ILO Global Report on Child Labour cites "alarming" extent of its worst forms

GENEVA (ILO News) - Ten years after launching a worldwide campaign against child labour, the International Labour Office (ILO) today issued a landmark global study showing that despite "significant progress" in efforts to abolish child labour, an alarming number of children are trapped in its worst forms.

Press release | 06 May 2002

GENEVA (ILO News) - Ten years after launching a worldwide campaign against child labour, the International Labour Office (ILO) today issued a landmark global study showing that despite "significant progress" in efforts to abolish child labour, an alarming number of children are trapped in its worst forms.

"Despite the increasing commitment by governments and their partners to tackle child labour worldwide, it remains a problem on a massive scale," said Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO. "While there has been significant progress towards the effective abolition of child labour, the international community still faces a major uphill struggle against this stubbornly pervasive form of work that takes a tragic toll on millions of children around the world."

" A Future Without Child Labour" 1 , the ILO's most comprehensive study on the subject, notes that there has been a worldwide response to calls for abolishing child labour, especially in its worst forms, through direct action at the local, national and international levels.

The report found that 246 million children - one in every six children aged 5 to 17 - are involved in child labour. Among its startling new findings, the report also says that one in every eight children in the world - some 179 million children aged 5-17 - is still exposed to the worst forms of child labour which endanger the child's physical, mental or moral well-being.

The report also says that of these children:

  • About 111 million in hazardous work who are under 15 and should be "immediately withdrawn from this work".
  • An additional 59 million youths aged 15-17 should receive urgent and immediate protection from hazards at work, or also be withdrawn from such work.
  • Some 8.4 million children are caught in "unconditional" worst forms of child labour including slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour, forced recruitment for armed conflict, prostitution, pornography and other illicit activities.

Child labour continues to be a global phenomenon - no country or region is immune, the report says. A wide range of crises - including natural disasters, sharp economic downturns, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and armed conflicts - increasingly draws the young into debilitating child labour, including illegal and clandestine forms such as prostitution, drug trafficking, pornography and other illicit activities.

The shape of the problem

The figures in the new report differ from the previously accepted estimate of some 250 million working children aged 5-14 in developing countries - the best estimate possible in 1996. The report notes that the latest methods to gather data provide a more precise picture of the problem of child labour, its distribution among regions and between age groups, and therefore provide figures that are not open to simple comparison with the original estimate.

The report describes child labour at the start of the 21 st century as "endlessly varied and infinitely volatile". Drawing on recent survey data, it says an estimated 352 million children aged 5 to 17 are currently engaged in economic activity of some kind.

Of these, some 106 million are engaged in types of work acceptable for children who have reached the minimum age for employment (usually 15 years) or in light work such as household chores or work undertaken as part of a child's education (see ILO Minimum Age Convention No. 138 adopted in 1973).

The remaining 246 million children are involved in child labour which the ILO says should be abolished. These forms include:

  • Work performed by a child under the minimum age specified for a particular kind of work by national legislation or international standards;
  • Hazardous work that jeopardizes the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or the conditions in which it is performed; and,
  • "Unconditional" worst forms of child labour as defined in the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, No. 182. 2

In terms of geographical distribution, the Asia-Pacific region harbours the largest absolute number of working children between the ages of 5 and 14, with some 127 million or 60 per cent of the world total. Sub-Saharan Africa is second with 48 million, or 23 per cent of the total, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean with 17.4 million or 8 per cent, and Middle East and North Africa with 13.4 million or 6 per cent.

The report says about 2.5 million, or 1 per cent of the world's child labourers, are in the industrialized countries, while another 2.4 million are found in transition economies.

Surveys in developing countries indicate that the vast majority (70 per cent) of children who work are engaged in such primary sectors as agriculture, fishing, hunting and forestry. Some 8 per cent are involved in manufacturing and wholesale and retail trade, restaurants and hotels; 7 per cent in domestic work and services; 4 per cent in transport, storage and communication; and 3 per cent in construction, mining and quarrying.

