Child Labour

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           More than 200 million children in the world today are involved in child labour, doing work that is damaging to their mental, physical and emotional development. It must be abolished.  Its total elimination may be a long-term goal in many countries, but certain forms of child labour must be confronted immediately.

            Nearly three-quarters of working children are engaged in the worst forms of child labour. This  includes all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery such as the trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom, and forced or compulsory labour, the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for armed conflict, child prostitution and any forced work which is likely to harm the health or safety of children.

            Unions can play an important role in helping to abolish child labour. They can investigate and document cases, build awareness of the issue through campaigns, use their collective bargaining powers to help eliminate it, and promote international labour standards which address the issue.

 What is child labour?

             Child labour is not children doing small tasks around the house. Nor is it the participation of children in work appropriate to their age and level of development which allows them to acquire practical skills and learn responsibility. Child labour includes all work which, by its nature or the conditions under which it is carried out, harms, abuses or exploits the child, or deprives the child of an education.

            Not all work done by children should be classified as child labour which should  be targeted for elimination. Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling, is generally regarded as being something positive. This includes activities such as helping their parents around the home, assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays. These kinds of activities contribute to children’s development and to the welfare of their families. They  provide the children with skills and experience, and help to prepare them to be productive members of society during their adult life.

            The term “child labour” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children and interferes with their schooling by:

  • depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
  • obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
  •  requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

            In its most extreme forms, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age. 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, the conditions under which it is performed and the objectives pursued by individual countries. The answer varies from country to country, as well as among sectors within countries.

 Numbers of child labourers

            According to estimates made by the International Labour Organization in 2004  there are approximately 317 million children aged 5 to 17 engaged in some form of economic activity in the world. "Economic activity" encompasses most productive activities of children: it includes both work that is permissible under the ILO Child Labour Conventions and work that is not permissible. "Child labour" is a narrower concept: it not does not include the activities of children 12 years and older who are working only a few hours a week in permitted light work and those of children 15 years and above whose work in not classified as hazardous.

            The ILO's research identified an estimated 218 million children aged 5 to 17 years were involved in child labour. Of these about 166  million were below the age of 15. There were 108 million below the age of 12. More than 126 million children were working in hazardous situations or conditions (and 74 million of these were below 15).

 Forms of child labour

            Child labour exists in many forms and new forms develop as the formal sector of economies shrink and the informal sector grows.


            Over seventy percent of all child labourers work in agriculture.  An estimated 132 million girls and boys, aged 5 to 14, help produce much of the food and drink we consume, and the fibres and primary agricultural materials that we use. They do work such as tending cattle, harvesting crops, handling machinery, or holding flags to guide planes spraying pesticides.

            The numbers vary from country to country, but it is estimated that at least ninety percent of economically active children in rural areas in developing countries are working in agriculture. A large number of these children carry out hazardous child labour, which is work that can threaten their lives, limbs, health and general well-being. On farms and plantations of all types and sizes, these child labourers carry out jobs or tasks, which put their safety and health at risk. In terms of loss of life, accidents and work-related ill health, agriculture is one of the three most dangerous industries in which to work (along with mining and construction).

 Domestic service

            Other forms of child labour can be found in the domestic sector. Child domestic labour refers to situations where children are engaged to perform domestic tasks in the home of a third party or employer that are exploitative. Where such exploitation is extreme and includes trafficking, slavery or practices similar to slavery, or work which by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out is hazardous and likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children, it constitutes a worst form of child labour, and it needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency.

            All over the world, children are working as child-minders, maids, cooks, cleaners, gardeners and general house-helps. Child domestic labour is one of the most common and traditional forms of child labour. Across the globe, more girls under16 are employed in domestic service than in any other form of work.

            Studies on child domestic labour show that children are taken or sent into domestic service when they are very young; most are between 12 and 14 years of age although many are much younger. They miss out on school, work long hours, often receive little or no compensation and are denied the majority of their rights as children. They are clearly in an exploitative situation and at risk of extreme exploitation and abuse by the very nature of the work they do and the conditions in which they do it.

Armed conflict

            A particularly onerous form of child labour involves armed conflict. The number of children involved in armed conflicts has increased significantly over the past decade. In 2001 the ILO estimated that 300,000 children were serving with armed units around the world (of which 120,000 were in Africa, 120,000 in Asia/Pacific and 30,000 in Latin America and Caribbean). While many are older children, aged 15 or more, there has been a dramatic trend towards recruiting younger children. The presence of children fighting in both government forces and opposition armed groups has received publicity in Sub-Saharan Africa, first in West Africa, and more recently in Central Africa. However, both teenagers and younger children have also been involved in fighting units in other parts of the world, most notably over many years in Sri Lanka.

