The definition of child labour we use is:
“Any form of work performed by children under the age of 15 that interferes with their right to formal quality education, and/or that is mentally, physically, socially and morally dangerous and harmful for their health and development; as well as any form of hazardous work performed by children between 15 and 18 years old.”
This definition is based on:
1. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989)
2. The ILO Convention 138 on the Minimum Age for Employment (1973)
3. The ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999)
Child labour in figures
The ILO estimated that 152 million children between 5 and 17 years old were involved in child labour globally in 2016: almost one in ten of all children worldwide. Half of these child labourers, 73 million, are working in hazardous child labour. This was before the Covid-19 crisis and before schools had to close. The latest figures will show the number of child labourers has increased.
Africa ranks highest in the percentage of children in child labour – one-fifth – and the absolute number of children in child labour – 72 million. Asia and the Pacific rank second highest – 7% of all children, 62 million in absolute terms, are in child labourers in this region.
In the last years, the progress in combating child labour has slowed down. Due to the Covid-19 crisis this will deteriorate further. The risk that children do not return to school is high. Intensified efforts are needed at national levels and by the global community to achieve the target of the SDG: the eradication of all forms of child labour by 2025.
Vulnerable to exploitation
Children in child labour are not a homogeneous group. They differ in age, gender and background. Some do paid work, others unpaid; some are self-employed, others receive wages. Increasing numbers of rural migrant children work in urban regions in the manufacturing or service sectors.
Many children work in the informal sector, an area of economic activity that is largely invisible and unregulated by governments. This makes child labourers vulnerable to all forms of exploitation: very low wages, excessive working hours, unhygienic or abusive working conditions, retention of identity documents, debt bondage.
Vicious circle of poverty
Poverty is often cited as the main cause of child labour. Our many years of involvement with the issue of child labour and education worldwide have made it clear that poverty is often not the decisive factor in pushing children into work. Research shows that children’s wages only contribute marginally to the family’s income. Our experience has been that social norms and traditions, social exclusion and discrimination, as well as a poor functioning education systems, are key reasons why children are working. Furthermore, the lack of decent work for adults, weak laws and/or law enforcement by government, and failing labour inspections also contribute to the persistence of child labour. For an effective eradication of child labour it is essential to improve labour conditions, including better wages, and ask fair prices for products.
Child labour means that poverty continues to exist. Children who work and do not go to school will end up in low paid jobs later, and so will their children – which means the vicious cycle of poverty is continued.
Deprived of education
Regardless of the differences, there is one thing all of them share. A very large number of children in child labour are completely deprived of education. They don’t have basic child protection and the opportunity to gain the skills and education, necessary for future access to decent work for a sustainable livelihood.
Providing access to education for all children is one of the most effective strategies for eradicating child labour. If all children are in school, and thus not available as cheap labourers, adult workers will have a better bargaining position with their employers about wages and decent working conditions. Parents who earn more are in a better position to send their children to school.