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date: 29 February 2024

Child Laborfree

Child Laborfree

  • Usha Nayar, Usha NayarUsha S. Nayar has served as an expert for International Labor Organization on Child Labor and an advisor for ILO’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC). Besides this she has worked as a consultant for WHO and UNICEF on matters relating to child labor and served on the All India National Committee that evaluated child labor policies and practices where she addressed India’s parliament to raise awareness on child labor issues.
  • Priya NayarPriya NayarPriya S. Nayar works as a Communications Officer at German University Alliance, the joint North American liaison office of Freie Universität Berlin and Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München that was established to deepen the research and educational relationships between these two German institutions and their U.S. and Canadian counterparts. She holds a Masters degree from the New School for Public Engagement's School of Media Studies where she researched educational tools and technologies. Priya is actively interested in child and youth studies and continues to work closely with the DAV school system in India.
  •  and Nidhi MishraNidhi MishraCo-founder and CEO at Life Circle Senior Citizens Foundation, Mumbai, India


The paper presents a global scenario of child labor by placing the issue in a historical context as well as comparing current work in the field. It specifically explains the psychosocial, political, and economic determinants of child labor and the prevalence of different forms as well as its magnitude in the different regions of the world. It features innovative programs and actions taken against child labor by local governments, civil societies, and United Nations bodies—mainly the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund. The paper also highlights multilateral collaborations among the UN and other international agencies that stand against child labor in general and the employment of children in hazardous conditions. It illustrates the cooperation among local governments, civic organizations, and child-rights movements that have brought gradual changes over the decades toward ending child labor. Further, it suggests that social work, relevant professional schools, and associations working in various disciplines should be engaged in research-based advocacy and find innovative solutions to control child labor.


  • Children and Adolescents
  • International and Global Issues
  • Macro Practice
  • Policy and Advocacy
  • Social Justice and Human Rights


Social work’s historic commitment to human rights, to social justice and, to vulnerable populations makes child labor an area of great concern to the profession. Poor children and poor families should have a first claim on social work’s energies and attention. In 1998, the U.S. Department of Labor released Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman’s address to the International Labor Conference’s Child Labor Committee. In it, she said, “ [W]hile much has been accomplished by the International Labor Organization to stop the workplace from being a threat to children—clearly, very clearly much more needs to be done” (OPA Press Release, 1998). Since that time, it is safe to say that a lot has indeed been done, but there remains work to be accomplished to ensure the safety and well-being of all children, across the globe, from every strata of society, and to provide them with the potential that childhood holds. We cannot help but envision the faces behind the figures of child labor and present some of the important milestones in the march toward eradicating child labor.

Child labor is a significant obstacle in achieving universal primary education and other Millennium Development Goals as set by the United Nations and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This entry emphasizes the complexity of the issue of child labor, the magnitude of the problem, and the sectors in which it is prevalent. Also, in brief, it describes the significant actions of the United Nations and other prominent international agencies, civic-society organizations, and national governments in eradicating child labor. We have tried to highlight the work of these organizations and the involvement of children themselves as agents of change for improvement in their work conditions as well as efforts to ensure that hazardous and unsafe conditions are removed from all sectors of child employment. Also, this entry examines the situation from the perspective of child rights wherein all children must receive the opportunity for education, to grow and develop to their full potential as active and engaged citizens of society.

The exploitation of children has its roots firmly grounded in the pasts of most nations. According to the historian Philippe Aries, during the medieval period, children were looked upon as fully formed miniature adults, implying that they could perform physical labor and meet the same standards as adults. At around 6 or 7 years of age, children were sent to serve as apprentices in other villages, where they learned trades such as carpentry, farming, domestic service, weaving, and more (Aries, 1962). The industrial period in early 1800s saw employment-participation rates for child laborers as the highest in that period and the age at which they started working the lowest (Horrell and Humphries, 1995). This is the time when Europe and North America saw a new type of family economy that focused on industrialization. Sadly, a central part of these family’s livelihoods were the contributions made by children through their wage earning. Many contributing socio-economic factors resulted in employment for children playing a crucial role in family incomes: low wages for adults, a need for more laborers, and at-risk and vulnerable families. Children’s earnings played a key role in the overall income of the family unit (Cunningham & Viazzo, 1996). A century later in the 1920s, in the United States alone, sons contributed 83% and daughters 95% of their earnings to the family (Hareven, 1982).

The state of children in 19th-century Europe was filled with various kinds of exploitation. They were employed in factories and paid wages on which the entire family survived. Children as young as 7 or 8 years old were sent as servants and slaves to masters, who were responsible for their lodging and food; this often resulted in maltreatment of the children. Machinery and the use of chemicals made the children’s work all the more dangerous (Thomas, 1945). However, it set up a skill base and a platform for children to work in various industries across the world, and the age at which children started working became younger and younger. For example, the lace-making industry employed child laborers at a very young age, as did the textile industry, although only rarely was it below the age of 9. In coal mining in Britain in the 1840s, the mean age of entry was just under 9 years (Church, 1986). In unregulated industrialization, workshop and home-based industries, an earlier age of entry may have been the norm (Cunningham & Viazzo, 1996). It is important to consider the ages of entry into child labor, because they set the lifelong path for these child laborers.

Nonetheless, industrialization and economic prosperity led European and other high-income countries to redefine the period of childhood. The emphasis on education and development for children in different age groups was recognized in the mid-1900s, and children were freed from labor-related activities. They were given opportunities to be in schools and experience childhood in a different way, for not only education but also overall development, health, and recreation. These priorities, however, did not migrate to low-income countries, where children are still being exploited at the cost of their development and well-being.

In the 21st century, the International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development” (2012). In operational terms, child labor involves work by children that is mentally, physically, socially, or morally dangerous and/or harmful to them and that interferes with their development. In order to define the minimum age at which children can start working and to stop the exploitation of children as child laborers, ILO, on June 19, 1976, passed Convention 138, which mentions:

The minimum age for work should not be below the age for finishing compulsory schooling, which is 15.

