foreign immigrants. Of the foreign immigrants, 40% have entered the country legally, while 60% are illegal immigrants.

In terms of education, fathers and mothers respectively are 61% and 66% illiterate, 19% and 17% have an elementary-level education, 12% and 9% have a middle-school education, 5% of each have a high-school diploma, 3% and 1% have a bachelor’s degree, and 2% of mothers have Quranic literacy.

Members living in another city or country, disability and retirement, death, illness, addiction, imprisonment and divorce are among the major causes of families’ lack of income.

As for working hours, 18% of these children work four to eight hours per day, 55% ‎work eight to twelve hours, 22% work 12 to 16 hours, and 5% work 16 or more hours.

The daily income for 36% is 100 to 500 thousand Rials; for 14%, it is 500 thousand to 1 million Rials; for 37%, it is 1 to 2 million Rials; and for 13% it is more than 2 million Rials.

About 45% of these children have experienced physical abuse, 49% psychological abuse, and 6% some form of sexual abuse.

Some 16% stated that they cannot request time off or that they cannot temporarily leave work.

68% of children live with their immediate families or relatives, 23% live alone and 9% settle in the workspace.

Forms of Child Labour

Table 1 below summarises the most important characteristics of child labour forms and their consequences. Each of the following tasks is described in greater detail below.

Work in workshops:

This type of labour encompasses a wide range of work, including jobs in small and medium-sized workshops making bags, shoes and clothes, as well as sewing, mechanical tasks, welding and scrap-metal working, carpentry, flower production, etc. The oft-stated purpose of this type of labour is to learn more about the profession for future careers; however, income is attractive to children. One of the reasons families dispatch their children to these jobs is to learn skills, as they believe that the education system does not lead to employment or income. The children often stated, ‘My father told me to go and learn something. School doesn’t help much’ and ‘I want to learn something so that when I grow up, I can stay away from the street.’

Some children are also interested in learning technical skills such as mechanics. In this line of work, most labour relationships are of the employer or kinship-based type. ‎‎‎In many cases, employers subject working children to verbal and even physical violence to teach them some skills. Furthermore, in most jobs, children work every day of the week, including weekends, so they have no free ‘children’s time’. Immigrant children from different geographical areas are usually present in these workshops; mostly, they spend their nights in the same environment.

According to some experts, child labour in workshops is far more difficult than street labour and has far more negative consequences due to the lack of supervision, the lack of safety and health considerations, the higher risk of injury and disability, employer unresponsiveness, low wages, abuse, exploitation, impingements on the right to protest, the lack of freedom to determine start and end hours of work, long working hours, the lack of leisure and recreation, exposure to many forms of immoral behaviours by employers and their companions, such as addiction, alcoholism, casual sex and smuggling, which undermines children’s self-confidence and their abilities to communicate with society and other people.

A child activist in a non-governmental organisation (‘NGO’) stated, ‘I personally prefer the children to work on the streets and intersections rather than in workshops. You see, in workshops children have no confidence of their own against the employer and the employer is aware of this. Even the parents of the child are sometimes working at the same workshop. For example, when a child has a problem, there is a feeling that the child will inform the parents, but this does not happen in workshop environments.’

‘There is more freedom on the street for money and commuting,’ said another expert. ‘Children in workshops are usually oppressed and have low self-esteem. But they have more self-confidence on the street and are in touch with the people; children in workshops have no voice.’

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Table 1: Forms of child labour, their characteristics, and consequences

Agriculture‎:The work of children in this sector is primarily determined by the working season. The majority of work is completed during the summer, followed by the autumn and the spring. Children’s motivations for entering this field is to make money. Children participate in work through friendships or relative groups who support them.

During the working season, they frequently live in makeshift sheds in the fields, which lack many basic amenities and access to services, exposing them to physical harm. The most significant issues with this type of work include having to work every day of the week, long working hours during the day, hard and exhausting work, and working in the hot weather.

