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Child Labour


What is child labour?

Child labour is defined in ILO Conventions. It is work that children should not be doing because they are too young to work, or – if they are old enough to work – because it is dangerous or otherwise unsuitable for them. Not all work done by children should be classified as child labour that is to be targeted for elimination. Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their education, is generally regarded as being something positive. Whether or not particular forms of “work” can be called “child labour” depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of work performed and the conditions under which it is performed, as set out in the ILO Conventions.

There are many forms of child labour worldwide. Children are engaged in agricultural labour, in mining, in manufacturing, in domestic service, types of construction, scavenging and begging on the streets. Others are trapped in forms of slavery in armed conflicts, forced labour and debt bondage (to pay off debts incurred by parents and grandparents) as well as in commercial sexual exploitation and illicit activities, such as drug trafficking and organized begging and in many other forms of labour. Many of these are “worst forms” of child labour as they are especially harmful, morally reprehensible, and they violate the child’s freedom and human rights. Child labour tends to be concentrated in the informal sector of the economy. For some work, children receive no payment, only food and a place to sleep. Children in informal sector work receive no payment if they are injured or become ill, and can seek no protection if they suffer violence or are maltreated by their employer.

Video: ILO Reports on Child Labour Globally

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The causes and consequences of child labour

“All child labour, and especially the worst forms, should be eliminated. It not only undermines the roots of human nature and rights but also threatens future social and economic progress worldwide. Trade, competitiveness and economic efficiency should not be a pretext for this abuse.” Toolkit for mainstreaming employment and decent work/United Nations System Chief Executives Board for Coordination (ILO, Geneva, 2007)

Child labour is a complex problem and numerous factors influence whether children work or not. Poverty emerges as the most compelling reason why children work. Poor households spend the bulk of their income on food and the income provided by working children is often critical to their survival. However, poverty is not the only factor in child labour and cannot justify all types of employment and servitude. Countries may be equally poor and yet have relatively high or relatively low levels of child labour.

Other factors include:

Barriers to education – basic education is not free in all countries and is not always available for all children, especially in remote rural areas. Where schools are available, the quality of education can be poor and the content not relevant. In situations where education is not affordable or parents see no value in education, children are sent to work, rather than to school.

Culture and tradition – with few opportunities open to children with more education, parents are likely to share a cultural norm in which labour is seen as the most productive use of a child’s time. Children are often expected to follow in their parents’ footsteps and are frequently summoned to “help” other members of the family, often at a young age.

Salissa from Burkina Faso

Salissa used to work with her mother at a gold mine in Ziniguima. They left very early each morning and came back late at night as they lived far from the site. Every day, they sorted through the stones looking for gold. All the workers were afraid of the employer, especially the children. At the end of the day, he never paid them their full wage. One day, Salissa saw a very thin man who could hardly walk and could not stop coughing. Her mother told her that he was suffering from the “gold disease”, a respiratory disease caused be the dust at the site. This made Salissa even more afraid to work there. Fortunately for Salissa, a local community organization working to help children at the mine convinced her father to enrol Salissa in school.3

Market demand – child labour is not accidental. Employers may prefer to hire children because they are “cheaper” than their adult counterparts, can be dispensed of easily if labour demands fluctuate and also form a docile, obedient work-force that will not seek to organize itself for protection and support.

The effects of income shocks on households – households that do not have the means to deal with income shocks, such as natural disasters, economic or agricultural crises or the impact of HIV, AIDS, may resort to child labour as a coping mechanism. For example, millions of children have been affected by the HIV pandemic. Many children live with HIV, while an even larger number have been orphaned or made vulnerable by AIDS. If a parent falls ill due to HIV or AIDS related illnesses, the child may have to drop out of school to care for family members. The phenomenon of child-headed households is also associated with the HIV, AIDS epidemic as orphaned children work to care for younger siblings.

Inadequate/poor enforcement of legislation and policies to protect children – child labour persists when national laws and policies to protect children are lacking or are not effectively implemented.

Childhood is a critical time for safe and healthy human development. Because children are still growing they have special characteristics and needs, in terms of physical, cognitive (thought/learning) and behavioural development and growth, that must be taken into consideration. Child labourers are at a high risk of illness, injury and even death due to a wide variety of machinery, biological, physical, chemical, ergonomic, welfare/hygiene and psychosocial hazards, as well as from long hours of work and poor living conditions. The work hazards and risks that affect adult workers can affect child labourers even more strongly. For example, physical strain, especially when combined with repetitive movements, on growing bones and joints can cause stunting, spinal injury and other life long deformation and disabilities. Children often also suffer psychological damage from working and living in an environment where they are denigrated, harassed or experience violence and abuse. In addition, child labour has a profound effect on a child’s future. Denied the right to a quality education, as adults they have little chance of obtaining a decent job and escaping the cycle of poverty and exploitation.

“No to child labour is our stance. Yet 215 million are in child labour as a matter of survival. A world without child labour is possible with the right priorities and policies: quality education, opportunities for young people, decent work for parents, a basic social protection floor for all. Driven by conscience, let’s muster the courage and conviction to act in solidarity and ensure every child’s right to his or her childhood. It brings rewards for all.” Juan Somavia, ILO Director-General

3 ILO/IPEC 2008