            The deployment of children in the front line exposes them to the risk of death and of serious injury, notably because they take more risks than adults. As well as risking injury, their involvement in killings and atrocities encourages their perception that violence is normal, and leaves some traumatized and many with difficulties in re-adapting to ordinary life. Even children attached to armed units who are not directly involved in fighting miss out on their education and other opportunities to develop social and economic skills, and are exposed to a variety of other risks, including HIV/AIDS and, in the case of girls, pregnancy and early motherhood.


            There are about one million children working in mines around the world.  Mining is a form of work that is dangerous to children in every way. It is physically dangerous because of the heavy and awkward loads, the strenuous work, the unstable underground structures, heavy tools and equipment, the toxic and often explosive chemicals, and the exposure to extremes of heat and cold. Children who work in mines and quarries are at serious risk of injury and illness, some disabilities becoming apparent only years later. An unknown number of children each year lose their lives.

            Work in mines can also be morally and psychologically risky given that mining often takes place in remote areas where law, schools, and social services are unknown, where family and community support may not exist, where "boom or bust" conditions foster alcohol abuse, drugs, and prostitution. Mining areas are notorious for violence, prostitution, drug-use (especially of alcohol), and crime, and they attract those unable or unwilling to sustain traditional lifestyles or occupations. Where temporary towns have been established, there is seldom potable water. Schools are non-existent. Far from the public eye, children in small-scale mining are vulnerable to social, psychological, and physical dangers not found in many other forms of work.

            The dangers of mine work are so obvious and extreme that there are no conditions – poverty included – under which child labour in mines should be tolerated.

Work in manufacturing

            Child labour in manufacturing work includes carpet weaving in a small workshop or factory, polishing gemstones, making a wide range of products such as garments, chemicals, brassware, glassware, fireworks, and matches. These processes expose children to hazardous chemicals, poor ventilation, radiant heat, and fire or explosion which can lead to poisoning, respiratory diseases, cuts, burns and even death.

Work in the informal sector

            Work in the informal sector involves a wide range of activities which often take place on the streets and generally involve little equipment. It includes, for example, shoe cleaning, begging, pulling rickshaws, collecting fares on small buses, selling newspapers, collecting rubbish, and scavenging on garbage dumps. It could also include the activities of domestic servants and homeworkers. Carrying loads on construction sites and brick kilns can also be involved.

  Child trafficking

            Child trafficking is one of the worst forms of child labour. Although no precise figures exist, an estimated 1.2 million children - both boys and girls - are trafficked each year into exploitative work in agriculture, mining, factories, armed conflict, or commercial sex work.

            The trafficking of children, internally in countries, across national borders and across continents is closely interlinked with the demand for cheap malleable and docile labour in sectors and among employers, where the working conditions and the treatment grossly violates the human rights of the children, characterized by environments that are unacceptable (the unconditional worst forms) as well as dangerous to the health and the development of the child (hazardous worst forms). These forms range from bonded labour, camel jockeying, child domestic labour, commercial sexual exploitation and prostitution, drug couriering, child soldiering and exploitative or slavery-like practices in the informal industrial sector.

Causes of child labour

            The reasons for child labour are many and the causes of specific incidences will vary from country to country and from industry to industry. However, there are some common causes:


            Poverty is most probably the single biggest cause of child labour. Large numbers of children work as unpaid workers in family farms and stores that depend on family labour to survive economically. As well, poor families may send their children to work to increase the family income.

Social customs and attitudes

            In some countries powerful elites or majority ethnic groups consider that working is the proper and natural occupation for the children of the poor or children of ethnic minorities. They have no commitment to ending child labour and indeed want to continue exploiting these children as cheap labour. In other cases, when parents have little money to spend on education, they choose to educate the boy, so girls are often not given any schooling.

Failure of the education system

            Many areas - particularly rural ones - do not have schools. Where free-of-charge schools are available, their quality may be poor and parents decide that their children will survive better if they work and learn a skill.

Informal economy

            Child labour is much less common in large workplaces. In small, unregistered entreprises, often in the informal sector, child labour is more common. Inspectors rarely visit these smaller workplaces, and there are no unions.

