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World Day Against Child Labour
12 June

Child Labour

What is meant by child labour?

  • Child labour means work that is prohibited for children of certain age groups. It is work performed by children who are under the minimum age legally specified for that kind of work, or work which, because of its detrimental nature or conditions, is considered unacceptable for children and is prohibited.

Today, throughout the world, around 215 million children work, many full-time. They do not go to school and have little or no time to play. Many do not receive proper nutrition or care. They are denied the chance to be children. More than half of them are exposed to the worst forms of child labour such as work in hazardous environments, slavery, or other forms of forced labour, illicit activities including drug trafficking and prostitution, as well as involvement in armed conflict.

Guided by the principles enshrined in the ILO's Minimum Age Convention No. 138 and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention No. 182, the ILO InFocus Programme on Child Labour (IPEC) works to achieve the effective abolition of child labour.

Labour Standards

One of the major aims set for the International Labour Organization (ILO) at its foundation in 1919 was the abolition of child labour. Historically, the ILO’s principal tool in pursuing the goal of effective abolition of child labour has been the adoption and supervision of labour standards that embody the concept of a minimum age for admission to employment or work. Furthermore, from 1919 onwards the principle that minimum age standards should be linked to schooling has been part of the ILO’s tradition in standard setting in this area. Convention No. 138 provides that the minimum age for admission to employment shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling.

The ILO’s adoption of Convention No. 182 in 1999 consolidated the global consensus on child labour elimination. It provided much-needed focus without abandoning the overarching goal, expressed in Convention No. 138, of the effective abolition of child labour. Moreover, the concept of the worst forms helps set priorities and can be used as an entry point in tackling the mainstream child labour problem. The concept also helps to direct attention to the impact of work on children, as well as the work they perform.

Child labour that is proscribed under international law falls into three categories:

An Encouraging Trend

The new global estimates and trends are presented in terms of three categories:

The new estimates suggest that there were about 317 million economically active children aged 5 to 17 in 2004, of whom 218 million could be regarded as child labourers. Of the latter, 126 million were engaged in hazardous work. The corresponding figures for the narrower age group of 5 to 14 yearolds are 191 million economically active children, 166 million child labourers, and 74 million children in hazardous work. The number of child labourers in both age groups of 5-14 and 5-17 fell by 11 per cent over the four years from 2000 to 2004. However, the decline was much greater for those engaged in hazardous work: by 26 per cent for the 5-17 age group, and 33 per cent for 5 to 14 year-olds.

The incidence of child labour (percentage of children working) in 2004 is estimated at 13.9 per cent for the 5-17 age group, compared to 16 per cent in 2000. The proportion of girls among child labourers, however, remained steady.

The global picture that emerges is thus highly encouraging: Child work is declining, and the more harmful the work and the more vulnerable the children involved, the faster the decline.

Minimum Age for Work

The minimum age for admission to employment among the member States ratifying Convention No. 138

  • 15 - 73 member States
  • 16 - 41 member States
  • 14 - 49 member States

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 listed below.

Understanding the Problem

Few child labour cases make it to Court

  • Despite some positive enforcement developments it still appears that few cases concerning child labour make it to the Courts. Only 1.5 per cent of reports received by the CEACR concerning child labour contain information on Court decisions. This compares with 8 per cent of the CEACR reports on discrimination.7.8 per cent on forced labour and 5.8 per cent on freedom of association.

A better conceptual grasp of child labour has also gone hand in hand with a better understanding of the shape of the problem and its causes.

Across All Economic Sectors

The 2002 Global Report indicated that the vast majority (70 per cent) of children’s work is concentrated in the agricultural sector and that the informal economy harbours most child labour across all economic sectors.

In addition, gender plays a significant role in determining the different types of work done by girls and boys. For example, girls predominate in domestic work, while boys are heavily represented in mining and quarrying. The situation is made worse when, as for domestic work in many countries, the kind of work is excluded from regulation in a large proportion of countries.

Our understanding of the causes of child labour has also become more sophisticated as different academic perspectives have been brought to bear on the problem. Seeing child labour as a product of market forces – supply and demand – has been a fruitful approach, taking in the behaviour of employers as well as of individual households.

Child Labour and Poverty

Poverty and economic shocks clearly play an important if not a key role in determining the market for child labour. Child labour in turn contributes to the perpetuation of poverty. For example, recent empirical findings by the World Bank from Brazil demonstrate that early entry into the labour force reduces lifetime earnings by some 13 to 20 per cent, increasing signifi cantly the probability of being poor later in life.

However, poverty in itself is not a sufficient explanation of child labour, and it certainly fails to explain some of the unconditional worst forms of child labour.

Child Labour and Human Rights

A human rights perspective is necessary for a fuller understanding of child labour, as it focuses on discrimination and exclusion as contributing factors. The most vulnerable groups when it comes to child labour are often those subject to discrimination and exclusion: girls, ethnic minorities and indigenous and tribal peoples, those of low class or caste, people with disabilities, displaced persons and those living in remote areas.

The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children in 2002 endorsed a mainstreaming approach – placing child labour on the development agenda. This implied that a new ambition had to be set for the worldwide movement against child labour. In political terms this means putting child labour on the agenda of fi nance and planning ministries – after all, the worldwide movement has to convince governments to act to end child labour. Child labour elimination comes down to a set of political choices rather than a technocratic exercise. And everyday realities of instability and crisis challenge attempts at making progress.

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