Children between the ages of 13 and 15 years may do light work, as long as it does not threaten their health and safety, or hinder their education or vocational orientation and training.

Any hazardous work that is likely to jeopardize children’s physical, mental, or moral health; safety; or morals should not be done by anyone under the age of 18.

To further strengthen policies that protect children from all forms of child labor, but especially slavery, the trafficking of children, the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, the use of a child for prostitution or for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances, and the offering of a child for illicit activities such as the trafficking of drugs, ILO passed Convention 182, which came into force on November 19, 2000, with the specific aim of the prohibition of, and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labor.

Edmonds (2009), in an ILO working paper, summarized the definition of child labor in 26 countries based on their national reports, highlighting that barring three countries—Bangladesh, Belize, and Mongolia—whose definition of child labor matches the ILO’s definition, the rest of the countries use modified definitions. For example, Kenya, Tanzania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and the Philippines use terminology such as “economically active child” in their definitions. The national reports of Argentina, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Gambia, Honduras, Malawi, and South Africa include children involved in household chores in their definitions of child labor. Uganda, Turkey, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka avoid the use of the term child labor entirely. Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ghana, Guyana, and Guatemala define child labor based on the number of hours, working conditions, and age restrictions. The country report of Namibia considers conditions that cause harms to children in particular jobs—such as working in factories, mines, and markets—when defining child labor. These differences in definitions emphasize the objectives, priorities, and interests of different countries in grappling with the issues of child labor in the context of their own socio-political priorities, and not through the lens of a global crisis.

UNICEF approaches child-labor definitions by considering the various factors involved, such as the type of work—economic activities and domestic work—and the number of hours worked by children in the various age groups. For example, children ages 5 to 11 years are considered child laborers if they do at least one hour of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work per week. Similarly, those ages 12 to14 years are considered child laborers if they are found to do at least 14 hours of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work per week. Those ages 15 to17 years are considered child laborers if they do at least 43 hours of economic or domestic work per week. These quantifiable limitations to the definition of child labor have given not-for-profit organizations and child-protection lobby groups a measurable way to increase safety for this vulnerable group of children.

The skills developed during childhood plays a vital role for the evolution of a successful adult. Employment of children during the key developmental period is detrimental to the creation of their overall personality and also their skills and competencies. To put it simply, child labor discourages the formation of human capital, and in fact works as a barrier to building capacity. Child labor precludes the opportunity for upward mobility and prevents children from pursuing skills that could enhance their quality of life. Child labor therefore virtually perpetuates poverty. The World Bank recognizes that child labor is one of the “most devastating consequences of persistent poverty,” and the World Health Organization (WHO) uses terms such as child maltreatment, child abuse, and neglect for child labor. According to WHO, child labor includes “all forms of physical and emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse, neglect, and exploitation that results in actual or potential harm to the child’s health, development or dignity.” In this definition, the main focus is on the health of the child—both physical and psychological—which in turn impacts the overall development of children. Researchers Stein and Davis (1940), also define child labor with the focus on health as “any work by children that interferes with their full physical development, the opportunities for a desirable minimum of education and of their needed recreation.”

It is important to note that the terms child labor and child work are often used interchangeably for working children below age 17. Not all work done by children can be labeled as child labor, however. Children’s work such as helping their parents around the home, assisting in a family business, or earning pocket money outside school hours cannot be considered child labor because all these activities contribute to a child’s development and to the welfare of their families. These activities provide them with skills and experience, and help to prepare them to be productive members of society (Lieten, 2006).

Magnitude of Child Labor

As per UNICEF’s global database (2012) (based on national surveys from 2002 to 2011), 15% of the world’s children (excluding China) ages 5 to 14 years are engaged in child labor; in other words means, nearly one in six children ages 5 to 14 years is engaged in child labor. The database also suggests that equal percentage of boys and girls are likely to be engaged in child labor, across all regions. Table 1 shows the distribution in percentages.

According to ILO’s (2010) Global Report, in 2008, globally there were around 215 million child laborers ages 5 to 17 years. Of these, 127 million were boys and 88 million were girls; 74 million boys and 41 million girls were involved in child labor’s worst forms. More than two thirds (153 million) were 5 to 14 years old, and about 4 in 10 child laborers (91 million) were younger than 12.

As per the same report, the overall number of children ages 5 to 17 years engaged in child labor decreased by 7 million from 222 million to 215 million over four years. Most of the observed decline in child labor was in the number of girls and in the 5- to 14-year-old age group. The number of girl child laborers decreased by 15 million to 88 million, and the overall number of child laborers of both sexes below age 15 declined from 170 million to 153 million. The number of children in hazardous work declined by 13 million, from 128 million in 2004 to 115 million in 2008. There was only a slight decrease among boys, and the trend reversed in the case of adolescents 15 to 17 years old. In the latter age cohort, the number increased by 10.5 million to reach 62 million, and the incidence rose by 2.5 percentage points.

In the same report, the Asian-Pacific region had the most child laborers ages 5 to 17 (113.6 million) as compared with 65.1 million in sub-Saharan Africa and 14.1 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest incidence of child labor, with one in four children involved.

With regard to child labor by status in employment, the same report mentioned that two thirds of child laborers ages 5 to 17 years old are unpaid family workers (64% for boys versus 73% for girls). Paid employment and self-employment account respectively for 21% and 5% of all child laborers in the same age group.

Prevalence of Child Labor

Child laborers broadly work in three main sectors of employment: the agricultural sector, the services sector, and the industrial sector. The agricultural sector has the largest number of child laborers at 60%, the services sector employs 26% of these child laborers, and the industry sector 7% (Diallo, Hagemann, Etienne, Gurbuzer, & Mehran, 2010). The agriculture sector employs children in agricultural activities such as farming, fishing, and hunting, whereas the services sector includes employment in restaurants, hotels, transport and storage, wholesale, retail, communications, finance, insurance, and real estate services, as well as community and personal services. The industrial sector include jobs in mining, quarrying, manufacturing, construction, and public utilities.