Lack of social protection

            Many children become involved in child labour because their societies are not able to provide them with appropriate protection. They include children who have been abandoned or have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS or natural disasters, and those recruited as soldiers.

Low cost of child labour

            As the informal economy grows the use of child workers is increasingly attractive because they can be hired for less than adults. In addition child workers are not involved with unions and they are more easily disciplined.

Absence of unions

            The incidence of child labour is greatest where unions are weak or do not exist. Trade unions are not prevalent in the informal sector where it can be difficult to organize.

International labour standards

            The ILO has long recognized child labour as a violation of fundamental human rights and consequently adopted a number of Conventions and Recommendations. Conventions are legally binding international treaties that may be ratified by the ILO's member states. Recommendations are non-binding guidelines which often provide detailed suggestions on how conventions could be applied. Conventions serve as guideposts for organizations, companies and individuals concerned with basic principles and rights at work.

            ILO standards are primary international legal tools for fighting child labour. Two ILO Conventions are considered as fundamental:

No. 138: Minimum Age Convention (1973) 

This convention sets the general minimum age for admission to employment or work at 15 years (13 for light work) and the minimum age for hazardous work at 18 (16 under certain strict conditions). It provides for the possibility of initially setting the general minimum age at 14 (12 for light work) where the economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed.

No 182: Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999) 

This convention defines as a "child" a person under 18 years of age. It requires ILO ratifying states to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, including all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict; child prostitution and pornography; using children for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs; and work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children. The convention requires ratifying states to provide the necessary and appropriate direct assistance for the removal of children from the worst forms of child labour and for their rehabilitation and social integration. It also requires states to ensure access to free basic education and, wherever possible and appropriate, vocational training for children removed from the worst forms of child labour.             

            These two Conventions, because they are considered fundamental conventions of the ILO, have special consequences for all ILO members. This is because, in 1998, the ILO adopted its Declaration of  Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The declaration stipulates that all ILO states, by being members of the ILO, have an obligation to respect, promote, and put into practice the principles concerning the fundamental rights which are the subject of the Organization's fundamental conventions. This means that even if a country has not ratified Conventions No 138 and 182 it is obliged to respect their principles.

            The Follow-up to the Declaration says that governments which have not ratified one or more of the fundamental conventions must submit a report on the situation related to the non-ratified Conventions. If for any reason employers' and workers' organizations have not been consulted in the drafting of the report these organizations may submit comments of their own to the ILO. This provides an important opportunity for unions to publicize the issue of child labour and pressure governments to take action.


Child labour is a union issue

            Trade unions were formed to give workers the collective strength to fight injustice and  resist exploitation. They can help children who have been forced into child labour in many ways and at the same time help their members.

            For example, poverty is undoubtedly a contributory cause of child labour. But child labour itself is a cause of poverty. If children are forced to do the work of adults at lower wages, then that is a threat to the wages and working conditions of adults. Unions can help alleviate poverty in their countries, and help their members, by protecting children from child labour and demanding that the children have access to decent education. By eliminating child labour unions can increase their bargaining power in society.          

            Child labour also contributes to the unemployment of adults. If children who have been forced into child labour can be removed from the situation and rehabilitated, the job may be filled by an adult. Also, there are many instances where the parent is unemployed and the child is working. This is bad for both the child and the adult and the situation should be reversed.

            Dealing with the problem of child labour is also an entry point for unions into the unorganized sector. It is extremely difficult for unions to organize in the informal sector, but it is precisely where child labour most often occurs. By confronting the problem of child labour unions could learn how to better operate in the informal sector and therefore build their numbers in a crucial economic area.


Union policies and action plans

            It is universally recognized and agreed that child labour must stop. But it will never be eliminated without the involvement of trade unions. Here are some policies and actions unions could undertake:

Fact-finding and investigation

            Finding out the facts about child labour and putting names and faces to the problem are necessary tools to build a mobilization programme, decide on priorities, develop strategies and find solutions to specific cases. Unions need to investigate and ensure documentation of concrete cases of child labour so they can take effective action.

Awareness-raising, mobilization and campaigning

            Awareness-raising and mobilization are important tools for the prevention and elimination of child labour. Many unions when first getting involved in the issue have started by making their own members more aware of the problem. Child labour must become more unacceptable to public opinion at all levels in society. Publicity material is available from international trade union confederations, the global union federations and the ILO. National centres may also have some material. Refer to the list of resources at the end of this document.

