The working children of Tanzania: poverty and labour 

Written by Mayeda Tayyab

Tanzania is a country with a population of 45 million people, half of which are under the age of 18. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), about 4.2 million of Tanzania’s children (5-17 years old) engage in child labour, almost evenly split between boys and girls. Unfortunately, these children rarely earn anything for their labour as 92.4% work as unpaid family helpers while only 4% work in paid employment (International Labour Organisation and National Bureau of Statistics Tanzania, 2024). It is important to note that these numbers exclude any illegal activities involving children, like child trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation, and child slavery.

Why are these children working?

The main cause leading to child labour in Tanzania is poverty. As of 2022, half of Tanzania’s population – 26 million people – lived in extreme poverty (Cowling, 2024). Thus these families rely heavily on child labour to meet the financial needs of their home.

Poor families in rural areas dependent on farming for their livelihood cannot afford to buy machinery or hire help to assist with farming. Hence, children from these families take on a big part of the responsibilities that come with farming. This kind of child labour falls under the category of unpaid family work. Most of these children are exposed to harsh climates while working on farms and work gruellingly long hours.

In addition to carrying out unpaid family work to help with finances, these children simply cannot afford to go to school. Many children from such backgrounds, particularly those living in rural areas, also need schools within safe distance of their homes. With no access to public transport and the inability to afford private transport, children who go to school must walk long distances to do so. Therefore, many children in these cases end up dropping out of school, unable to keep up with the work at home as well as studies.

Unpaid family work: tobacco farms

Child labour itself is not the only problem faced by Tanzanian children, their safety and well-being in performing hazardous work for low to no pay is also a critical matter. A good example of this is child labour in tobacco-growing communities. This work takes the form of unpaid family work.

Children working in this industry perform a wide range of duties from field preparation to construction of barns, packaging, and cutting firewood. Working in open tobacco fields exposes these children to extreme weather conditions: scorching heat from the sun. On top of that, children spend hours working in unsanitary and unventilated sheds used to manage and store tobacco. All of this work involves handling tobacco and toxic fertilizers without any protective gear, having detrimental effects on the health of these developing children. There is also limited access to first aid kits in cases of injury while working on the farm.

In 2016, ILO and ARISE conducted an assessment on children working in hazardous conditions and its impact on their health. During the research, it was found that half of the children interviewed for the study were working 5-8 hours a day, while one-third were working more than 8 hours a day – exceeding the standard working limit for adults – in dangerous conditions. Hence, in addition to the health risks associated with working in tobacco fields without protection, these children also suffer from extreme exhaustion due to the long hours and the physical demands that such work requires.

Child domestic workers

Another type of child labour common in Tanzania is in the form of child domestic workers. According to Anti-slavery International (2024), around 3% of the urban homes in Tanzania have child domestic workers. Almost a third of these child workers are between the ages of 10 to 14 and most of them (more than 80%) are girls (Anti-slavery International, 2024).

Tanzanian children end up in domestic servitude in two main ways: 1) Girls who run away from their families escaping domestic violence or forced marriages – a common practice in rural Tanzania where daughters are married off at a very young age for ‘the bride price’ to reduce the financial burden on the family, 2) Girls who are sent to cities to work as domestic workers by their families as an alternative to child marriage.

This kind of child labour comes with its risks. Unfortunately, many child domestic workers suffer physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. Parents who send their kids to cities for this kind of work are often unaware of the abuse and exploitation faced by the children at the hands of their employers. These child domestic workers find themselves in extremely vulnerable positions and under the complete control of their employers as most of them do not have any formal work contract (only about 0.5 % of them have formal contracts), little to no pay for working up to 60+ hours a week, and no access to proper schooling (Anti-slavery International, 2024). With no financial independence and isolation from family, these children have no means of escaping the abuse they suffer at the hands of their employers. According to Anti-slavery International (2017), 40% of children working as domestic workers suffered physical abuse, 17% experienced sexual abuse, and more than 60% were illiterate.

Education and child labour

Child labour has a direct impact on children’s early education and a long-term impact on decent employment in adulthood. According to the International Labour Organisation (2018), most of the children engaged in child labour (nearly 95%) work in agriculture and almost all agricultural labour (92.5%) is unpaid family work. This type of work entails long hours, leaving no time for studies, hobbies, and activities with friends. Hence, Tanzanian children in child labour have a much higher school dropout rate than children who are not working. These working children, even if enrolled in school, are at a disadvantage in maintaining their studies and grades than children who are not in child labour.

Furthermore, 8% of Tanzanian children within the compulsory schooling age (7-13 years) are not enrolled in school (International Labour Organisation, 2018). 40% of these children have either never been to school or have dropped out of school due to several reasons such as the distance of the school from home, and the cost of attending school (International Labour Organisation, 2018). Some of these children are not interested in attending school, while some of them are looking for work, others cannot go to school due to family responsibilities such as caring for sick family members or children.

Thus Tanzania’s child labour has a detrimental impact on its children’s early education and development, creating adults with little to no basic skills needed to secure decent employment, therefore creating an endless cycle of poverty and child labour.


Cover Image “Helping Hands” by USAID/Tanzania via Flickr

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