Agriculture Sector

In the ILO’s (2010) Global Report that measured trends from year 2004 to 2008 (Diallo et al., 2010)—60% of child laborers were employed in agriculture-related activities. This amounted to more than 129 million children, of whom 62.8% were boys and 37.2% were girls. Among them, the majority (67.5%) of child laborers were unpaid family members who entered into work at an early age (5 to 7 years), and could include one or a combination of the following: labor on family farms, commercial farms, and plantations; labor contracted to commercial farms; bonded child labor; and trafficked and forced labor/slavery. ILO’s (1996) Wageworkers in Agriculture reported that conditions of employment, such as wages and availability of employment on commercial farms suggested that the prevalence of child labor in both small and large commercial farms is relatively high in many countries. According to the ILO and the National Confederation of Employers’ (2005) Organizations of the Azerbaijan Republic in Azerbaijan, agriculture is a major user of child labor, especially in cotton production and for crops such as tobacco. The above illustration is representative of how agriculture has emerged as a major sector in child labor; wherein there are no formal contracts, and children are employed in picking, crop thinning, and weeding. It is understood that this practice has ties to traditions from the Soviet era, when the state policy encouraged engaging families in cotton production as a main source of family income.

The agricultural sector is also home to bonded-labor contracts; the most prevalent form is debt bondage. These are found in South Asia and Latin America, where in return for credit or a cash advance, people offer their labor and/or the labor of their children until the debt is repaid. Often only the child is bonded (ILO, 2006). Direct forced child labor, which in turn is often linked to child trafficking, is also found in agriculture (ILO, 2006). In 2002, the Sustainable Tree Crops Program of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, in cooperation with the ILO’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) conducted a study on child labor on some 1,500 cocoa-producing farms in Cameroon, the Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Nigeria. The study found that hundreds of thousands of children were engaged in hazardous tasks on cocoa farms. Many child laborers came from impoverished countries in the region, such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Togo. It was also found that parents sold their children in the belief the children would find work and send earnings home.

Besides farming, fishing and aquaculture are other sectors that employ children. According to the report of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Workshop on Child Labor in Fisheries and Aquaculture in cooperation with ILO (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2010) there is no global data on the prevalence and concentration of child labor in fishing and aquaculture. Case studies, however, indicate that child labor in the sector is most common in informal and small-scale operations of capture fisheries, aquaculture, and post-harvest fish processing, distribution, and marketing. Small-scale fisheries provide more than 90% of the 120 million livelihoods derived directly and indirectly from fisheries and support more than 500 million people—about 8% of the world population. FAO and ILO’s (2011), Good Practice Guide for Addressing Child Labor in Fisheries and Aquaculture: Policy and Practice, highlights the findings of some countrywide and regionwide surveys conducted to explore child labor in fisheries. In one (Allison, Béné, & Andrew, 2011) in four developing countries (Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ghana, and the Philippines) it was found that child labor in fisheries represents some 2% to 5% of the total number of child laborers in these countries. Children, of whom a majority—up to 91%—were boys, constituted about 9% to 12% of the total fisheries labor force in these countries. In another survey (O’Riordan, 2006), 29% of the total workforces in the fisheries sector in Senegal were found to be children under the age of 15. In addition, a survey on child labor on the Baluchistan coast of Pakistan revealed a 30% incidence of child labor, with children accounting for 27% of workers employed in the fishing sector (Hai, Fatima, & Sadaqat, 2010). All these studies throw some light on the magnitude of child labor in fisheries.

After farming and fisheries, forestry is another area where child laborers work. As per the ILO, it is the least researched activity. Although there is no global figure on this, region wise statistics of ILO show that 85% of victims in some Latin American countries are younger than 12 years. As per ILO’s document on Forestry (2013) child labor in difficult or dangerous working conditions are found in most forestry workplaces, which are often in remote areas and sometimes in temporary and shifting locations. Isolation increases vulnerability to exploitation in forestry for indigenous and other ethnic minorities. This can easily hamper law enforcement, trade-union representation, and community support. Isolation and migration can also make it difficult for children to enroll in and attend schools. The ILO Global Report, in a follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (2011a), highlighted that a number of serious violations of fundamental rights in forestry work, including the use of child labor and bonded labor, were been documented in the first decades of the 21st century by the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations.

For child laborers, agriculture is one of the three most dangerous industries to work in; the others are construction and mining (ILO, 2006). Fatality rates associated with agricultural work are second only to mining (Windau & Sygnatur, 1999). In addition, it has been noted that the hazardous work that children do in agriculture fields often results in horrifying accidents (ILO, 2006). For the protection of child laborers in the agriculture sector, the ILO (1969) passed some conventions, such as the Labor Inspection (Agriculture) Convention No. 129, which establishes international standards for labor inspection in agriculture. Labor inspection in agriculture includes securing the enforcement of national legal provisions relating to conditions of work and the protection of workers, such as provisions relating to hours, wages, weekly rest and holidays, safety, health and welfare, and the employment of women, children, and young persons. Another convention, the ILO (2001) Safety and Health in Agriculture Convention No. 184, aims to prevent occupational accidents and injury to health by controlling hazards in the agricultural working environment. It includes provisions on preventive and protective measures, machine safety and ergonomics, handling and transport of materials, sound management of chemicals, and coverage in case of occupational injuries and diseases. It specifies 18 years as the minimum age for assignment to hazardous work. Regarding fishing work, the ILO (2007a) passed the Work in Fishing Convention No. 188; it establishes labor standards relevant to all fishers, whether on large vessels on international voyages or in small boats operating in domestic waters close to shore. It addresses the particular working situations and conditions in the fishing industry. The minimum age for admission to work on board a fishing vessel is specified. The general minimum age is 16 years.

Apart from the conventions, the International Partnership for Cooperation on Child Labor in Agriculture between the ILO, FAO, International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), and International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) is another step toward the protection of children in agriculture. This partnership was launched in 2007.