One of the children said‎:, ‘What is hard about our job is that we have to work in the sun, the weather is hot, and the mosquitoes bother us.’ Children may participate in other activities, such as garbage collection, during other seasons when workloads and labour needs are reduced. It should also be noted that, because farms are typically located in the outlying areas of cities, this group of children is isolated from society, education, NGO services, and many welfare and urban facilities.

Work in the streets: Children on the street work in a variety of jobs, including floristry, begging, selling handicrafts, smoking fragrant materials, weighing, playing music, cleaning car windows, selling vegetables, fortune-telling, porting, etc. Children as young as four years old are entering this line of work. They first get a job through a family member or friend. Children’s parents are more willing to use their children in this capacity because children can easily stimulate people’s compassion, thus earning more money. The primary goal of all of this type of work is to make money.

In some cases, parents may watch their children on the street from a short distance. Afghan children and Romani are frequently seen doing street work. Children frequently fight for their special territories – the specific urban spaces such as intersections that they have designated as their territories – and prevent others from entering them. In some cases, there is a fee to enter the territory. One of the children told the interviewer‎:, ‘They told me that they’ve worked here for ten years, that this intersection is theirs. I tell them where is the document? And then there was another fight.’ The lived experience of street life teaches children to recognise potential customers and stimulate their emotions, and defend themselves against the hazards of work.

These are the children subject to State organisation-and-control plans, many of whom have been arrested and detained. As children enter the work cycle at a young age, they must leave as soon as they can no longer elicit the pity and sentiment of citizens and cause them to donate.

Work in farmer’s markets: Children who work in farmer’s markets are mostly domestic immigrants who work away from their families or together with a family member. Work in these markets is fully organised and supervised by the Tehran Municipality’s Fruit and Vegetable Markets Organisation. They are formally required to work nine hours a day plus four extended hours for such tasks as emptying luggage at different intervals throughout the night. ‘Vegetable market has no work hours,’ one child told the interviewer, implying that they must work long hours.

Children’s wages are determined weekly, with the majority of them receiving eight million Rials per week, but when they want to return home or require money, they can ask their employer for it. They are not paid during holidays and vacations. Market supervisors monitor their activities, and if they commit violations, such as not treating customers properly, not wearing uniforms, or leaving substandard fruits and items inside on exhibition pallets, the supervisors discipline them, which is often accompanied by humiliation. Almost all children see this as a temporary job, though some may stay on to rent booths and sell fruit as they grow older.

Scavenging: Garbage-collecting children are mostly Afghan immigrants, though some Iranian children of various ethnicities are also involved. Tehran Municipality hires special contractors to collect and sort dry waste. The contractor may manage garbage collection himself or delegate it to others, including Afghans. They are locally known as ‘Lord’, ‘Dump-Master’, or ‘Garage-Chief’. These employers usually split scavenging into morning and night shifts to maximise profits. In the morning, the majority of persons who work in the waste department of all 22 districts of Tehran are under the supervision of the district municipalities; thus, fewer working children are used at this time. In the afternoon shifts, most of the scavengers are children who begin to work around four o’clock in the afternoon and work until about midnight or later.

Some of these children even pay a monthly fee to the employer as ‘customs’. Then they are permitted to work in the area, while others are required to sell the waste to the employer at a set price, which is usually very low. Workers in this sector are typically issued activity cards, and their photos are stored in the employer’s ‘patrol’ mobile phones to be monitored, ensuring that no one enters the field to work illegally. One scavenging boy describes his experience of entering the field in these words: ‘We pay customs here. We pay 30 million Rials and they let us work.

If we do not pay the customs, they will find us. Whoever does not pay, they will find him and throw him away.’ This is an example of how children in this type of work are exposed to violence. The tools used by children in this type of work are typically an extra-large bag and, on occasion, hand carts. These people typically live inside waste-separation sites in Tehran’s south, south-west and east. They travel to Tehran in rented trucks to collect garbage, and, after working hours, the same trucks return them to their residences with the garbage they have collected.

