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What is child labour?

“Child labour” basically refers to two concepts: 1) Work undertaken by children below legal minimum working age (in most countries at least 15 years), and 2) “worst forms of child labour”. The concepts are defined by the ILO Minimum Age Convention N°138 from 1973 and the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention N° 182 from 1999. An interim declaration minimum age of 14 years is also possible in countries with insufficiently de­veloped economies and education systems. It is a fundamental principle to protect the rights of children so that they have access to education and to finish at least compulsory education, before entering the labour market.

Laws may also permit light work for children aged 13–15 (for limited hours and not harm­ing their health, safety or school attendance and achievement), or fort those aged 12-14 if the minimum age is set at 14.

The “worst forms of child labour” comprise: (a) slavery and forced labour, including child trafficking and forced recruitment for armed conflict; (b) the use of children in prostitu­tion and pornography; (c) the use of children in illicit activities; and (d) any activity or work by children that, by its nature or the conditions in which it is carried out, is likely to harm their health, safety or morals – often referred to as “hazardous work”.

The detailed concepts and statistical definitions are referred to in the Annex of the report Global estimates of child labour: Results and Trends 2012-2016 by International Labour Organisation (ILO) as well as the separate publication Methodology of the global estimates of child labour.


What is hazardous work?

Children in hazardous work are those involved in any activity or occupation that, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm their health, safe­ty or morals. In general, hazardous work may include night work or long hours of work, exposure to physical, psychological or sexual abuse; work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces; work with dangerous machinery, equip­ment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads; and work in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to haz­ardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging their health.

For the 2016 Global Estimates of Child labour, hazardous work is measured on the basis of a list of hazardous industries and occupations, excessive working hours, and hazard­ous working conditions (such as night work).


When does children’s work become child labour?

Children’s work is a broad term that includes both worst forms of child labour at one extreme and beneficial work contributing to the child’s development at the other. All work performed by children under the age of 18 is not necessarily child labour. Millions of young people undertake work, paid or unpaid, that is appropriate for their age and maturity. By doing so, they learn to take responsibility, gain skills, add to their family’s or their own income and well-being, and contribute to their countries’ economy.

Child labour is the unacceptable form of child work. It is work that exposes children to harm or exploitation. Two core ILO conventions focus on the elimination of child labour, and place boundaries between child labour and child work. Basically, the child labour slated for abolition falls into three categories:

  1. hazardous work, or labour which jeopardizes the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or the conditions under which it is carried out. Hazardous work is defined by national legislation. (Convention 182, 138)
  2. other, “unconditional” worst forms of child labour are internationally defined as slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour; forced recruitment for use in armed conflict; use in prostitution, pornography and illicit activities. (Convention 182)
  3. labour performed by a child who is under a certain age specified for that kind of work and is thus likely to impede the child’s education and full development. (Convention 138)

The ILO conventions help to focus attention on forms of child labour that have to be approached with particular urgency. The welfare of the child and the respect of his/her rights as a child is key in this.


Why does child labour exist? What are the causes of child labour?

Child labour is both a cause and consequence of poverty. Household poverty pushes children into the labour market to earn money to supplement family income or even as a means of survival. The existence of child labour perpetuates household poverty across generations, slowing economic growth and social development. It prevents children from gaining an education and skills that will lead to an adulthood of decent work opportunities.

However, poverty is far from being the only factor at play. Inequality, lack of education, high dependence on agriculture in the economy as a whole, slow demographic transition, consumerism, as well as traditions and cultural expectation are among factors that play a role in the occurrence of child labour. Age, sex, ethnicity, social class and deprivation appear to interact to affect the type and intensity of work that children perform, as well as whether they work or not.

Family decisions concerning child labour are also influenced by the size and structure of the family (e.g. number, sex, age, spacing and birth order of children, presence of elderly or disabled family members, number of adults of working age). Furthermore, the increased numbers of children- and grandparent- headed households (primarily linked to HIV/AIDS and armed conflict) means increased pressure on children to work.