In spite of partnerships, researchers (Mwamadi & Seiffert, 2012) have indicated that the progress in reducing child labor in agriculture has been slow where there are high levels of poverty. They further highlighted the limited coverage of agriculture and family undertakings in national labor legislations, limited unionization, fragmentation of the labor force, the low capacity of labor inspectors to cover remote rural areas, the majority of child laborers working as unpaid family labor without formal contracts, the continuity between rural households and the workplace, traditions of children participating in agricultural activities from a young age, low family income, and an absence of schools as some major issues preventing the liberation of child laborers in the agriculture sector.

Services Sector

Among the 26% child laborers reported to be working in the services sector in 2008 (Diallo et al., 2010), girls (52.6%) outnumbered boys (47.4%). Surveys of this sector have been done primarily in the area of domestic child labor.

According to the Global Report under the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work (2010) domestic child labor is largely carried out by girls because they can be easily isolated and have little protection or social support. Many girls migrate from rural areas to find work as domestic help or are trafficked for such work. As per the ILO’s (2007b) resource material on domestic child labor throughout the world, thousands of children are working as domestic helpers, performing tasks such as cleaning, ironing, cooking, minding children, and gardening. Due to the hidden nature of this type of work, it is impossible to have reliable figures on how many children are globally exploited. Some regional level data are available to highlight the prevalence of domestic labor in such regions, however. For example, ILO reports have shown that around 175,000 children under 18 are employed in domestic service in Central America (ILO, 2002a), more than 688,000 in Indonesia (Matsuno & Blagbrough, 2006) alone, 53,942 under 15 years in South Africa (ILO, 2004) and 38,000 children between 5 and 7 years in Guatemala (ILO, 2002a).

Industry Sector

Among the 7% of child laborers reported in this sector in 2008, according to the ILO global report (2010), there are proportionately more boys (68.5%) than girls (31.5%).

In rural areas of several Asian, North African, and Middle Eastern countries, where labor is abundant and cheap, many child laborers are found in the industry of carpet weaving. The rising demand for carpets, coupled with low wages, illiteracy, and the availability of children for this highly labor-intensive industry, has created ripe conditions for the use of children as carpet weavers [ILO’s (2011a) report on Children in Hazardous Conditions].

Mining and quarrying are forms of child labor that are dangerous for children. They are physically dangerous because of the heavy and awkward loads, the strenuous work, the unstable underground structures, heavy tools and equipment, the use of toxic and often explosive chemicals, and the exposure to extremes of heat and cold. In relation to this, an ILO report (2011b) highlighted a substantial involvement of girls in mining in Ghana, Niger, Peru, and Tanzania.

According to the ILO, child labor in mining has not received as much attention as some other forms of child labor, because the number of children involved in it is estimated to be roughly 1 million, with many countries having only a few hundred scattered here and there. The ILO considers this dangerous work that should be stopped immediately. Toward this end, on the World Day against Child Labor in June 2005, tripartite delegations from 15 countries presented agreements of commitment to end child labor in small-scale mining within 5 to 10 years.

Related Forms of Child Labor

Child Labor in Armed Forces

According to the ILO, the use of children in armed conflict is one of the worst forms of child labor, a violation of human rights, and a war crime. Regarding the prevalence of child labor in armed forces, UNICEF (2009) highlighted that more than 1 billion children live in countries or territories affected by armed conflict. The International Training Centre’s (2010) guide mentions that tens of thousands of girls and boys find themselves fighting adult wars in different regions around the world. ILO Convention No.182 is an essential initiative taken against this type of abuse of children.

Child Trafficking

Child trafficking is classified by ILO Convention No. 182 as one of the worst forms of child labor (WFCL), to be eliminated as a matter of urgency, irrespective of a country’s level of development. Child trafficking is a disgrace that directly affects an estimated 1.2 million children at any given time (ILO, 2002b). In 2005, the ILO estimated that 980,000 to 1,225,000 children—both boys and girls—were in forced-labor situations as a result of trafficking. In 2006, ILO constituents committed to eliminating child trafficking, and all other WFCL, by 2016.

Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

The ILO considers commercial sexual exploitation of children a repugnant violation of the human rights of children and adolescents and a form of economic exploitation similar to slavery and forced labor, which also implies a crime on the part of those who use girls and boys and adolescents in the sex trade. According to ILO, this type of exploitation includes:

The use of girls and boys in child prostitution, in such places as brothels, discotheques, massage parlors, bars, hotels, restaurants, etc.

The trafficking of girls and boys, and adolescents, for the sex trade.

The production, promotion, and distribution of pornography involving children.

The use of children in sex shows (public or private.)

Determinants of Child Labor

Child labor tends to be prevalent in low-income and developing countries. There are, however, various other causes, such as poor implementation of laws against child labor, family circumstances, socio-cultural factors, poor educational facilities, and epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, as well as some global factors, such as globalization and industrialization. Some of these factors are interrelated, and often more than one together contribute toward child labor. While focusing on the impact of poverty and lack of proper education, the ILO (2011b) emphasized in its report on Hazardous Child Labor that poverty and lack of access to quality education are the major root causes of child labor. According to the report, this issue can be addressed by providing adults with opportunities for employment and ensuring social protection for the vulnerable and marginalized sections of society, which in turn will make them less dependent on the work of children. The key to making a substantial impact on protecting children from exploitation is to find a way to break their poverty cycle.

Poverty and Challenging Family Conditions

According to UNICEF (1997), where society is characterized by poverty and injustice, the incidence of child labor is likely to increase. In this regard, a review of nine Latin American countries in 1995 showed that without the income of working children ages 13 to 17, the incidence of poverty would have risen between 10% and 20% (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1995).