Supermarket and grocery workers:

Afghan and Turkic-speaking children are more likely to be engaged in this type of work. Working hours in supermarkets are from early in the morning until around 11 o’clock at night. Some of these children live in the same stores and are thus always available for work. Children work in a variety of stores, including grocery stores, accessory stores, restaurants, butcheries, poultry shops, clothing stores, car washes, bakeries and confectioneries.

Their work can be part-time or full-time, and they are paid accordingly. Children work in these jobs every day of the week and on holidays. In some cases, such as working in a car wash, children are not paid, the employer only provides them with a place to sleep, and their income is derived from the tips and gratuities they receive from customers. ‘Here I am a tipped worker; we don’t get paid here,’ one child stated.

Brick kiln workers‎:

These kilns are largely located in the south and south-west of Tehran. They are mostly run by families, and the children work alongside their parents. As a result, children have no control over their incomes and the employer pays the wages directly to the head of the household or their father. In response to a question about his salary, a child answered, ‘I don’t know about the money. It’s in my father’s hand. Daddy takes it and spends it for the house.’ The working hours in these kilns are also very long. Children often have to wake up early in the morning and work near the furnace until late at night. These kilns are more active during summers, and workers return to their original residences for the rest of the year.

However, several households reside near the same kilns. Most of these kilns are located outside the city, and the workers have minimal contact with their local urban communities. Therefore, they are marginalised and excluded from mainstream society. Due to a lack of access to schools and NGOs in these areas, the majority of children drop out of school or go to nearby villages or towns to study; however, because of the costs and challenges, the number of these children is very small.

Glassware workshops:

Most of the children working in this sector are domestic immigrants who live with their families. Girls are more commonly labourers in this industry. According to national labour laws, children under the age of 15 are prohibited from working in glassware workshops, but many of these workshops are monitored by private CCTV cameras, and when labour inspectors visit, children exit through the back door.

Children and even some women who are employed in this industry are not covered by insurance, and, in certain circumstances, employers refuse to pay, thus simply forcing them to quit. One of the children talked about his experiences in these workshops in these words: ‘The materials are on the bars. I go and put them in the oven. I take them very cautionary. I quickly take them out so that my hand does not burn, but it burned once.’

Domestic work:

These are children who work at the houses of other people. They may include children who work at their own houses. Daily housekeeping duties, meal preparation, cleaning, laundry, caring for and accompanying children to school, caring for adults and the disabled, gardening, and assisting employers in small offices are among the responsibilities of these children. In their own houses, domestic-working children often do such jobs as cleaning and sorting vegetables, carpet weaving, wrapping produced items, such as socks, decorating jewellery on other items such as clothes, etc.

Many children may go to clients’ houses together with their parents and do things such as cleaning the house and other housekeeping tasks. One child told the interviewer, ‘I go to clean with my mother. My mother cleans the floor; I wash the dishes.’ This form of work is controlled by the family, and the children, especially girls, have little or no control over their incomes.

Child Labour Context Model

In Table 2, first, the coding process and the position of the respective categories within the model are illustrated, and then the logical relationships of the context and consequences are depicted.

At the structural level, child labour is the result of such causes as development gaps, tensions and conflicts in Afghanistan, poverty, the prevalent cultures in some communities and their attitudes towards working children, as well as migration and the consequent costs. The development gap refers to the widespread widening of inequality. Since the early 20th century, development policies have focused on a few central provinces, such as Tehran, and the majority of industries and service activities have been established in this part of the country, while other regions, particularly those on the outskirts, have been ignored in development plans. As a result of this procedure, a large number of individuals from neighbouring towns, mainly children, move to Tehran in a quest for work.

On the other side, Afghanistan, the eastern neighbour, has seen decades of instability and conflict, resulting in pervasive insecurity in the region. Insecurity, along with extreme poverty in Afghanistan’s society, particularly in rural areas, has fuelled migration to Iran. Furthermore, the intensification of financial sanctions and the spread of the COVID-19 virus, as well as rising inflation and the demise of some industries, have contributed to the deeper impoverishment of more families and increased child labour exploitation.