  Use international labour standards

            ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour is a weapon unions can use in the fight against child labour. By mid-2007 165 countries had ratified the Convention, making it part of their legal infrastructure. Unions working in countries which have ratified the Convention could pressure  the government to implement its provisions. They could also complain to the ILO if  governments do not live up to their responsibilities and make the complaint a part of their public campaigns. If the country has not ratified the convention unions could push for its ratification.

            By mid-2007 150 countries had ratified Convention No 138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment, which is the basic instrument for the abolition of child labour. Unions which work in countries which have ratified the Convention could use it to tackle the problem. Or, if the country has not ratified, unions could pressure the government to do so.

            At the same time, unions could promote and use existing tripartite (government, employer and worker organizations) to consult with and use to advocate the ratification or effective application of  the relevant Conventions.

Promote education

            The provision of education is an effective way to stop most forms of child labour. Schools must be made available, primary education should be compulsory and an effective system to monitor and enforce school attendance must be put in place.

            Unions can work with teacher's organizations to promote quality free basic education as a means of preventing child labour. Some unions have included education for children in their programmes of action. This has not been done to take over government responsibilities but to demonstrate that is is possible to provide education and to use education as an issue to mobilize the community.

Rehabilitation through the provision of support services

            To simply remove children from the workplace is not enough. Without alternatives, children may participate in even more hazardous work.

            Leaving work must be accompanied by rehabilitation. Some children may be able to be integrated into the school system, others may need special centres which provide services such as shelter, health care, nutrition, vocational training, recreational activities and intensive counselling. Some unions have become directly involved in the provision of these services themselves. This is a short term solution because these sort of services should be provided by the government or large voluntary agencies with adequate experience and resources.

Promotion of income-generating opportunities for families

            Many children are forced to work in order to supplement the family income. In many instances therefore removing children from either full-time or part-time work must be combined with alternative income-earning opportunities for their families. Unions can work with civic groups to develop such income-generating schemes for the benefit of those families who have lost income because the child is no longer working. Encouraging and supporting this type of activity is one way in which trade unions can give direct support to working children.    

Collective bargaining and child labour

            Collective bargaining is at the core of union activity. It should be seen as one of the main union strategies to combat child labour.

            Collective bargaining can take place, or be encouraged, at many levels: local, national, regional and international. The international level is particularly important these days because globalization has created a situation where multinational companies exert enormous power over both governments and markets. In some sectors, multinational companies now use very complex subcontracting arrangements to supply their products. In response unions are seeking negotiations at  the international level.

 Codes of conduct and framework agreements

            One form of international-level negotiations involves codes of conducts for companies. The codes state the company's position on human rights issues such as child labour, forced labour, freedom of association and non-discrimination in the workplace.

            In many cases these codes are voluntarily adopted by companies. But too often these voluntary codes are simply public relation exercises and, according to international labour organizations have many problems associated with their effectiveness. The content of the codes, for example, may not include the right for workers to join unions. They may not be based  on internationally recognized standards. They may not cover important sectors of workers, such as home workers which are engaged by subcontractors.  And, crucially, they may not include provisions for how the code will be implemented or be independently monitored.

            For these reasons one of the international labour movement's strategies has been to push for negotiated codes of conduct. The negotiations are aimed at addressing problems such as worker coverage, implementation, and monitoring (or "auditing" as it is sometimes called). These negotiated codes can come in the form of "framework agreements" between a global union federation and a multinational company or international employers organization. Framework agreements do not substitute in any way for local or national collective bargaining. They can best be seen as expanding the space in which local or national unions can organize and bargain. This space to negotiate has been shrinking in the past few years as many companies and governments work to diminish the power of unions.

            The negotiated codes of labour practice and framework agreements are based on ILO core labour standards. Almost all framework agreements make specific reference to child labour and a commitment by companies to eliminate it.

Social clause and social labelling

            In addition to negotiated codes of conduct and framework agreements the labour movement also advocates two other developments: the social clause and social labelling.

            The social clause would involve governments taking action through trade agreements in order to establish a link between trade agreements and minimum labour standards. This would be done by inserting clauses that are concerned with 'social standards' - or labour standards - into international trade agreements. These social standards would be based on core conventions of the ILO and so the social clause would include child labour as one of the main issues. In principle, this would mean that countries which persistently breach the core standards would have the social clause of trade agreements invoked against them and lose access to markets. This would be done through a procedure which would involve the World Trade Organization and the ILO.

