Child Labour Guide

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Human Rights

Child Labour guide


Background & Objectives

Consumers in developed countries are appalled to think that their clothes or household goods might be the products of child labour. Strong international treaties are in place to outlaw the practice. But deep-set cultural traditions and impoverished economies do not respond readily to moral lectures from afar. Resistant to all but the most comprehensive development strategies, child labour shows little sign of becoming history.

Facts and Trends 

 In 2008 there were 215 million children working illegally in the eyes of international law, almost 14% of all the world’s children under 18. In sub-Saharan Africa, this proportion rises to 25%. Countries with a particularly high incidence of child labour include Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Yemen.


 The global total includes 115 million children under 18 engaged in hazardous work, such as handling chemicals, carrying heavy loads, mining, quarrying or enduring long hours. Young labourers are especially vulnerable to the health and safety risks involved, absorbing toxic material into their bloodstream more rapidly than adults and requiring more sleep.

The remaining 100 million child labourers are those aged under 15 - the international minimum age for legal employment – whose tasks are not hazardous but which might impair schooling, health or personal development.

Almost 70% of child labour is unpaid work within extended family networks. Most occurs in developing countries, with about 60% of child workers engaged in agriculture and fisheries. Other occupations include domestic service, factory production and backstreet workshops.

 The most distressing category of child labour relates to those children caught up in criminal activities such as prostitution, military enrolment, slavery (such as bonded labour), or trafficking (which involves the removal of a child from its home, often involving deception and payment, for a wide range of exploitative purposes).

These categories are beyond the reach of statistical surveys but the numbers are likely to be over 10 million. Together with hazardous work, they are described as the "worst forms of child labour."

 The decline of only 6% in the global incidence of child labour in the four-year reporting period to 2008 is inconclusive and disappointing. Figures were gender-sensitive for the first time, recording that child labour amongst girls fell by 15% over the four years. The most worrying trend was a 20% rise in hazardous work amongst the 15-17 age group.

This child labour data was based on national surveys conducted over the period 2005-2008. The impact of recent years of economic instability and rising food prices on poor households is therefore not yet reflected in the figures.

Causes of Child Labour

 Poverty is the main cause of child labour. Poor parents send their children to work, not out of choice, but for reasons of economic expediency. The hunting grounds for child traffickers are invariably areas of the most extreme poverty where families have exhausted all other strategies for survival.

child labour

child labour

Poverty is also a symptom of child labour. Denial of education blocks the escape route from poverty for the next generation of the household.

Other factors may provoke this cycle; for example, schools in poor countries are often inaccessible or prohibitively expensive, with inadequate teaching and classroom resources.

Many agricultural economies involve seasonal migration for whole families, to the detriment of schooling and inevitable employment of children. Cultural pressures too can undermine perception of the long term value of education, especially for girl children.

Economic setbacks arising from high inflation, climate disaster, conflict or family bereavement will therefore regenerate the supply side of the child labour equation.

This supply of child labour is matched by the demand of unscrupulous employers for a cheap and flexible workforce. This attribute appeals especially to small-scale enterprises, including those whose owners exploit their own family members.

There is perceived value in the particular skills that children’s dexterity can offer; for example in carpet weaving or in tasks involving crop seeds. Girl children are in demand for domestic service, the invisible nature of which adds to their vulnerability.

Extreme family poverty and the lack of free education drives young children on to the streets of Karachi to work as best they can, from Al Jazeera English.

Child Labour Laws

Global political initiatives to combat child labour are undertaken by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Technical support for governments and the production of internationally recognised statistics are provided by the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).


The ILO has sponsored the two key instruments of international law. First, the 1973 Minimum Age Convention 138 establishes the obligation for countries to work towards a minimum age of 15 for legal employment. Secondly, the 1999 Convention 182 for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour calls on governments to quantify the incidence of such child labour and to introduce laws and policies for its elimination.

The ILO aims to achieve the goal of Convention 182 by 2016, backed by its ten-year Global Action Plan drawn up in 2006. Unfortunately, the nine states yet to ratify the Convention as at the beginning of 2012 included India and Burma, countries with high incidence of the worst forms of child labour.

Furthermore, many countries which have ratified the Convention are neglecting their obligations. A major review published by the ILO in 2010 says that “the pace of progress is not fast enough to achieve the 2016 target."

Although almost every country has laws prohibiting the employment of children below a certain age, legislation is difficult to draft and too often proves ineffective. Laws relating to domestic work and farm labour are especially problematic as these activities are so tightly bound within the family unit.

 Extra-territorial laws which attempt to overcome the weakness of Convention 182 on the special vulnerability of girl children have had greater success. Nationals from many European countries and the US can now be charged at home for engaging a child prostitute in countries such as Thailand.

 Furthermore, the rights of child domestic workers – who may contribute as much as 30% of global domestic labour - have been addressed in a new ILO treaty approved in 2011. The Domestic Workers Convention has special provisions requiring governments to amend any laws that exclude domestic work from requirements on minimum age for employment or engagement in hazardous work.

Development Solutions

 5A rights-based approach to child labour, relying on laws and their enforcement, is a necessary but insufficient solution to child labour. Laws will rarely ease the tension between child rights and household economic imperatives. Broader human development interventions relevant to the underlying causes must play a role.

 The fight against child labour therefore shares common ground with poverty reduction programmes, and would benefit from greater recognition by them.

 The connection is most apparent in the strategy of “conditional cash transfers” (CCT), payments to poor households made on condition that children attend school and health clinics. The success of Brazil in greatly reducing the incidence of child labour is in part attributed to Bolsa Familia, recognised as the world’s largest CCT programme.