There is a common attitude regarding children in some parts of Iran and Afghanistan, where children are regarded as potential workers after they reach a certain age. It is believed that some jobs, such as those in which children learn a skill, are advantageous because they prepare children for future employment opportunities. A local facilitator working for an NGO in the Ghaniabad region told us about her experiences and attitude in these words: ‘You see, there are people in Afghanistan who feel guilty if their children do not start working after a certain age.

This is in their very culture. Time and again, I have seen many instances where children ask me to find a job for them. I keep telling them that they should continue attending school, that it is too early for them to work, but they insist, telling me that they have reached an age that they should work. . . . If they do not work in the early teen years, they consider themselves as abnormal.’

Immigration and its costs are the other major cause of child labour. Afghani children who migrate to Iran either alone or together with their families face enormous immigration costs. This is true for both legal and illegal immigrants: legal immigrants must pay for such affairs as passports and residency, while illegal immigrants must pay for smugglers and illegal transit. Sometimes Iran is a simple station for Afghani families migrating to Europe.

They settle in Iran for a while and work to cover the costs of immigration to a European country. ‘We have an immigrant family, and when you visit their houses, you can see that they are struggling to survive,’ a social activist working with labouring children told the interviewer. ‘Even though this family has working members and makes a total sum of 80 million Rials, this is their situation. This is not normal, and it should not be the case. Then we learn that they have just returned from Turkey. Travel costs, particularly illegal travel, are too high. These families have spent over 300 million Rials to travel to Iran in the most dangerous way conceivable. Now they must work and save to pay for the even more expensive [trip] to Turkey.’

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Table 2‎:‎ The coding process and the position of the categories

Poor households are a major source of child labour. Recognised manifestations of poverty in households include low-income jobs, unemployment, illiteracy and low-level education of parents, a large number of family members, illness, disability, the imprisonment or addiction of the father, the death of the head of the family, abandonment of the family by the head or the father of the family, temporary jobs, indebtedness, escape from unhealthy family environments, and the high costs of education. These are the most common situations in which families use their children’s labour force to cover part of their expenses.

The following is a conversation between an interviewer and a child:

  • What do you do with your money?
  • We use it to rent a house; we do not waste our money; we spend it on necessities such as accommodation.
  • Has it risen ever?
  • They’ve now added some more. It used to be so insignificant. It used to be 800 [Toman, or 8 million Rials], but it has since been increased.
  • What is the current price?
  • I’m not sure.
  • Do you provide money for your mother or father?
  • We’ll hand it over to father. The money is transferred to the owner by my brother.

Another contributing factor to child labour is children’s own interest and willingness to work. Some children prefer to work to gain financial independence or contribute to family expenditures. However, children’s incentives to work are products of their social settings. When their families are poor and unable to support them in achieving their goals, children enter the labour market to earn money for their goals, which may include purchasing a bicycle, paying for education or assisting the family.

The development of the informal economy also contributes to child labour. Workers in the informal economy are not protected under approved labour and social protection laws. The main reasons for the growth of the informal economy include elements related to the economic context, legal and regulatory frameworks, and some micro-level determinants, such as low levels of education, discrimination, poverty, and a lack of access to economic resources, financial services and markets.

The informal economy has been a major centre for the spread of child labour over the past few decades. Work in the informal economy is often characterised by small or undefined workplaces, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, low levels of skills and productivity, low or irregular income, long working hours, and a lack of access to information, markets, finances, education and technologies (International Labour Organization Website, undated b).

Immigration and the underground economy are inextricably linked. Child labour in Tehran is shaped and hardened by waves of migration from Afghanistan and Iran’s deprived areas. The informal economy also requires low-cost labour, and immigrants, particularly minors, are the finest source of such labour forces. Children and skilled migrants without identification documents are both cheap labour forces who have little legal recourse if their labour rights are violated.

