Child labour

This page introduces you to the issues surrounding child labour. It explains what child labour is, where and why children work and how working can prevent them from going to school and trap them in a cycle of poverty.

What is child labour?

Child labour is a global issue that prevents children from fulfilling their potential. Child labour is a violation of children’s rights – the work can harm them mentally or physically, expose them to hazardous situations or stop them from going to school.

Not all work done by children is classed as child labour. There is not an issue when a child is working to progress their life skills without compromising their health, their well-being or their education. Often older children may do chores for their parents or small jobs to earn pocket money or gain work experience. This work prepares them for their adult working life.

But around the world, millions of children do work in child labour. They work in fields, in factories, down mines, as servants or maids, or selling goods in the street or at markets. Girls are more likely than boys to do domestic work, such as cleaning, making food and serving.

The work that children can be forced to do might also be illegal – such as working with drug gangs or in prostitution. Many children may get no money for the work they do but they will get food and a place to sleep. If they become sick or injured, most children will not get any money for missing work.

All these forms of child labour can prevent a child from going to school and limit their opportunity to fulfil their potential. Many child labourers never go to school or drop out.

Education is a proven strategy for reducing child labour. Lack of access to education keeps the cycle of exploitation, illiteracy and poverty going – limiting future options and forcing children to accept low-wage work as adults and to raise their own children in poverty. Children who have access to education can break the cycle of poverty at the root of child labour.

Child labour is not always illegal

In many countries children working under the age of 18 is illegal – but not in all. Families and employers often hide what they are doing because they worry they will be taken to court or sent to prison for having child labourers.

There are 46 countries who do not have laws to protect children under 18 from doing dangerous work.

How many child labourers are there?

The International Labour Organization said in 2017 that about 152 million children aged from five to 17 – 64 million girls and 88 million girls – are engaged in child labour.

Many of them never go to school or drop out of school because they are required to work to earn a living for their families or have to work to survive themselves. The ILO said 70% work in agriculture, 17% in the services sector and 12% in industry.

About 10 million children are regarded as being trapped in modern slavery.

Why do children work?

Poverty, discrimination and marginalisation are the main drivers of child labour. Children in poor circumstances work because work is seen as the best use of their time in contributing to the needs of the family and preparing them for the life they are expected to lead.

Poverty leads millions of children into paying jobs or – especially for young girls – domestic work that may even be unpaid but removes the burden of feeding and housing the child.

In emergency situations – during or after conflicts or natural disasters – families who have had to flee from their homes often have to use their children to earn money just to pay for food.

What countries have child labourers?

Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan have the highest number of child labourers. They have also been affected for many years by wars and conflicts and have the highest numbers of children not at school.

Years of conflict in Syria has seen a dramatic increase in poverty among Syrian families and forced more children into the labour force, especially as refugees face restrictions to legal work from host country governments.

Child labourers doing hazardous jobs

At least 85 million children do very hazardous work – forced labour, trafficking and bonded labour.

Mining is one of the most dangerous jobs across the world but about one million children work in mines in appalling conditions that can lead to injury or death.

Children also work on building sites and in brick-making factories without proper health and safety rules. Children are at risk from machinery, chemicals, harsh working conditions and lots of other hazards.

Those who are forced to become soldiers or are slaves are treated very badly and suffer terrible physical and mental harm and abuse, as well as sexual exploitation. Child domestic workers are also at risk of sexual abuse and violence.

Child labour in emergencies

The most abusive forms of child labour become more widespread in conflict and emergency situations. Children, especially boys, are abducted and forcefully recruited as child soldiers or domestic servants for militant groups. Girls are forced into sex slavery as “wives” for militants, or pushed into prostitution or transactional sex as a means of survival.

The international labour organisation: A definition of the issue of child labour

World day against child labour: An authoritative explanation on why this day exists