What Is Child Labour? Definition, and What to Look Out For

Child labour is defined as work that harms or exploits children, and it's a lot more common than you might think. While progress has been made around the world in the fight against child labour, there's still a long way to go.

Author Rima Hanano:

Translation Julian Furtkamp, 08.22.23

There is no universally accepted definition of child labour. Varying definitions of the term are used by international organisations, non-governmental organisations, trade unions and other interest groups. There are also varying opinions about who exactly counts as a child. While international conventions define children as people aged 18 and under, individual governments — and indeed, different cultures — may define “children” according to different ages or other criteria.

Therefore, to avoid confusion, when writing or speaking about “child labour”, it is best to clarify exactly what is meant. According to the ILO (International Labour Organization), child labour is work carried out by children under the age of 18 that in any way exploits them, causes them mental, physical or social harm, or places them in mortal danger. It is work that interferes or blocks their access to education and “deprives them of their childhood, their potential and their dignity”.

How many child labourers are there in the world?

According to UNICEF data from 2023,

“In the world’s poorest countries, slightly more than 1 in 5 children are engaged in child labour.”

Global numbers of child labourers are put at 160 million children, 63 million girls and 97 million boys, from the most recent (2020) study published by the UNICEF’s International Labour Organization (ILO), a shocking number which has actually risen from 2016.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 23.9 percent of children aged 5-17 work, compared to around 5.6 percent in Asia Pacific and 6 percent in the Americas. Moreover, approximately 79 million of these children are engaging in ‘hazardous’ work “that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development”.

What do child labourers do?

most children in child labour are not in an employment relationship with a third-party employer. Instead, they work on family farms and in family businesses. According to the ILO, more than 70 percent of all child labourers work within their family unit. The agricultural sector accounts for the largest share of child labour worldwide, however other industries that frequently rely on child labour include manufacturing, mining, quarrying, construction, domestic service and general service such as in retail, restaurants and hotels.

It is generally thought that boys become involved in child labour more often than girls, although exact figures on this can be difficult to estimate, with girls much more likely than boys to shoulder responsibility for household chores, a form of work not considered in the child labour estimates.

What are some myths and misunderstandings about child labour?

There are, sadly, still many misconceptions about what child labour is. Some of these include:

1. Child labour is only a problem in low-income countries

In fact, child labour — including hazardous forms of work — can be found in many countries. In the US, for example, underage workers are often employed in agriculture, with a high proportion of them coming from either immigrant or ethnic-minority families. Working on farms, they are exposed to extreme heat, sharp tools and heavy machinery as well as toxic pesticides.

2. Child labour will disappear when poverty disappears

Eradicating poverty is the very first of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and because child labour is so often a result of situations of extreme poverty which force parents to employ their children in order to earn extra money, achieving that goal would surely have an impact on the issue of child labour. However, the complexity of the issue requires a multi-level approach and child labour can and must be eliminated independently of poverty reduction.

3. Most child labourers work in sweatshops

Images of products made by children in sweatshops to be sold cheaply to rich customers in the Global North is a compelling symbol for child labour, but in fact only a small proportion of all child workers are thought to be employed in export industries. According to UNICEF, most of the world’s child labourers are “actually found in the informal sector — selling on the street, at work in agriculture or hidden away in houses — far from the reach of official labour inspectors and from media scrutiny.”

4. Boycotting brands is the only way to stop child labour

Boycotting certain brands and products is one important aspect of tackling child labour, but doing so will only affect export sectors, which are relatively small exploiters of child labour. UNICEF suggests a more comprehensive strategy against child labour: an integrated approach by governments, international organizations, civil society, the private sector and children, that involves providing access to basic services, strengthening national child protection systems and promoting social change.

What causes child labour today?

Poverty is widely considered the main reason that children work in jobs that are exploitative and inappropriate for their age. But there are other reasons as well, including:

  • Family expectations and traditions
  • Limited access to compulsory, accessible education and daycare
  • Public opinion that downplays the risk of early work for children
  • Employers that do not uphold workers’ and children’s rights
  • Limited opportunities for women in society
  • Irregular monitoring and weak enforcement of relevant laws
  • Local laws that include a lot of exemptions
  • Globalisation and an emphasis on low labour costs in order to supply consumers who demand low-cost products

“The parents of child labourers are often unemployed or underemployed, desperate for secure employment and income. Yet it is their children, more powerless and paid less, who are offered the jobs.” What this report is suggesting is that children in paid employment are put there because they are easier to exploit and are cheap labourers. These are the words of UNICEF in their important 1997 “Roots of Child Labour” report.

Child worker, Madagascar

What are some solutions to the problem of child labour?

Many children in hazardous and dangerous jobs are in danger of injury or even death. Between 2000 and the year 2020, the vast majority of new workers, citizens and new consumers — whose skills and needs will build the world’s economy and society — will come from developing countries. Over that 20-year period, some 730 million people have joined the world’s workforce — more than all the people employed in the most developed nations in 2000. More than 90 percent of these new workers will be from developing nations, according to research by Population Action International.

In order to fairly and adequately meet the needs of this growing workforce and not rely on child labour, a few things must be prioritised, namely:

  • Increased family incomes
  • Education — that helps children learn skills that will help them earn a living
  • Social services — that help children and families survive crises, such as disease, or loss of home and shelter
  • Family control of fertility — so that families are not burdened by children that they cannot afford to care for

But real change requires a collaborative effort and a shared belief that it is “preventable, not inevitable”.  The responsibility falls equally on the shoulders of governments, businesses and individual consumers.

On a corporate level, companies have a duty to stop child labour. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principle on Business and Human Rights have agreed upon international treaties and guidelines to pressure businesses to do all they can to eliminate child labour from their supply chains.

On the individual level, you can work towards a better awareness of where your products come from, and try to adopt more conscious consumption. For example, you can use the aVOID plug-in to ensure your online shopping is fair and sweatshop-free.

Author: Julian Furtkamp / RESET Editorial (February 2010)

Last updated: Lana O’Sullivan (September 2023)

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