What is child labour?
Some types of work make useful, positive contributions to a child's development. Work can help children learn about responsibility and develop particular skills that will benefit them and the rest of society. Often, work is a vital source of income that helps to sustain children and their families.
However, across the world, millions of children do extremely hazardous work in harmful conditions, putting their health, education, personal and social development, and even their lives at risk. These are some of the circumstances they face:
- Full-time work at a very early age
- Dangerous workplaces
- Excessive working hours Subjection to psychological, verbal, physical and sexual abuse
- Obliged to work by circumstances or individuals
- Limited or no pay
- Work and life on the streets in bad conditions
- Inability to escape from the poverty cycle - no access to education
How big is the problem?
- The International Labour Organization estimates there are 215 million child labourers aged between five and 17 year old (ILO, 2010)
- Just over half of these children, 115 million are estimated to work in the worst forms of child labour (ILO, 2010)
- 53 million children under 15 year old are in hazardous work and should be "immediately withdrawn from this work" (2010)
- 8.4 million children are in slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities (ILO, 2002)
- Girls are particularly in demand for domestic work
- Around 70 per cent of child workers carry out unpaid work for their families
Trafficking involves transporting people away from the communities in which they live, by the threat or use of violence, deception, or coercion so they can be exploited as forced or enslaved workers for sex or labour. When children are trafficked, no violence, deception or coercion needs to be involved, it is merely the act of transporting them into exploitative work which constitutes trafficking.
Increasingly, children are also bought and sold within and across national borders. They are trafficked for sexual exploitation, for begging, and for work on construction sites, plantations and into domestic work. The vulnerability of these children is even greater when they arrive in another country. Often they do not have contact with their families and are at the mercy of their employers.
why do children work?
Most children work because their families are poor and their labour is necessary for their survival. Discrimination on grounds including gender, race or religion also plays its part in why some children work.
Children are often employed and exploited because, compared to adults, they are more vulnerable, cheaper to hire and are less likely to demand higher wages or better working conditions. Some employers falsely argue that children are particularly suited to certain types of work because of their small size and "nimble fingers".
For many children, school is not an option. Education can be expensive and some parents feel that what their children will learn is irrelevant to the realities of their everyday lives and futures. In many cases, school is also physically inaccessible or lessons are not taught in the child's mother tongue, or both.
As well as being a result of poverty, child labour also perpetuates poverty. Many working children do not have the opportunity to go to school and often grow up to be unskilled adults trapped in poorly paid jobs, and in turn will look to their own children to supplement the family's income.
Where do children work?
- On the land
- In households -- as domestic workers
- In factories -- making products such as matches, fireworks and glassware
- On the street -- as beggars
- Outdoor industry: brick kilns, mines, construction
- In bars, restaurants and tourist establishments
- In sexual exploitation
- As soldiers
The majority of working children are in agriculture -- an estimated 70 per cent. Child domestic work in the houses of others is thought to be the single largest employer of girls worldwide.
Export industries account for only an estimated five per cent of child labour. To see what you can do to help see our Fair Trade, Slave Trade leaflet.
Case Studies from around the world
Ahmed -- United Arab Emirates
When Ahmed* was five years old he was trafficked from Bangladesh to the United Arab Emirates to be a camel jockey. He was forced to train and race camels in Dubai for three years.
"I was scared .... If I made a mistake I was beaten with a stick. When I said I wanted to go home I was told I never would. I didn't enjoy camel racing, I was really afraid. I fell off many times. When I won prizes several times, such as money and a car, the camel owner took everything. I never got anything, no money, nothing; my family also got nothing."
Ahmed was only returned home after a Bangladesh official identified him during a visit to Dubai in November 2002. Our local partner Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association provided him with the specialist support and help he needed to resume his life with his family.
What do children want -- child domestic workers speak out
From May to October 2004, Anti-Slavery International and its local partners undertook consultations with more than 450 current and former child domestic workers in nine countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Consultations took place in Benin, Costa Rica, India, Nepal, Peru, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Togo reflecting the reality of child domestic labour in many countries. The majority of those who participated were female -- but more than 100 boys also took part.
Cutting across cultural and language divides, the child domestic workers who were consulted had some clear messages about the best kinds of assistance to protect them from the daily abuse and exploitation that many of them endure. Their common appeal for those who seek to help them are:
- To provide opportunities for education and training which allow them to move on from domestic work;
- To assist them in seeking redress from abusive and/or exploitative employers;
- Not to alienate employers, but to make them part of the solution to their problems;
- To provide more services which cater specifically to the needs of child domestic workers (since their needs are often quite different from those of other child workers);
- To develop longer-term interventions, i.e. not to develop services for them and then pull-out after just one or two years;
- To develop interventions which take into consideration some of the issues which most affect child domestic workers, for example, early pregnancy and the effect of HIV/AIDS;
- More awareness raising about their situation, and to ensure that this awareness raising goes hand-in-hand with concrete services for child domestic workers;
Assistance in accessing government and state infrastructure that can help them; for example, in obtaining birth certificates, enrolling in school, in accessing health care, in locating families and returning home.
Perhaps the strongest message to emerge from the consultations was the importance of those providing assistance to talk to the children themselves about what they need. The work of Anti-Slavery International's partners in this area has shown that the most effective interventions are those which systematically involve child domestic workers themselves in the planning and implementation of their projects and programmes.
There are about 300,000 child soldiers involved in over 30 areas of conflict worldwide, some even younger than 10 years old. Child soldiers fight on the front line, and also work in support roles; girls are often obliged to be sex slaves or "soldiers' wives". Children involved in conflict are severely affected by their experiences and can suffer from long-term trauma. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict entered into force on 12 February 2002, which encourages governments to raise the age of voluntary recruitment into the armed forces and explicitly states that no person under the age of 18 should be sent into battle.
The United Kingdom, which has the lowest minimum recruitment age in Europe at 16, ratified the Optional Protocol on 24 June 2003. The Government, however, added a declaration to reserve the right to send under-18s into hostilities "if there is a genuine military need" or "due to the nature or urgency of the situation". This clause is in direct conflict with the spirit of the Protocol, which urges that states "take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years old do not take a direct part in hostilities".
International law forms the basis of our work against the worst forms of child labour. The Conventions of the International Labour Organization, the 1926 and 1956 Slavery Conventions and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are the major tools we use.
Article 32 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989):
"State Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.”
Convention 182 of the International Labour Organization (1999):
The main aim of Convention 182 is to eliminate the worst forms of child labour. It stresses that immediate action is needed to tackle the worst exploitation of children, and that measures taken by the authorities should start as soon as the government is able following ratification. The main provisions of the convention are to clarify which situations should be classified as the worst forms of child labour, and to specify what governments must do to prohibit and eliminate them. A copy of the full text of Convention 182 can be found on the ILO website
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our publicationsSee PDF download page for reports
Child labour in Yemen -- a 2 minute film. At least 15,000 children, many under the age of 12, work in dangerous or abusive conditions in Yemen, an IRIN report.