Child labour often assumes serious proportions in commercial agriculture associated with global markets for cocoa, coffee, cotton, rubber, sisal, tea and other commodities. Studies in Brazil, Kenya and Mexico have shown that children under 15 make up between 25 and 30 per cent of the total labour force in the production of various commodities. The report notes that "in many developed countries, agriculture is also the sector in which most children work" and that "family farms are a common exemption from minimum age legislation".

The informal economy, in which workers are not recognized or protected under the legal and regulatory frameworks of the labour market, is where by far the most child labourers are found.

According to the ILO analysis: "The preponderance of child labour in the informal economy, beyond the reach of most formal institutions in countries at all levels of income, represents one of the principal challenges to its effective abolition."

Some work, such as mining and deep-sea fishing, is obviously dangerous, while other work, which at first sight may appear harmless, may be similarly hazardous especially for young, undernourished and otherwise vulnerable children.

Causes and solutions

The report lists the many causes of child labour, all of which must be addressed. While poverty is a major factor, there are many other related causes such as economic and political instability, discrimination, migration, criminal exploitation, traditional cultural practices, a lack of decent work for adults, inadequate social protection, a lack of schools and the desire for consumer goods.

On the demand side, factors include a lack of law enforcement, the desire on the part of some employers for a cheap and flexible workforce and the low profitability and productivity of small-scale, family enterprises which cannot afford adult paid labour.

In spite of the difficulty of addressing all these causes, the ILO report insists that "the campaign for universal ratification of Convention No. 182 has given the general fight against child labour a new urgency and scope, by focusing world attention on its worst forms". Since its unanimous adoption by the International Labour Conference in 1999, Convention No. 182 has been ratified by nearly 120 of the ILO's 175 member States. In addition, the ILO Minimum Age Convention No. 138, adopted in 1973, has been ratified by 116 member States as of 25 April.

"The world is increasingly aware of child labour and demanding action to stop it," Mr. Somavia said. "A majority of governments across the world now acknowledge the existence of the problem - on greater or smaller scales and in different forms. Many have already set out to measure and understand it, and are taking action against it."

The report will be discussed at the ILO's 90 th International Labour Conference held on June 12 in Geneva by the organization's tripartite partners. On that day, the ILO is also launching an International Day Against Child Labour. The purpose of this initiative is to strengthen the international momentum created in recent years to stop child labour, especially in its worst forms, to reflect on the progress made so far and to pursue fresh efforts to achieve a future without child labour.

National and regional programmes have flourished under the ILO International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour, which began with six participating countries in 1992 with a single donor government (Germany) and has expanded to include operations in 75 countries funded by 26 donors. In 2001, the ILO launched its first Time-Bound Programmes aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labour in specific countries within 5 to 10 years. The first programmes are aimed at helping some 100,000 children in El Salvador, Nepal and Tanzania.

The report says partnerships between governments, employers' and workers' organizations, with other civil society organizations, and with the support of the international community, mean that real progress is being made in getting children out of work that is damaging them and into school, in supporting them and their families to develop better, more secure livelihoods and in preventing other children from being drawn into child labour.

"This foundation must be built upon, expanded and sustained," Mr. Somavia said. "The effective abolition of child labour is one of the most urgent challenges of our time and should be a universal goal."

1 "A Future Without Child Labour, Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work", International Labour Conference, 90 th Session, 2002, Report I (B). International Labour Office, Geneva. ISBN 92-2-112416-9. Price: 20 Swiss Francs. The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work was adopted by the International Labour Conference in 1998. It reaffirms the commitment of all ILO member States to respect, promote and realize the rights of workers and employers to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and to be free from forced or compulsory labour, child labour and discrimination.

2 See Art. 3 (a) to (c), ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention No. 182 (1999).