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Child Labour

Critical policy areas in the fight against child labour

Child labour is a stubborn problem that, even if overcome in certain places or sectors, will seek out opportunities to reappear in new and often unanticipated ways. The response to the problem must be as versatile and adaptable as child labour itself. There is no simple, quick fix for child labour, nor a universal blueprint for action.

Experience has shown that the effective elimination of child labour requires policies that address persistent poverty and the vulnerability of households to economic shocks.  Important policy responses concern education, social protection and efforts to promote decent work for adults.


The links between child labour and education are clear – children with no access to education have little alternative but to enter the labour market, where they are often forced to work in dangerous and exploitative conditions.  Hence, expanding access to free and compulsory education is crucial to reducing child labour, as is the provision of quality education.  Access to education is a necessary but not sufficient element as the challenge is to retain children in school.  Only quality education can ensure that they stay in school.  Quality education means that teachers are recruited in adequate numbers to avoid high student teacher ratios in classrooms.  Teachers and educators need to receive the training required to make them effective.  Relevant curricular are also essential for an education of quality.  Finally, no good education can be provided if classroom conditions are deplorable and students lack the necessary books, equipment and other educational materials.  Children who receive an education of quality are more empowered to escape from poverty and, as adults, are more likely to send their children to school. 

For the Millennium Development Goal No. 2 of universal primary education to be reached by 2015, governments will need not only to accelerate efforts to achieve Education For All, but also to step up efforts to eliminate child labour. 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.

The international community supports efforts to achieve Education For All and the elimination of child labour through the Global Task Force on Child labour and Education For All (GTF), an inter-agency partnership endorsed and launched during the Education for All High-Level Group meeting held in Beijing in November 2005.  The core members of the GTF partnership are the ILO, UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, UNDP, Education International and the Global March against Child Labour.

Suriah from Jakarta

At thirteen, Suriah left her Indonesian village to go to Jakarta as a domestic worker, determined to help her family make ends meet. Every day – from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. – Suriah worked. She woke up before the sun rose and cooked breakfast, transported children to school and returned to interminable housework. After dinner, her evening was a tiring echo of her morning routine. She washed the dishes and made sure the children were in bed on time. When the clothes were dry, she ironed and put them away. By late evening she had just enough energy left to fall into bed. Suriah returned to her village after a few years, enrolled in catch-up classes and attended non-formal junior high school classes. Suriah experienced some of the conditions that render child domestic labour one of the worst forms of child labour. Too often, these conditions include: excessive working hours; no rest time or rest day; no or limited remuneration; exposure to safety and health hazards; abuse and exploitation; bonded labour; or trafficking.2

Social Protection

Shocks caused by economic crises, natural disasters, sickness or families needing to meet sudden and possibly unplanned financial commitments, often lead to children not being enrolled in school, or being withdrawn from school and entering work.  Social protection aims to enhance the capacity of the poor and vulnerable to manage such shocks and can thus play a major role in preventing child labour.  At present, more than 75% of the world population does not enjoy effective social protection.  

There have been a number of successful initiatives in integrating child labour concerns into social protection strategies.  One of the most widely recognised and replicated initiatives is the use of conditional cash transfers in contributing to the elimination of child labour.  Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes typically provide a certain amount of cash to poor households on a regular basis on condition that the beneficiaries fulfil certain obligations aimed at human development, such as sending their children to school.  Child labour concerns have been integrated into some such programmes, such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, which provides financial incentives to families to keep their children in school.  Other social protection initiatives that have helped reduce child labour include stipends for girls education and school feeding programmes.

The United Nations Social Protection Floor Initiative could also make an important contribution to efforts to prevent child labour. The aim of this Initiative is to help ensure access to key services and social transfers for poor and vulnerable populations.  It focuses on two components. The first component is services, i.e. geographical and financial access to key services, such as education, health, water and sanitation. The second component is transfers, i.e. a basic set of social transfers, in cash and in kind, essential to provide a minimum income and livelihood security for poor and vulnerable populations and to facilitate access to key services. The Initiative provides a framework through which countries can expand social protection, scale up existing programmes or replicate successful practices from other countries.

Decent work for adults

Employment strategies which ensure that parents and youth of legal working age have the possibility of decent work is a key factor in tackling poverty and child labour.  Adults who are in productive employment are far less likely to send their children to work.  Decent work is a concept formulated by the International Labour Organization and widely supported within the United Nations.  It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men. 

The elimination of child labour is a key component of the ILO Decent Work Agenda which focuses on four strategic pillars: job creation, rights at work, social protection and social dialogue.  In response to the recent financial crisis, governments, employers’ and workers’ delegates from the member States of the ILO adopted the Global Jobs Pact which offers an integrated portfolio of tried and tested policies centred on employment and social protection measures that are indispensable for a “working out of poverty” approach.  The measures protect and empower vulnerable people while also helping to sustain aggregate demand.  Such policies can mitigate the impact of the crisis on families living in poverty, keep children out of child labour and help to stand them in good stead for a future free of child labour.


2 East Asia and Pacific Regional UNGEI, “Towards Equal Opportunities for All: Empowering Girls through Partnerships in Education”, Bangkok, 2007, pp. 81-82.