 Progress towards "education for all" is the development indicator most closely linked with child labour. Every full-time student is one less potential full-time child worker. There is correlation between those countries lagging behind education targets and those in which child labour thrives, such as Pakistan and Nepal.

 Unfortunately, the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for primary school enrolment aims for a total of only five years of education, far less demanding than implied by the Minimum Age Convention.

 The integration of child labour concerns into national development strategies, backed by efConsumer Campaigns

Failure to deal with child labour is an emotive issue in rich countries. Consumers are sensitive to the track record of globalisation in driving labour costs and standards to the bottom.

Disclosure of the use of child labour in a supply chain represents a major public relations disaster for both multinational companies and the host countries concerned.

This is reflected in the decision by the risk analysis firm, Maplecroft, to publish an annual Child Labour Index to alert businesses relying on trade for their inputs. The 2011 Index classified as many as 68 countries as posing “extreme risk”. China, the world’s largest exporter of consumer goods, is ranked as the 13th most risky country.

6The 2010 World Cup re-awakened old controversies over the role of children in sewing soccer balls. Although doubts linger, the long-established partnership between ILO, the world football authority - FIFA, and factory owners in the region of Sialkot in Pakistan is generally regarded as a success.

However, wider attempts to develop a certification label to reassure consumers that goods are “child labour free” have struggled to establish credibility.

Manufacturers in developing countries often subcontract labour-intensive segments of the product to backstreet producers which are very difficult to trace. And there is confusing overlap with standards that are equally important for adult workers.

One example of a certification scheme is the GoodWeave label. Its backers claim that more than half a million carpet-weaving jobs previously occupied by children in South Asia have been replaced with adult labour.

Trouble Spots

Failure to implement laws or to certify goods is often apparent in regions which are particularly dependent on the economic value of child labour. Three examples are Uzbekistan, Malawi and West Africa.

Uzbekistan Cotton

Exporting cotton to value exceeding $1 billion per annum, the Uzbekistan government becomes an active agent in child labour by closing schools at harvest time. Over 1.5 million children are put to work in the fields.

 Laws introduced under international pressure have failed to break up this institutionalized abuse of children. Uzbekistan denies the charge but refuses to admit ILO inspectors. Sixty international fashion and textile retailers have pledged to boycott Uzbek cotton until independent monitoring is permitted.

 Malawi Tobacco

Malawi is dependent on the labour-intensive tobacco crop for 70% of its foreign exchange. Up to 80,000 children may be exposed to nicotine-related illnesses from handling the plants. Here too legislation for a minimum working age has made little difference.

In the absence of sustained consumer pressure, the major international tobacco corporations such as BAT and Philip Morris appear unwilling to intervene.

West Africa Cocoa

Almost 300,000 children are believed to perform hazardous work on the cocoa farms of Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, many of them trafficked from Mali and Burkina Faso in conditions of bonded labour.

As long ago as 2001, US Senators Harkin and Engel drew up an agreed programme to certify chocolate products but the deadlines have been missed repeatedly. The latest commitment by the chocolate industry is to reduce the numbers of children involved in dangerous work by 70% by 2020, an objective which falls short of the ILO goal to eliminate hazardous work by 2016.

Child Soldiers

 7The recruitment of children under age 15 for military purposes is a war crime under a statute of the International Criminal Court. The Court has recently completed its first trial in this category - against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a militia leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo. A verdict is expected in early 2012.

This landmark is tempered by the knowledge that children remain vulnerable in countries suffering longstanding civil conflict and in regions of extreme poverty or complete breakdown of central authority. For example, residents of camps for refugees and internally displaced persons such as those in Somalia, Sudan and Chad are particularly at risk.

 The proliferation of lightweight but deadly small arms of sophisticated modern design enables a cheap, acquiescent and expendable army to be conscripted by warlords. A child of ten can be trained to strip down a Kalashnikov.

 Despite the ending of various civil wars in recent years, the UN names over 60 militia groups in 15 countries as suspected of recruitment of child soldiers. The total number of children in military service could be as high as 300,000, including a significant proportion of girls.

 Rape and sexual violence are rampant, especially within groups in The Democratic Republic of Congo and amongst the Lord’s Resistance Army which was formed originally in Northern Uganda. Burma is possibly the home of the greatest number of child soldiers whilst Yemen and Iraq have been named as new areas of concern.

Campaigners are putting pressure on over 50 countries which have so far failed to sign the “Optional Protocols” to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Drawn up in 2000, these Protocols prevent recruitment of children under 18 for hostilities.

They are supported by the 2007 Paris Commitments and Principles, a set of practical guidelines for the process of “disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration” which is particularly sensitive for children, often psychologically disturbed by violence. Unicef estimates that 10,000 child soldiers were rehabilitated in 2010.

The UN's efforts appeared to have been supported in the tough Child Soldiers Prevention Act passed in the US in 2008. The Act prohibits military assistance for countries which turn a blind eye to the engagement of child soldiers.

However, the intent of the Act has already been undermined by controversial waivers approved by President Obama in 2010 and again in 2011. These allow continued US support for Chad, DRC, Sudan, and Yemen.

Massive military support also remains in place for Pakistan and Afghanistan despite horrific revelations in the UN Secretary-General’s 2010 report on Children and Armed Conflict. The UN monitoring team uncovered evidence of the use of children as suicide bombers, claiming to possess “documented and verified cases of Afghan children recruited and trained in Pakistan by armed groups, including the Taliban.” Effective legislation, is therefore the preferred route to a lasting solution.