People who work in this sector are deprived of education, skills and everything that will empower them to find decent jobs. ‘Since the informal economy is a traditional field where most of the works are done manually and traditionally, it’s concerned about cheap labour,’ said one child expert. He added, ‘Now, where should they expect child labour? The natural source is immigrant populations and also the Iranians who have migrated from remote areas to Tehran.’

In recent decades, the State’s inability to regulate this industry has resulted in its growth and greater exploitation of vulnerable populations such as women, children and illegal immigrants. Individual and arbitrary workplace policies have taken the place of standard and official rules. This field is the focus of the majority of the studies undertaken in this research. Children may be required to perform duties such as moving heavy hand carts, scavenging, working in industrial plants, working on the street and labouring in kilns.

Figure 2: GT model of child labour in Iran

Factors affecting child labour include how laws are enforced and monitored; the internal rules of immigrant networks; prevalent ethnic and gender discrimination; power relations, values and attitudes; normalisation; and mediation. According to Iranian labour laws, child labour under the age of 15 is prohibited, but we observed that a high proportion of children under the age of 15 work. Many inspectors of the Ministry of Labour do not oversee child labour, so employers circumvent the law and use children as labour forces. Employers hide children in various ways, even when inspectors begin to observe them. In other cases where working-child protection laws are strictly enforced, some children may change the form of their work and move from street work to workshop work.

Immigrant networks also provide opportunities for child labour by establishing connections between origins and destinations. As may be seen, children of similar ethnic backgrounds are grouped in specific jobs; for example, scavenging children are largely from Herat and children working in farm markets are mostly Kurds. This evidence demonstrates the importance of migrant networks and their links to child labour.

Ethnic and gender discrimination is another driving cause of child labour. Some ethnic discrimination is influenced by the same pattern of unbalanced development, but it is not limited to that. Some ethnic groups in Iran suffer from institutional and structural discrimination. Women also suffer from these forms of structural discrimination. For example, they have limited access to some life opportunities. Limited access to opportunities is the outcome of institutional and structural discrimination, which naturally leads to more poverty. The pattern of power relations is the other affecting factor. Due to the lack of regulations to control the relationships and interactions between employers and workers in the informal sector and the easy circumvention of laws in other sectors, employers start to abuse the labour force, especially children.

Geographical location, age, gender and ethnicity are also affecting factors in child labour and its various forms. For example, children who work in the Farahzad district in the northern areas of Tehran are more involved in mechanical work and street work in those same northern areas, while some children in the central areas of Tehran enter production workshops, and those children who reside in the southern regions of Tehran enter farming and farm-related work. In many cases, age has a decisive role in the type of tasks children start to do. For example, younger children are more likely to make money in such works as street vending, floristry and begging, because they can win the sympathy of others, but older children are required for labour that demands physical strength and precision, such as building, scavenging and mechanical work.

Gender and ethnicity also play an important role in the form of labour. Girls are more likely to work in jobs such as housework, tailoring and handicrafts, as many social traditions and norms oppose them undertaking other forms of work. Despite their involvement in street work and vending, girls are frequently allowed to work until they reach adolescence, after which they must work indoors, as working on the streets runs counter to the traditional image of a good girl ready for marriage and family in some cultures, such as Afghans. The mediating factor refers to the mediation of families, friendship networks and NGOs that find work for children and drive them into the work cycle. NGOs occasionally find work for the children under their care.

Workplace strategies are a series of actions and interactions used by children and their support networks to earn more money, promote their positions, avoid workplace dangers and violence, protect their rights and address the challenges they may confront. All these strategies can be categorised into two general types: they are either active or passive. Each of these strategies may or may not be successful. A passive strategy can be useful at times; for example, when a scavenging child does his or her job with the least amount of interaction and confrontation with other citizens, so as not to be disturbed, or when aggressive arguments with employers over pay – a very active strategy – do not lead to a positive result.