There are many inter-linked explanations for child labour. No single factor can fully explain its persistence or growth. Child labour is a matter of opportunity. A child from an impoverished family may not have the option of going to school. A girl may be denied that opportunity because of cultural expectations that she work at home. It is the way in which different causes, at different levels, interact with each other that ultimately determines whether or not an individual child becomes a child labourer.

Experience shows that a combination of economic growth, respect for labour standards, universal education and social protection, together with a better understanding of the needs and rights of children, help to bring a reversal to these different causes.


What are the data sources of 2016 Global Estimates of Child Labour?

The 2016 Global Estimates of Child Labour by ILO, are based on the extrapolation from 105 na­tional household surveys that cover more than 1,100 million children between 5 and 17 years which means, 70% of all world’s children in this age group (against 44% in 2008 and 53% in 2012). These include child labour surveys implemented with the assistance of the ILO, multiple indicator cluster surveys (MICS), implemented with the assistance of UNICEF, demographic and health surveys (DHS) from USAID, labour force surveys (LFS) and other national household surveys.


What regions are covered in 2016 Global Estimates of Child Labour?

Disaggregated estimates are provided for five world regions: Africa, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, Americas, and Europe and Central Asia. These regions are defined in accord­ance with the regional classification system employed by the ILO STATISTICS department.

For the 2016 Global Estimates of Child Labour, data from OECD countries and China are included for the first time.


Are all children in child labour included in the Global Estimates?

The Global Estimates include information from household surveys on age groups and working hours, as well as hazardous child labour. The surveys do NOT capture infor­mation on the other worst forms of child labour (slavery, trafficking, armed conflicts, prostitution, illicit activities, etc.).

An estimate of forced labour of children and sexual exploitation of children (covering the use of children in prostitution and pornography) is presented in the Global esti­mates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage.

New survey tools are needed to improve measurement of forced recruitment of chil­dren for armed conflict and the use of children in illicit activities.


How many children are in child labour?

Worldwide 218 million children between 5 and 17 years are in employment. 152 million of them are in child labour; almost half of them, 73 million, work in hazardous child labour. That means, one out of ten children in the world are in child labour; one out of 20 in hazard­ous child labour, with huge variations between countries, regions, sectors and occupations.


Is all work done by children classified as child labour and therefore prohibited?

No, as the figures show, there are 66 million children in employment, but not in child labour. This includes 12-14 year old boys and girls who are working in non-hazardous light work for less than 14 hours a week, and 15-17 years olds working in non-hazardous work (and for less than 43 hours a week). All working children below 12 are considered to be in child labour.


Where is the highest prevalence of child labour?


In absolute terms, almost half of child labour (72 million) is to be found in Africa and another 62 million in the Asia and Pacific Region. In terms of prevalence, one out of five children in Africa (19.6%) are in child labour, whilst prevalence in other regions is between 3% and 7% (2.9% in the Arab States, 4.1% in Europe and Central Asia, 5.3% in the Americas and 7.4% in Asia and the Pacific). The regional rankings of prevalence for hazardous work show a similar pattern.

Age groups

Almost half of all child labourers (73 million) are between 5 and 11 years old. 42 million (28%) are between 12 and 14 years old. 37 million (24%) are between 15 and 17. Hazard­ous child labour is most prevalent amongst the 15 to 17 years old. Nevertheless up to a fourth of old hazardous child labour (19 million) is done by children less than 12 years old.

Gender aspects

In 2016, there were 88 million boys and 64 million girls in child labour. Boys account for 58% of all children in child labour and 62% of all children in hazardous work. Boys appear to face a greater risk of child labour than girls, but this may also be a reflection of an under-reporting of girls’ work, particularly in domestic child labour.


Child labour is concentrated primarily in agriculture (71 per cent), which includes fish­ing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture, and comprises both subsistence and commercial farming. 17% work in services and 12% in the industrial sector, including mining.


What are the significant trends over the 2000-2016 period?

Since 2000, total child labour has been reduced by 38%, from 246 to 152 million. Haz­ardous child labour even has come down by 58%, from 171 to 73 million. Nevertheless, the new estimates also show that the pace of reduction has significantly slowed down since 2012, from 168 to 152 million in child labour, and from 85 to 73 million in hazardous child labour. This compares with a reduction of 47 million from 2008 to 2012, 30 million of whom were in hazardous work.