Often, poor family conditions have played a major role in pushing children to work as child labor in agriculture, services, or industry. For example, in a study of street children in three Turkish cities, 28 of the 65 families interviewed included members who were seriously ill and had no health insurance or social security. The existence of health problems along with poverty resulted in economically, socially, and psychologically insecure environments for the children, and thus a reason for child labor (Aksit, Karanci, & Hoşgör, 2001). Another study, of child domestic labor in Thailand, found that many parents want to earn money for their family through their children, and that is why they force their children into domestic labor despite the knowledge that the children may suffer physically and psychologically from hard work and abuse (Phlainoi, 2002).

It has been highlighted by some studies that child labor is related to parents’ employment. Duryea, Lam, and Levison (2007) found that children in urban Brazil work more when adults in the household experience an unemployment spell. In India, Kambhampati and Rajan (2005) found that an increase in a parent’s wage does in fact lower child labor. Some studies have also highlighted the fact that in some cases, child labor in the agriculture sector is triggered either by problems or an increase in agricultural work that directly impacts the economic conditions of family. Beegle, Dehejia, and Gatti (2006) found that child labor increases in Tanzania when there is an unexpectedly poor harvest. Dammert (2008) found that children in the regions of Peru began to engage in more market work after coca production shifted to Colombia.

Similarly, various surveys conducted by the ILO and UNICEF in different parts of the world have highlighted poverty in the family as a main cause for child labor. For instance, in rural Tanzania, households with children working on coffee plantations and farms, on small and large-scale tea plantations, and on tobacco farms and plantations were found to have low levels of income, and many children were relying on themselves for food and other expenses (ILO, 2001). In another survey, UNICEF estimated that each job held by a migrant worker in Côte d’Ivoire contributes to the economic well-being of 20 members of his/her extended family in the region (UNICEF, 2003).

Cultural Factors

Some cultures promote child work as a part of their traditions. In the West and Central African subregion, participation of children—either by traveling with their parents or by being placed in the household of other members of the larger family for apprenticeship—is a widespread and traditional practice (ILO, 2006).

Many dominant cultural groups paradoxically may not desire their own children to be involved in child labor, but they are not as concerned if young people from racial, ethnic, or economic minorities do it. Some such evidences are in northern Europe, where child laborers are likely to be of African or Turkish origin; in the United States, where they are Asian or Latin American; in Canada, where they are Asian; in Brazil, where they are children of indigenous people with no political support; in Argentina, where many are Bolivian and Paraguayan; and in Thailand’s fishing industry, many are from Myanmar (UNICEF, 1997).

Poor Legislative Measures

Sometimes lack of laws or poor implementation of laws against child labor in some parts of the countries also results in a high prevalence of child labor. For example, child laborers in the agriculture sector have weak or nonexistent labor laws and nonenforcement of existing laws, greatly facilitate the practice of using child labor in agriculture (ILO, 2006).

Poor Educational Systems

Many times, the lack of a good-quality school infrastructure; cooperative, empathetic, and knowledgeable teachers in remote rural areas; affordable school fees; and accessibility of education to poor and rural children results in the involvement of children in labor. In many countries, schools are allowed to close for several weeks so that children can work on the farms and plantations—an echo of past negative practices of some countries that are still being followed so that child labor may continue (ILO, 2006).

Impact of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

A series of IPEC rapid-assessment studies in Africa suggests that HIV/AIDS is among the major causes of child labor in that region (Rau, 2003). For Zambia alone, it has been estimated that HIV/AIDS has added as many as 23% to 30% to the child labor force (Mushingeh et al., 2002). In communities with predominant engagement in agriculture, the number of child-headed households has increased as the parents have died from the virus and extended family networks cannot cope with the sheer numbers of orphans (ILO, 2006). In the absence of family, the orphaned children are left to fend for themselves by working as child laborers in various sectors. In sub-Saharan African regions, the UN Economic Commission for Africa and ILO-AIDS (2004) cautioned that incidence of HIV/AIDS has clear implications for the continued or even increased use of child labor.

Children as a Cheap Source of Labor

Child laborers are often paid less by adults because of age factors, and they are therefore considered a cheap source of labor. This is another reason behind involvement of children in labor. The U.S. Department of Labor study in its survey in 1995 of Central and Latin America highlighted that children (ages 12 to 14) comprised 30% of internal migrants within Guatemala working on coffee, sugar cane, cardamom, and cotton plantations. They did the same work as adults and were paid half the wage. Similarly, in Brazil, in the principal cane-growing and processing area, children and adolescents ages 10 to 17 accounted for approximately 25% of the total number of cane workers.

Impact of Globalization of Agricultural Products

Globalization has impacted developing and lesser-developed countries to export more of their agricultural products that in turn have led them to depend on migrant laborers, who increasingly include child laborers (ILO, 2006). These numbers ought to be reducing as we fight against child labor practices, but the speed at which globalization is affecting the world is frighteningly dangerous for at-risk children.

Strategies to Combat Issues Related to Child Labor

As is evident from the earlier sections related to the magnitude and complexity of the problem of child labor, various approaches have consistently been adopted to provide children the space to enjoy their years of childhood. Poverty and lack of access to education seem to be the principal reasons for child labor. If so, social work’s participation in programs that generate employment, that promote inclusive economic development, that strive to build a safety net, that aim for a guaranteed level of food security, and that promote women’s empowerment makes it a natural ally of those movements and organizations that are fighting to halt the practice of child labor.

Though it may not be possible within this framework to list all the initiatives that have been implemented, we shall be able to cover major approaches and themes to facilitate a broad overview of this issue as related to the well-being of the next generation. The problem is much deeper than it seems on the surface. In the recent history of child labor, there has been a shift in the approach to combat child labor—removing children from child labor requires phenomenal resources, both human and material. Hence, stopping children from working in hazardous and unsafe conditions became an urgent priority. Governments were pressured by the UN and other international bodies, civic organizations, and media campaigns to stop these practices. For other sectors of child labor, long-term measures were developed: schooling children, improving the quality of education and employment of men and women in the family, and implementing minimum wages and other measures of breaking the poverty cycle of families.