Depending on the type of work and its complexity, children’s strategies for success at work, earning more money and advancing their careers can be listed as:

  • exciting the sympathies and sentiments of other citizens through the use of such language as ‘for God’s sake, buy me one’;
  • performances such as writing homework while sitting on the pavement;
  • defending their territory against competitors;
  • changing workplaces or forms of work;
  • typological analyses of citizens and the recognition of potential customers to approach (these strategies are more common in street work);
  • working quietly and silently;
  • allocating different streets (mostly in scavenging work);
  • obedience to power;
  • professionalism and gaining the trust of the employer in workshop environments;
  • achieving customer satisfaction to earn more gratuities;
  • learning skills and self-demonstration;
  • bargaining with employers; and
  • doing work as a contractor in such fields as harvesting crops.

The strategies and tactics of children and their support networks to deal with harassment, maintain their security and combat exploitation led to such actions as asking the employer to pay them weekly, aggression and fighting after experiencing violence, escaping from state and municipality agents, doing works in networks of kinship and friendship, asking for help from such support networks as the family and friends, and developing relationships with other people at work. Sometimes they may choose the most passive strategies and may not seek help from their support networks or even may accept violence and harassment. One of the working children told the interviewer, ‘I find somewhere to be alone and talk to myself, and I try to write them down in my diary.’

Another approach children take to cope with work-related stress in the context of violence and exploitation is to turn to their religious beliefs. One of them expressed this reliance in such terms: ‘I told them the world is futile. You want to take my cash, but the world moves on. Sometimes I greet them. I don’t take these things seriously. I believe that this was our destiny – that it was God’s Will.’

Figure 2 shows the consequences of child labour, and Table 2 further explains some of them. Additional consequences are explained here. One consequence of working that is present in almost all jobs is dropping out of school. First of all, it should be made clear that it is not possible for some children, such as some illegal migrant Afghani children and even some domestic Romani, to go to school simply because they do not have citizenship documents such as identity cards or residence permits. This lack of access to education makes them enter work. Working children are also forced to drop out of school for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the employers do not permit the child to work and study at the same time because their work processes are disrupted.

When children take time off to attend school, some employers do not pay them that day. ‘Usually children are present; they are scared to be absent,’ said one employer. ‘They are not afraid of losing their jobs. They are afraid of losing their salaries that day.’

Also, working affects children’s educations in a variety of ways. A child can go to school and work at the same time, but the combination of hard work and education puts them under additional strain. They may work for a few hours, then go to school and come back to work later. A social worker told the interviewer,‎ ‘Sometimes I feel that we also expect a lot from children; for example, we tell them if they want to study, you should be like this or do this at lunchtime. This is while the child has been running since early in the morning to work and to school and it’s natural that he or she should feel frustrated when you want to interfere.’

Exploitation is the last problem that need addressing. In short, exploitation is the abduction of parts or all of the added value that a child creates at work. Exploitation has many forms and manifestations, including long working hours and unusual hours, harsh conditions, little or no wages, a lack of social support, deception of children, not paying for the days when the child is on leave, deduction of wages in case of injury or damaging work tools and products, making children pay for work through ‘customs’ when scavenging, making children pay commissions, asking them to pay for work clothes, taking a portion of their daily income in such works as floristry at intersections or from hand carriages, under-calculation of the price of a product or garbage, and not providing work equipment.

Children are especially vulnerable to exploitation since they are inexperienced with the legal framework for defending their rights. Asked how they were satisfied with working children, one employer answered, ‘Sometimes I feel they are far better than adult workers. This is because they are more sincere and better listeners. They are more obedient than those arrogant and haughty adult workers.’