What are the estimates and trends by age group?

Between 2000 and 2016 child labour fell across all age groups, but with different levels of progress, particularly over the last four-year period since 2012.

While some further decline has been registered for the 12 to 14 and 15 to 17 years old, virtually no progress has been made between 2012 and 2016 amongst children between 5 and 11 years. Figures for this age group dropped by less than half a million (1%) and even stagnated for hazardous child labour.

The overall downward trend in child labour between 2012 and 2016 was therefore main­ly due to a fall in child labour rates among adolescents. This may reflect the efforts undertaken to tackle the wider youth unemployment crisis – whether in decent youth employment or in hazardous work for children of this age group.


What are the estimates and trends by sex?

In the period 2000-2016, there was reduction of 43 per cent in the number of girls in child labour as compared to 34 per cent for boys.


What are more details on these trends?

Beyond the general slowdown in progress, the 2016 results highlight a number of spe­cific areas of concern:

  • Child labour increased in Africa, despite the fact that many African countries have taken strong action to combat child labour.
  • Progress made during 2012 to 2016 was primarily limited to adolescents between 15 and 17 years. While numbers for child labour in this age group fell by more than one fifth, virtually no progress has been made amongst those between 5 and 11 years.
  • The decline in child labour among girls was only half that of boys from 2012 to 2016.
  • Recent progress is in part attributable to broader labour market conditions, and therefore may be fragile. In many countries, the worldwide youth unemployment crisis has made it difficult for children above the minimum working age to find jobs. The lower demand for adolescent workers may explain lower levels of involvement in hazardous child labour.
  • The latest estimate on forced labour of children shows very little change in the number of children in forced labour, in commercial sexual exploitation and in other sectors of the private economy. The few studies undertaken on children victims of forced labour all mention the difficulty of identifying and targeting these children.


Has the distribution of child labour by sector changed since 2012?

Between 2012 and 2016, child labour in agriculture increased from 59% to 71% while it also increased in industry from 7 to 12% and declined in services from 32 to 17%. These changes may reflect the shifts in the regional distribution of child labour worldwide, with a greater concentration of children in child labour in Africa where prevalence in agriculture is particularly high.


What about changes in the employment status of children since 2012?

In 2016 as well as in 2012, more than two thirds of child labour were family workers. Self-employed child labour doubled from 4 to 8% while the percentage of children in paid (commercial) employment slightly dropped, from 27 to 23%. The percentages for hazardous child labour show similar patterns.

These figures suggest that around half of all children in child labour are unpaid con­tributing family workers in the agricultural sector in the African Region. Indeed, given the greater proportion of the population in Africa that depends on agriculture for their livelihoods than in other regions, that percentage may be even higher.


What is the relationship between child labour and national income levels?

For the second time, global estimates are presented for different levels of income. These estimates reveal that child labour is most prevalent in low-income countries but it is by no means only a low-income country problem. Child labour rates vary from 19.4 percent of children in low income countries, 8.5 percent in lower-middle income coun­tries, and 6.6 percent in upper middle income countries, down to 1.2 percent in high income countries.

Statistics on the absolute number of children in child labour clearly underscore the importance of middle-income countries. More than half of all child labour (84 million or 56%) is found in middle-income countries, and an additional two million live in high-in­come countries. These results make clear that poverty is not the only driver of child labour, and that economic growth alone will help to reduce, but will not be sufficient to eliminate it. Family and community poverty driven by inequitable labour markets and often linked to social exclusion and discrimination are far more closely linked to child labour than GDP alone.


What is the link between Child labour and Education?

Education for all cannot be achieved while child labour exists. Education plays both preventive and curative role for ending child labour.

The international community’s efforts to achieve free, inclusive, quality and equitable education for all and the progressive elimination of child labour are inextricably linked. On the one hand, education is a key element in the prevention of child labour. Children with no access to quality education have little alternative but to enter the labour market, where they are often forced to work in dangerous and exploitative conditions. On the other hand, child labour is one of the main obstacles to education achievement, since children who are working full time cannot go to school. In addition, the academic achievement of children who combine work and school often suffers. There is a strong tendency for these children to drop out of school and enter into full-time employment.