To address directly the issue of child labor, strategies include implementing legislation, forming child-protection policies, enforcing of laws and policies, setting up programs for the education of children, advocacy campaigns regarding awareness of child labor issues for employers of child labor as well as public at large, civil-society movements for dealing with poverty issues, and envisioning child laborers themselves as a movement for the change under the umbrella of the UN convention of child rights. Some such initiatives are discussed in this section.

Global Initiatives Toward Elimination of Child Labor: Policy, Programs, and Advocacy

Through its agencies—such as the ILO, UNICEF, and the WHO—the United Nations has taken various initiatives toward eradication of child labor at the global level. Among them, ILO has taken a lead, working toward elimination of child labor since 1919 through its various conventions, declarations, events, and programs.

In 1919, ILO adopted its first convention against child labor. The Minimum Age (Industry) Convention (No. 5) was adopted with the aim of establishing the minimum age for the admission of children to industrial employment. Following this, the ILO adopted other similar conventions for fixing the minimum age for admission of children to other working sectors (see Table 1).

The most important initiative of the ILO toward eradication of child labor is its International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), which was created in 1992 with the overall goal of progressive elimination of child labor, which was to be achieved through strengthening the capacity of countries to deal with the problem and promoting a worldwide movement to combat child labor. As per ILO, since its creation, IPEC has grown to become the biggest dedicated anti-child-labor program in the world and the largest technical-cooperation program within the ILO, spending more than $60 million in 2008.

The quantity of IPEC’s partners has expanded over the years and now includes employers and workers organizations, other international and government agencies, private businesses, community-based organizations, NGOs, the media, legislators, the judiciary, universities, religious groups, and children and their families.

As per ILO, these efforts, along with those of local like-minded organizations, leaders, and communities, have resulted in hundreds of thousands of children being withdrawn from work and rehabilitated, or prevented from entering the workforce. Complementary to the direct action there has been substantial in-depth statistical and qualitative research, policy and legal analysis, program evaluation, and child labor monitoring, which have permitted the accumulation of a vast knowledge base of statistical data and methodologies, thematic studies, good practices, guidelines, and training materials for the study of child labor.

Some programs of IPEC against child labor operating as of 2012 were (Gunn & Graczyk, 2012):

The SCREAM program in Uganda: “Supporting Children’s Rights through Education, the Arts and the Media.” SCREAM helps child laborers make themselves visible to society so that people can no longer remain indifferent to their plight. It gives them a voice that often children working in hazardous conditions lack.

“Academies” on young-worker safety in the United States: Academies give youths intensive training on a particular topic, such as workplace health, safety, and rights. In an academy, youths not only learn, but they also develop strategies and plans for action that they can use when they return to their own communities to help ensure that young people do not get hurt on the job.

Mobile Schools in Romania: The “Mobile Schools” project was implemented by Save the Children’s Iasi branch in conjunction with an IPEC action program. The ultimate aim of this project was to remove children from the streets, where they were exposed to various types of hazardous work, and to ensure their right to education.

The IPEC program “Strengthening Trade Union Action to Promote Vocational Training for Adolescents in Haiti,” implemented by the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) in collaboration with the Haitian trade union Confédération des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), provided vocational skills training to vulnerable youth in the region to promote decent work opportunities for the future.

Encouraged by country-level collaborations, the ILO set the deadline of eradicating the worst forms of child labor by 2016.

Initiatives Taken by UNICEF

UNICEF is also working worldwide toward eradication of child labor through its action-based programs, policy initiatives, and documentation work in collaboration with different countries. UNICEF has come up with some very useful publications, based on global and countrywide data, which are used as a major source for advocacy and awareness of child labor. These include Child Labor and School Attendance: Evidence from MICS and DHS Surveys (Huebler, 2008), Child Labor, Education and the Principle of Non-discrimination (Gibbons, Huebler, & Loaiza, 2005), and Progress for Children: A World Fit for Children Statistical Review (UNICEF, 2007). Every year UNICEF publishes the State of the World’s Children report, which discusses the situation of child labor at a global level and is an important source for advocacy, awareness and program implementation against child labor.

Contributions of WHO Toward the Prevention of Child Labor

WHO, through its initiatives against child labor, started in the 1980s with technical research studies, prepared training manuals for health professionals, policy planners, and NGOs to intervene based on evidence that child labor impacts adversely the health, nutrition, and mental health of children (Naidu, 1985). WHO has supported interagency initiatives, organized training programs for health administrators and policy planners, and co-sponsored conferences on the health implications of child labor. WHO provided technical support to governments on prevention of health hazards of children employed in various situations (Naidu). Further, WHO brought out issues related to the maltreatment of child laborers and has collaborated with the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (ISPCAN) for the development of preventing child maltreatment: a guide for taking action and generating evidence to assist countries to design and deliver programs for the prevention of child maltreatment by parents and caregivers. The guide provides technical advice for professionals working in governments, research institutes and NGOs on how to measure the extent of child maltreatment and its consequences; how to design, implement and evaluate prevention programs and on important considerations for detecting and responding to child maltreatment. The guide is a practical tool that will help governments implement the recommendations of the recently released United Nations Secretary General’s Study on Violence against Children.

WHO, ISPCAN and other partners are working intensively with a small number of selected countries to develop model prevention programs built around this guide, and WHO headquarters and regional and country offices will provide advice and technical support in response to requests for assistance more generally. Since child labor is related to child maltreatment, this guide will prove to be an important tool toward control of child labor, mainly at family level.

World Bank’s Contribution Toward Elimination of Child Labor

The World Bank is also contributing to the elimination of child labor by focusing mainly on improvements in educational systems in different countries. Another initiative of the World Bank, in collaboration with the ILO and UNICEF, is the program on Understanding Children’s Work (UCW).