            Social labelling involves putting labels on products which provide information about the social conditions under which a product is made, or whether the production process respected environmentally sustainable development. This type of labelling helps consumers to discriminate in favour of certain products. An example of a successful labelling programme is RUGMARK. The RUGMARK label guarantees that a carpet was not woven by a child. The programme has a vigorous monitoring scheme.

National or local bargaining

            Negotiating provisions against child labour is crucial at the local and national level. These provisions include traditional union demands and specific articles dealing with child labour.

            The traditional bargaining programmes of unions can be particularly important in fighting child labour. For example, by promoting a living wage, unions can reduce the dependence of poor families on income earned by their children. Also, by bargaining to abolish the piece-rate or task system and replace it with an hourly or daily wage system, trade unions can remove the reason for needing the extra hands of children.

            Contract provisions which address specifically child labour include:

Direct employment stipulations

            These include agreements that the entreprise will not employ any child below the minimum age set in national legislation or the relevant ILO standard.

Indirect employment guidelines

            Agreements should include provisions that the entreprise will insert a clause in all its contracts with suppliers or subcontractors that they will not use child labour. The agreement should include a monitoring system because the union may not have members working for the suppliers and subcontractors who could  play a watchdog function.

Monitoring and trade union involvement

            Unions should seek formal agreement about monitoring the implementation of contract clauses concerning child labour.

Sponsorship of schools

            Unions could negotiate for the employer to support or provide schooling for workers' children, especially where public schools are not available or accessible. In other situations, negotiations could be aimed at the provision of non-formal education for former child workers.


            Agreement could be reached with employers to sponsor rehabilitation schemes for child labourers who have been taken our of work. Schemes could include ensuring the re-integration of the child into school or into vocational training or apprenticeship programmes. This agreement might also include creating employment for their parents.

 An improved situation

            Because of efforts by organizations such as the ILO, unions, employer associations and others the problem of child labour in the world has improved in the past few years. Between 2000 and 2004 (the latest figures available) the number of child labourers dropped by 11 per cent. The decline was much greater in hazardous work: by 26 per cent in the 5-17 age group and 33 per cent for 5 to 14 year olds. The global picture which emerges is highly encouraging: Child work is declining and the more harmful the work and the more vulnerable the children involved, the faster the decline.

            However the improved situation should not encourage complacency. In 2004 there were still an estimated 218 million children trapped in child labour, of whom 126 million were in hazardous work. There is much more work to be done. But the improvement does show that if governments, unions and employer organizations work together in a tripartite fashion child labour, especially its worst forms, can be substantially reduced and eventually eliminated.


Discussion questions


1.    How could international labour standards be used in the struggle to eliminate child labour in the world?

 2.      What bargaining strategies could unions use to reduce child labour in their countries?






Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV), International Labour Organization, Geneva.

The Bureau operates an extensive programme on child labour


Programme for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV-Turin) at the ILO's  International Training Centre, Turin, Italy  


The ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).


Standards and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Programme at the ILO's

International Training Centre, Turin, Italy



Trade Unions and Child Labour: Children out of work and into school. Adults into Work. (2000), Published by the Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV), International Labour Organization, Geneva.

This publication was used extensively in the preparation of this document. It consists of a series of booklets with basic information, lesson plans, model clauses, union examples and discussion questions. The booklets include:

  • Union policies and action plans to combat child labour
  • Fact finding and information about child labour
  • Campaigning against child labour
  • Collective bargaining to combat child labour
  • Using ILO standards to combat child labour
  • The tripartite structure to combat child labour


SCREAM - Stop child labour. Supporting children's rights through education, the arts and the media (2002).

Published by the International Labour Organization, International Programme on the elimination of child labour (IPEC). SCREAM stands for Supporting Children's Rights through Education, the Arts and the Media. A series of booklets.


Child labour briefing material (2000)

Published by the International Training Centre of the ILO and the ILO's International Programme on the on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)

Practical guide to child labour reporting (2006)

Published by the International Training Centre of the International Labour Organization

The End of Child Labour: Within Reach

Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work 2006

International Labour Conference, 95th Session 2006, Report I (B)


Web sites

Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV), International Labour Organization, Geneva.

Child labour section: 


Standards and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Programme at the ILO's

International Training Centre, Turin, Italy

Child labour section:


ILO Website> Themes> Child Labour


International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)


Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work> Issues> Child Labour

ILS webpage on child labour

ACTRAV Geneva webpage on child labour



ILO Clip on child labour


Child Labour: The Problem. The Response.

CD-ROMS produced by ILO's International Programme on the on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)