Child Labour Persists Around the World: More Than 13 Percent of Children 10-14 are Employed


Press release | 10 June 1996


GENEVA (ILO News) - The number of child workers around the world remains extremely high with 73 million children from 10-14 years old now employed worldwide, more than 13 percent of all children in this age group, the International Labour Organization (ILO) announced today in Geneva.

These figures only tell part of the story, warns the ILO. No one really knows how many children under 10 are working and no statistics are available on the number of girls engaged full-time in domestic work. If all were taken into account, the total number of child workers around the world today might well be in the hundreds of million.

"Today's child worker will be tomorrow's uneducated and untrained adult, forever trapped in grinding poverty. No effort should be spared to break that vicious circle", says ILO Director-General Michel Hansenne.

Labour ministers from the ILO's 173 member States will gather in Geneva on 12 June to discuss ways to accelerate efforts to eliminate child labour, particularly and as a matter of priority in its most damaging and abusive forms, including forced or slave labour, work with toxic substances and child prostitution.

Child labour has been increasing steadily in the towns and cities of developing countries as a result of the rapid global urbanization. Urban working children are found mainly in trade and services and to a lesser extent in the manufacturing sector.

In manufacturing industries, children are most likely to be employed "when their labour is less expensive or less troublesome than that of adults, when other labour is scarce, and when they are considered irreplaceable by reason of their size or perceived dexterity," says an ILO report prepared for the ministerial meeting. Endnote1

Despite this growing urbanization of developing countries, nine out of 10 employed children globally are engaged in agriculture or related activities, living in rural areas.

Available statistics suggest that more boys than girls work. Globally, the ILO estimates that nearly 41 million boys aged 10-14 are working, compared to 32.5 million girls.

"However, the number of working girls is often underestimated by statistical surveys, as they usually do not take into account full-time housework performed by many children, the vast majority of whom are girls, in order to enable their parents to go to work," the ILO says.

Girls, moreover, tend to work longer hours, on average, than do boys. "This is especially true for the many girls employed in other types of jobs who, in addition to their professional activity, must help with the housework in their parents' home," the ILO report says.

Among the countries with a high percentage of their children from 10-14 years in the work force are: Mali, 54.5 percent; Burkina Faso, 51; Niger and Uganda, both 45; Kenya, 41.3; Senegal, 31.4; Bangladesh, 30.1; Nigeria, 25.8; Haiti, 25; Turkey, 24; Côte d'Ivoire, 20.5; Pakistan, 17.7; Brazil, 16.1; India, 14.4; China, 11.6; and Egypt, 11.2.

The greatest numbers of child labourers are in Asia, with 44.6 million children employed, or 13 percent in the 10-14 age group; Africa has the highest percentage of those employed in this age group, at 26.3 percent, or 23.6 million workers. In Latin America, 5.1 million children aged 10-14 are employed, or 9.8 percent of the age group.

Child labour also exists in richer industrialized countries, though generally in much smaller percentages than in developing nations.

In southern Europe, significant numbers of children are working for pay, in particular in seasonal activities, street trades, small workshops or in a home setting, the ILO report says.

The extent of child labour appears to be growing in Africa and Latin America, and to a lesser extent, Central and Eastern Europe and the United States, the ILO says. The percentage of child labourers appears to be falling in Asia, especially in Southeast Asia.

The ILO report finds that child labour is especially prevalent in Central and Eastern Europe because of economic difficulties connected with the transition from a centrally planned to a market economy.

"The same is true of the United States, where the growth of the service sector, the rapid increase in the supply of part-time jobs and the search for a more flexible workforce have contributed to the expansion of the child labour market," the ILO report says.

Experimental statistical surveys carried out by the ILO in Ghana, India, Indonesia and Senegal have shown that the economic activities of more than 75 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 takes place in a family enterprise setting.

In Latin America, the numbers of children working for wages are substantial, but elsewhere, "children employed as wage-earners usually account for a relatively small percentage of total child labour."

One of the factors affecting the supply of child labour is the high cost, in real terms, of obtaining an education - many children work to cover the costs of school expenses.

Threats to Health

Many working children face significant threats to their health and safety, the ILO says. The majority of working children are involved in farming, during which they are routinely exposed to harsh climate, sharpened tools, heavy loads, and increasingly, toxic chemicals and motorized equipment.

Others, particularly girls working as domestic servants away from their homes, are frequently victims of physical, mental and sexual abuses that can have devastating consequences on their health, the ILO says.

"Prostitution is another type of activity in which children, especially girls, are increasingly found," the report says. "The AIDS epidemic is a contributing factor to this trend, as adults see the use of children for sexual purposes as the best means of preventing infection. The laissez-faire attitude of the authorities in charge of national and international tourism is also largely responsible for the current situation."