It is widely accepted that free and compulsory education of good quality up to the minimum age of entering into employment as defined by ILO Convention 138  – is a key element in the prevention of child labour.

Thus, governments will need not only to accelerate efforts to achieve education for all children, but also to step up efforts to eliminate child labour. The prevention and elimination of child labour should be an integral part of education policy worldwide. The education sector has great potential to contribute to the elimination of child labour. The prevention and elimination of child labour should be an integral part of education policy development and reform worldwide.


How long do children work?

For the first time, the global estimates provide figures that show the working hours of children in child labour. A high number of hours worked might be detrimental to edu­cation, health and leisure.

Only one third of children in child labour between 15 and 17 years work less than the 43 weekly hours considered to be “non-hazardous”.

In the age group between 12 and 14 years, three out of four children work more than 14 hours and 15% already more than 43 hours.

Even amongst the youngest age group of child labourers (5 to 11 years), a third al­ready works for more than 14 hours and 6% for more than 43 hours.


How many children in child labour are not attending school out of 152 million child labourers?

The Global Estimates clearly show that child labour affects school attendance. A third of children in child labour between 5 and 14 years – ages considered of compulsory schooling – are not attending school. 20 million of them are less than 12 years old. School attendance rates are considerably higher for those children that do not have to work. At the same time, we know that combining work and school at this age often hinders school attendance and damages the ability to benefit from education.


Do we have estimates of household chores done by children for their own households?

For the first time, the Global Estimates provide data on the 800 million children be­tween 5 and 17 years that are performing unpaid household services for their own households on a regular basis. Girls in all age groups perform more household chores and spend more working hours than boys.

Some 54 million children between 5 and 14 years dedicate more than 21 hours a week on household chores; two out of three are girls. 21 hours is the threshold suggested by researchers to affect school attendance.


How many out of school children are there in world in total?

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), 2018, 262 million children are out of school today, this includes  64 million children of primary school age (6-11 years), 61 million young children of lower secondary school age (about 12-14 years) and 138 million youth of upper secondary school age (about 15-17 years).


What are the International Labour Standards on Child Labour?

ILO Conventions and Recommendations on child labour

A majority of countries have adopted legislation to prohibit or place severe restrictions on the employment and work of children, much of it stimulated and guided by standards adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO). In spite of these efforts, child labour continues to exist on a massive scale, sometimes in appalling conditions, particularly in the developing world. If progress has been slow or apparently nonexistent, this is because child labour is an immensely complex issue. It cannot be made to disappear simply by the stroke of a pen.

Nevertheless, the basis of determined and concerted action must be legislation, which sets the total elimination of child labour as the ultimate goal of policy, and puts measures into place for this purpose, and which explicitly identifies and prohibits the worst forms of child labour to be eliminated as a matter of priority.

ILO Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour, 1999

Child labour, as the statistics clearly demonstrate, is a problem of immense global proportions. Following its comprehensive research into the issue, the ILO concluded that it was necessary to strengthen existing Conventions on child labour. Convention No. 182 helped to focus the international spotlight on the urgency of action to eliminate as a priority, the worst forms of child labour without losing the long term goal of the effective elimination of all child labour.

Text of ILO Convention No. 182 

Text of ILO Recommendation No. 190 

List of Ratifications 

ILO Convention No. 138 on the minimum age for admission to employment and work

One of the most effective methods of ensuring that children do not start working too young is to set the age at which children can legally be employed or otherwise work. The main principles of the ILO’s Convention concerning the minimum age of admission to employment and work are in the table below.

Text of ILO Convention No. 138 

Text of ILO Recommendation No. 146 

List of Ratifications 

Type of Work & Age  The minimum age at which children can start work. Possible exceptions for developing countries
Hazardous work
Any work which is likely to jeopardize children’s physical, mental or moral health, safety or morals should not be done by anyone under the age of 18.
(16 under strict conditions)
(16 under strict conditions)
Basic Minimum Age
The minimum age for work should not be below the age for finishing compulsory schooling, and in any case not less than 15.
15 14
Light work
Children between the ages of 13 and 15 years old may do light work, as long as it does not threaten their health and safety, or hinder their education or vocational orientation and training.
13-15 12-14

ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work 

Both Conventions Nos. 138 and 182 are fundamental Conventions. Under the ILO Declaration, even the member States that have not yet ratified these Conventions should respect, promote and realize the principles.