UCW is guided by the road map adopted at The Hague Global Child Labor Conference (2010). The road map calls for effective partnership across UN member states to address child labor, and for mainstreaming child labor laws into policy and development frameworks. It also calls for improved knowledge sharing and for developing further methodologies and capacity to conduct research on child labor. UCW research activities are designed to identify policies that impact upon the lives of child laborers in countries where they are prominent. It provides a common understanding of child labor and a common basis for action against it. It extends to a variety of policy issues associated with child labor, including education, youth employment, and migration.

Action Against Child Labor by Governments and Civil Societies: Illustrations From Two Countries

Sub-Saharan regions and the Asia Pacific region have been found to have the world’s major proportion of child labor in their countries. As it is not possible here to share all the initiatives taken by governments and civil societies in all the countries, a sampling of some of the programs and policy-level initiatives taken by a country from each of these regions is mentioned here. They provide an illustration of the diverse and intense actions taken against child labor in these countries.


One of the local nongovernmental organizations of Kenya working toward elimination of child labor is ChildLine Kenya, which registered in Kenya under the NGO Coordination Act in 2005.

It works toward the protection and promotion of children’s rights in the country by implementing innovative communication- and technology-driven programs. One of its core services is the National Child Helpline 116, a 24-hour, toll-free helpline for children, young persons, and their families.

Besides the helpline, it also runs numerous public-education programs about child rights and child-welfare issues through creating community awareness, organizing media events and school and community outreach sessions, and educating parents. One such program is the School Outreach program, in which teachers and students are trained on child protection and children welfare. Another program uses a peer-education approach to child protection in which children are supported to promote their well-being through enhancing positive behavior change among their peers. As a part of its awareness-raising campaign, ChildLine Kenya spreads the word about the helpline service as well as child rights, child protection, and child welfare using a broad spectrum of marketing and communication channels, including print and electronic media, road shows, and mobile cinema (for example, CINEMARENA with Italian cooperation).

The government of Kenya has made positive strides toward the elimination of child labor. It became a member of the International Labor Organization’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (ILO-IPEC) in 1992. Since then, ILO-IPEC Kenya has launched 67 action programs on child labor and several mini-programs in collaboration with 22 partner agencies, including government agencies, employers and labor organizations, a wide range of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and media-based organizations (International Labor Organization & IPEC, 2001).

Kenya’s Ministry of Education has sought to address gender discrepancies in the country’s educational system, which is also an indirect measure toward control of child labor, especially in the case of girls. In 1995, the government of Kenya created a Gender Unit within the Ministry of Education. This unit works with other ministries within the government, with NGOs, and with community leaders to promote education for girls. In addition, the Ministry of Education has worked with UNICEF on a Girl Child Program, which aims to close the gender gap in education (Ministry of Education and Human Resource Development, 1997).


India is the second most populous country in the world. Compared to other nations, it has a significantly high percentage of young people. As per the census of India in 2001, there were 12.6 million working children in the age group of 5 to 14 as compared to the total child population of 25.2 crore. This statistic is a cause for concern and necessitates implementation of initiatives for controlling the problem of child labor in the country.

For controlling the problem of child labor, various innovative programs have been implemented by NGOs that are directly or indirectly working against child labor. An important point to note here is that although they all are working against child labor, they are using different innovative techniques to control this problem. For example, Pratham, a national-level NGO, not only raises awareness about child rights issues and educating underprivileged children, it also rescues child laborers and victims of child trafficking through its Council for Vulnerable Children and prepares them to be mainstreamed into formal school. In addition to this, the council also partners with state governments in drafting official protocols for dealing with rescued children and advising legislation concerning child labor. Similarly, another national-level initiative, Teach for India by Teach to Lead, works indirectly toward controlling child labor by providing quality education to the children with the help of college graduates and young professionals who commit two-years to teaching full-time in under-resourced schools.

Other NGOs, such as Concerned for Working Children (CWC) and Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), focus on training children and youths to be change agents for dealing with child labor. CWC, through its union of working children, Bhima Sangh, works toward empowerment of child laborers and thus encourages them to take action against child labor themselves. Over the ensuing years, Bhima Sangh has intervened effectively in a wide array of problems for its members and other working children. Bhima Sangh is a perfect example of training children as change agents. Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA), through its youth program Anubhav Shiksha Kendra (ASK), trains and sensitizes youths about various social issues, including the issue of child labor, and thus prepares them to take action against such issues and work toward social transformation.

As far as the role of government is concerned, the Ministry of Labor and Employment, in 1979, formed the first committee (the Gurupadswamy Committee) to study the issue of child labor and suggest measures to tackle it. Based on the recommendations of the Gurupadswamy Committee, the Child Labor (Prohibition & Regulation) Act was enacted in 1986. The Act prohibits the employment of children in certain specified hazardous occupations, and it regulates the working conditions in others. The list of hazardous occupations and processes is progressively being expanded on the recommendation of Child Labor Technical Advisory Committee, which was constituted under the Act.

With reference to the above approach, a National Policy on Child Labor was formulated in 1987. The policy seeks to adopt a gradual and sequential approach with a focus on rehabilitation of children working in hazardous occupations and processes.

In addition to the above, the government is taking practical steps to tackle this problem through stringent enforcement of legislative provisions along with concurrent rehabilitative measures. Obviously, more work needs to be done in order to address the issue of child labor eradication comprehensively.

Way Forward

The journey to achieve a child labor free world is a long one, because of the complexities involved not just at a local level but also on the global platform. Child labor, in terms of percentage of children engaged in illegal employment, is on the decline, however. Both direct and indirect ways of addressing the problem are warranted. Social workers need to take a prominent role in formulating those policies that discourage or outlaw child labor. They also need to ensure that these policies are adequately implemented. They need to create broad awareness of the deleterious consequences of child labor—for the children involved, for their families, and for society as a whole. They should work with the media, with employers, with unions, with faith-based institutions, and with other parts of the civil society to launch a sustained and multipronged attack on the practice of child labor. Two foci that indirectly address the prevalence of child labor are poverty alleviation and access to quality primary education. Both are absolutely important and need to be addressed simultaneously.