In many circumstances, the employer pays the working child very low wages, claiming that the child is not the family’s main source of revenue and lacks sufficient skills. Even though child labour under the age of 15 is strictly prohibited by law, simple enforcement of this law has failed, and, as a result, there is no legal system in place to protect children from exploitation and other occupational hazards. Therefore, there are ready grounds for further child exploitation. Employers employ children in the roughest conditions and pay them a minimum wage without fear of the law or supervision. A child-labour researcher told the interviewer, ‎

Children under the age of 15 have no right to complain. Instead of inspecting and ‎preventing child labour, our government has not taken some steps to prevent child labour, but also through the tactics of the Ministry of ‎Labour, it has given the employers some incentives for exploitation. The biggest incentive is that the working child can be content with any ‎amount of payment under any condition. If the adult files a complaint, the employer ‎should be present at the court to answer, but children cannot even register a complaint.‎

Discussion and Conclusion

The findings of this study demonstrate how working children in Tehran perform various tasks in such jobs and industries as street work, scavenging, floristry, farm markets, brick kilns, glassware workshops, supermarkets and restaurants, domestic work, etc. and how each of these jobs is subject to a special set of conditions and consequences.

In terms of causal conditions, the economic problems of households and the need to provide for household expenses are the main causes of child labour, which is consistent with the findings of other studies in this field. These families involve their children in various jobs in which they can earn money. In some jobs, such as those in industrial workshops, where children may learn a skill, the primary goal is for the child to learn skills for future employment rather than to earn money. ‎These families believe that education does not always result in skill acquisition or employment.

Many other children who are not legally considered citizens do not have access to school or the education system. In other activities, such as scavenging, which is considered the worst form of child labour, immigration and kinship networks are pivotal in the propagation of child labour.

Aside from poverty, the role of laws and the quality of their enforcement are contexts for child labour. According to labour law, children between the ages of 15 and 18 are legally permitted to work, but law enforcement has facilitated child labour by failing to enforce the law, particularly in workshops and organised work, such as jobs in garbage dumps and scavenging. Many children, even those under the age of 15, are frequently observed working in a variety of dangerous jobs in the absence of law enforcement by the Ministry of Labour.

The growth of the informal sector has played an important role in reinforcing this process, as it is largely outside the scope of monitoring and those in command do not attempt to cover it. The majority of organisation plans are aimed at street children and focus solely on capturing children without empowering them or their families, and thus fail to achieve the desired outcome. In some cases, these plans have even caused some children to move from street work to more hazardous workshop environments.

Child labour results in a series of micro- and macro-problems that jeopardise children’s health in various physical, psychological, social and moral ways, thus hindering their educations and empowerment processes. If current trends continue, child labour, including its worst forms, will not be abolished, and the negative consequences of labour will inevitably remain with society, expanding their reach.

Policy Recommendations

The following is a list of recommendations for the elimination of child labour that are derived from interviews with experts in this field and an analysis of the available documents and research findings.

  • Develop and implement sustainable development programmes in the country and consider positive discrimination in favour of less privileged areas to fight poverty and inequality. Considering education-related employment strategies in these areas can create motivations for children to continue their educations.
  • Identify working children and their families in a national plan and implement comprehensive programmes to combat poverty and empower them.
  • Provide education opportunities for children without identification cards by identifying them and encouraging them to study.
  • Strengthen legal frameworks for the actions of NGOs to enable and empower them.
  • Develop appropriate mechanisms centred on the Ministry of Welfare and the Interior Ministry, together with the Welfare Organisation, to implement laws for the prohibition of child labour, and take immediate action to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.
  • Incorporate family control programmes for low-income families and enhance their qualities of life as a goal in national population strategies.
  • Provide free education, especially in disadvantaged areas, and education classes for children in working areas, such as brick kilns, garbage separation sites and similar work environments (portable and container-based classrooms may be an option).
  • Provide vocational training for older children, especially children over the age of 15; this education should be appropriate for the ages and conditions of the children.
  • Teach children’s rights in schools and NGOs.
  • Cover informal labour markets following Recommendation 204 on the transition from the informal economy to the formal economy.
  • Provide infrastructure for cooperation between NGOs and other local institutions to create synergies to support working children.
  • Identify and research other forms of child labour, such as child labour in rural areas, domestic work, child trafficking, the employment of children in some crimes, etc. 


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