What are some of the overarching policy priorities in the drive to end child labour?

Ending child labour will require a multi-faceted, committed and immediate response that addresses the array of economic and social drivers behind it. There can be no one-size-fits-all solution; responses need to be adapted to the very diverse root causes, conditions and circumstances in which child labour still occurs. Based on the analysis of prevalence and trends, it is nonetheless possible to identify some overarching policy priorities to achieve the elimination of the worst forms of child labour until 2025 and of all child labour by 2030:

  • Decent family incomes derived from decent work by adult family members (and by youth of legal working age) are crucial if families are to escape poverty-driven child labour;
  • Family farms and enterprises that depend on the (mostly unpaid) labour of their chil­dren need greater support to improve their functioning and incomes in order to end that dependence;
  • Stronger social protection systems, including social protection floors, are necessary to offset the vulnerabilities that can lead to a household’s reliance on children’s la­bour;
  • Free, universal and compulsory education of good quality up to the minimum age for admission to employment provides parents with the opportunity to invest in their children’s education, makes it worthwhile for them to do so and combats pover­ty-driven exclusion from access to schooling;
  • Properly designed labour market policies can help in both, reducing the demand for child labour and ensuring that the investment in education translates into better em­ployment perspectives and decent work when the legal working age is attained.
  • National legislation consistent with international labour standards supports such commitment and provides a framework for national action towards this goal.

Addressing the age, gender and regional dimensions of child labour is critical for success.

Age: Almost half of all those in child labour are younger than 12 years. More attention to these especially vulnerable children is therefore essential, particularly in light of the stagnation in progress over the last four years. Special attention must also be paid to the challenges of hazardous child labour, occupational safety and health and decent work for 15–17 year-olds in child labour.

Gender: Child labour is different in extent, nature and consequences for boys and girls. Policy measures should address these differences by focussing on specific risk factors related to gender patterns. This applies particularly – but not only – for household chores.

Regions: The lack of progress and the high prevalence of child labour in Africa, calls for particular attention.

Sectors: That applies not least to child labour in agriculture, which has increased signif­icantly in absolute numbers and as an overall percentage of all child labour.

It is also critical that policies and measures in all of these areas will be gender-sensitive, based on evidence and informed by research, data and statistics on the specific profile of child labour in the countries, sectors and age-groups concerned.


What is child trafficking?

According to the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2000), child trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of children for the purpose of exploitation. It is a violation of their rights, their well-being and denies them the opportunity to reach their full potential.

While recent research has yielded information on the nature of child trafficking, little is known about its magnitude.  The International Labour Organization’s 2002 estimation of 1.2 million children being trafficked each year remains the reference (Every Child Counts, New Global estimate on Child Labour).


What can people do in their individual capacities to eliminate child labour?

In our individual capacity, we must firmly resolve that we would never engage any child either at home or at work in any form of labour.

Do not accept any kind of hospitality whatsoever, not even a glass of water for that matter at the homes of your friends and relatives who employ domestic child labourers.

Be resolute in not availing services of restaurants or commercial establishments that employ children.

Try to pass on the information you have about child labour to your friends and relatives.

Try persuading parents of child labourers to send their children to school.

Warn those who employ children and do not refrain to complain against them to the police, labour department officials or child helpline.

This could be done by making a call, sending an SMS, writing an e-mail or filing a written complaint.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to spread awareness about child labour, citing importance of education, emphasizing on a sound federal budget for implementing anti-child labour programmes, advocating for effective implementation of child labour laws and spearheading anti-child labour consumer campaigns.

One could work with the volunteers of Global March Against Child Labour and similar organizations to take up the issue of child labour head on. As socially responsible citizens, of our countries, one must do all it takes to eliminate child labour.

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