Child Slavery

The ILO report also warns that child slavery remains an "extremely serious problem" that is part of the overall exploitation of child labour.

"A large number of child slaves are to found in agriculture, domestic help, the sex industry, the carpet and textile industries, quarrying and brick making," ILO says.

"Available information points to the existence of traditional forms of child slavery in South Asia and sub-Saharan East Africa," the report adds. "Instances have also been found in two Latin American countries."

The ILO says that child slavery predominates where social systems exist based on the exploitation of poverty, such as debt bondage, where a family has to sell a child to pay a debt incurred over a social or religious obligation, or simply to get money to enable a family to survive.

The report finds that contemporary forms of child slavery appear to be evolving into forms "either by a link being established between an adult's work contract and the availability of a child, or by the exchange of a child for a sum of money that often described as an advance on wages."

In-Depth Surveys of Child Labour in Four Countries

In order to find out more about the real extent of child labour, the ILO Bureau of Statistics provided technical assistance to four developing countries - Ghana, India, Indonesia and Senegal - to enable local statisticians to carry out in-depth experimental surveys in a sample of 4,000 to 5,000 households and some 200 enterprises in each country.

The data collected is to be used for in-depth studies on the nature and extent of child labour in order to be able to monitor its level and trends, to raise worldwide public awareness on the magnitude of the problem, and to promote the campaign against

child labour at the individual country level.

According to the results of the survey, an average of 25 percent of children aged between 5 and 14 in the four countries engaged in economic activity during the time of the survey. For a third of them, this work had been their principal activity, while it was a secondary activity for the remaining two-thirds.

Reasons for Child Labour

The results of the surveys indicate that working children were considered essential as contributors to the household economies in all four of the surveyed countries, either in the form of work for wages or in the form of help in household enterprises.

In most of the businesses surveyed in Ghana, for example, the employed children were either those of the owner or were close relatives. The two main reason why enterprises employed child labour were the "willingness" of children to work as many hours as required, and the absence of labour disputes.

In India, the principal reason cited by children of why they began to work was "the suggestion of parents." Most parents said the main reason was that their working children contributed at least 20 percent of household income, followed by "help in the household enterprise."

In Indonesia, more than 25 percent of parents stated that obtaining additional income was the reason for allowing children to work, and one-third felt that their household income would decline if their children stopped working. Most parents said their working children contributed at least 20 percent of household income.

In Senegal, most children working in enterprises were apprentices, with most of them having dropped out of school. In fact, failure at school was found to be one of the reasons that pushed them to become apprentices. Employers expressed a need for assistance as the main reason for hiring children, saying they prefer to recruit children around the age of 10, believing that they learn and adapt more easily than do older children. Employers feel that they participate just as much in the training of human capital as does formal schooling.

For the most part, the determining factors leading to child labour are related to poverty, lack of schooling and illiteracy, the survey finds. Other factors have to do with the age and sex of the children, and factors relating to the heads-of-households.

What the ILO Is Doing

The ILO has been campaigning to end child labour since the organization was founded in 1919.

"The ILO doctrine is clear: labour carried out by children of 15 years or younger under conditions which stifle their physical, psychological and intellectual development must be eliminated", says Mr Hansenne.

Today, the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138) is the ILO's main instrument on child labour. Unlike previous conventions, it applies to all sectors of economic activity.

To date, 49 nations have ratified Conventions No. 138. They committed themselves to pursuing a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour and to raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work, to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons.

Another 84 countries are bound by other conventions they ratified dealing with child labour, which means that a total of 133 out of 173 ILO member States have ratified at least one of the 11 ILO Conventions applicable to children.

A new Convention on child labour, focusing on the most hazardous and exploitative forms of such labour, is slated to be discussed and considered for adoption in 1998 and 1999.

The ILO's ongoing offensive against child labour includes a technical cooperation programme designed to help countries build up a permanent capacity to address the problem. Launched in 1992, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) fosters the development of an effective partnership between government services, employers' organizations, trade unions, non-governmental organizations and other interested parties including universities and members of the media.

IPEC activities are targeted, in the first instance, on three priority groups:

- children working under forced labour conditions and in bondage;

- children in hazardous working conditions and occupations;

- very young working children (under 12 years of age).

Within these groups, IPEC pays special attention to working girls because of their particular vulnerability to exploitation and abuse.

ILO-IPEC is now operational on three continents and 22 countries Endnote2. The programme is expected to expand further in the near future in Africa, Asia and in the Arab world.


Child Labour: What is to be done? Document for discussion at the Informal Tripartite Meeting at the Ministerial Level, Geneva, 12 June 1996. International Labour Office, Geneva, 1996.


Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Nepal, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, the Philippines, Peru, Thailand, Turkey, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Venezuela.

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