The contributions of UN and other international agencies in dealing with the issues related to child labor are significant. The UN Convention of Child Rights, as well as the ILO’s conventions, has been important milestones in the journey to achieve a child-labor-free world. What is important to note is that it is not just the multilateral collaborations among UN and other international agencies that stand against the hazardous employment of children, but also the cooperation of local governments and civic organizations that bring a gradual change over the decades toward ending child labor once and for all. These cooperations can be and often are small-scale initiatives and efforts undertaken by civic organizations and not-for-profit agencies. Each and every child laborer who was helped by dedicated organizations and individuals is one life saved, one future preserved, and innumerable opportunities presented.

A global voice for the plight of child laborers in the form of interventions by UN and international agencies has created awareness on the ill effects of letting children continue to work instead of going to school and created the necessary urgency so that state and political agencies may act in favor of child-centric policies. We now have international tools that provide assessment and accountability for nation states so that they may gauge the development and well-being of children. International organizations have insisted on making legal, policy and program, and budget provisions for developmental opportunities for children for education, health, and recreation as active citizens of not just countries and cities but of the world. These global and local collaborations are the only solution to bring tangible results in the child labor scenario in cities and rural areas, and their continued progressive alliances bring hope for a better future for all children.

We all are aware, however, that the work is not yet complete. Our efforts must be enhanced by engaging professional schools and associations that work in the social work, education, psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, humanities, and liberal arts fields to develop research, promote advocacy and teaching-learning modules using digital technology, utilize new media tools, and find innovative solutions to free child laborers. Social work research also has a role. Collecting reliable data about child labor and assessing the efficacy of interventions to combat this problem, in collaboration with cognate professions, is a much-needed step. Both the causes and consequences of child labor need to be more scientifically studied. Of special attention is the need to understand the two-way relationship between poverty and schools, and how both of these affect the practice or prevalence of child labor. Social workers typically take a systems perspective in analyzing a problem. They also use the full repertoire of intervention strategies (working with the individual, the family, the community, and the policy makers) to mitigate, manage, or eliminate it. It would appear that the problem of child labor could be fruitfully addressed using this social work perspective. Data-based advocacy is likely to be more effective, and toward this end it is important to create stronger alliances with children themselves. The children—both child laborers and school-going children—bring their unique perspectives, on-the-ground stories, and creativity to the process of ending child labor. Together, all of us can engage in a powerful and meaningful conversation that results in peer relationships among all children beyond boundaries as a secure foundation for our next generations.

Table 1 Percentage of Boy and Girl Child Laborers in Regions


Boys (%)

Girls (%)

All countries (excluding China)



Least developed countries (ages 5–14)



Sub-Saharan Africa



Eastern and Southern Africa



Western and Central Africa



South Asia



Middle East and North Africa



Latin America and Caribbean Region



East Asia and Pacific Region (excluding China)



Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States



Source: UNICEF Global Database, 2012

Appendix 1. ILO Significant Conventions and Declarations to Combat Child Labor

In 1920, the Minimum Age (Sea) Convention (No. 7) was adopted for fixing the minimum age for admission of children to employment at sea.

In 1921, the Minimum Age (Agriculture) Convention (No. 10) was adopted for fixing the minimum age for admission of children to employment in agriculture.

In 1932, the Minimum Age (Non-Industrial Employment) Convention (No. 33) for fixing the age for admission of children to nonindustrial employment.

In 1936, the Minimum Age (Sea) Convention (Revised) (No. 58) was adopted for revising the age limit for the admission of children to employment at sea.

In 1937, the Minimum Age (Industry) Convention (Revised) (No. 59) was adopted for revising the age limit for admission of children to industrial employment.

In 1937, the Minimum Age (Non-Industrial Employment) Convention (Revised) (No. 60) was adopted for revising the age limit for admission of children to nonindustrial employment.

In 1959, the Minimum Age (Fishermen) Convention (No. 112) was adopted for fixing the minimum age for admission to employment as fishermen.

In 1965, the Minimum Age (Underground Work) Convention (No. 123) was passed concerning the Minimum Age for admission to employment underground in mines.

In all these conventions, different age limits were fixed; minimum ages ranged from 14 to 18 years, with different clauses attached to them. Finally, toward this end, the ILO, in 1973, adopted the Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) for preventing children from entering into child labor at a young age by fixing the minimum age for entry into employment as 18 years. Along with this convention, the ILO also adopted, in 1999, the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (No. 182), which brought the world’s attention to the need to take immediate action to eradicate those forms of child labor that are hazardous and damaging to children’s physical, mental, or moral well-being. These two conventions are fundamental conventions of the ILO, and member states have to abide by them.

The ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, adopted in 1998, is another initiative toward the protection of children against child labor. The Declaration commits member states to respecting and promoting principles and rights in four categories, one of which is the abolition of child labor. The principle of the effective abolition of child labor means ensuring that every girl and boy has the opportunity to develop physically and mentally to her or his full potential. Its aim is to stop all work by children that jeopardizes their education and development. Various workshops, courses, training programs, and focus program for civil society are being organized for countries worldwide as part of a follow-up to this declaration, specifically toward abolition of child labor. Also, relevant global reports are published mainly for advocacy purposes.

Apart from the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Right, in 2008, the ILO adopted the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, which recognizes the particular significance of the fundamental rights, including the effective abolition of child labor. By adopting this declaration, the representatives of governments, employers, and workers organizations from member states committed to enhancing the ILO’s capacity to advance progress and social justice in the context of globalization through the Decent Work Agenda. This is another step toward abolition of child labor to facilitate country-to-country technical cooperation within regions and across continents against child labor, strengthen the worldwide movement against child labor, and assume for the ILO a leadership role in the movement.

By 2009, IPEC was operational in 92 countries in all regions of the world with its various training and advocacy programs against child labor.

During the biennium 2008–09, IPEC activities benefited some 300,000 children directly and more than 52 million indirectly.


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Further Reading

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