Child labour in South Asia

The South Asian situation

Recent national surveys from seven South Asian countries estimate 30 million children in employment, almost 17 million in child labour and 50 million children out of school. These findings have limitations, key ones being: not all children in employment can be considered as being in child labour; not all forms of child labour are being captured by these statistical surveys; and there are considerable variations in the survey methodologies and scope across the countries.

Within countries, whether or not particular forms of work are regarded as child labour depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of work performed, the conditions under which it is performed and the laws enacted by individual countries. The answer varies from country to country, as well as among sectors within countries. As such, the data is not fully comparable. Nonetheless, in the absence of specific child labour statistics that are consistent across countries, the findings are indicative of the scope and nature of the child labour problem in and across the countries in South Asia.

Key findings are noted:

Child Labour

  • There are 16.7 million (5-17 year old) children in child labour in South Asia, according to conservative estimates, and of these 10.3 million are in the 5-14 year age range. The young, 5-11 year-old children, make up about one-fifth of all child labourers in South Asia.
  • Substantial variation in child labour estimates exists across the South Asian countries. In absolute terms, child labour for the 5-17 years age range is highest in India (5.8 million), followed by Bangladesh (5.0 million), Pakistan (3.4 million) and Nepal (2.0 million).
  • In relative terms, children in Nepal face the highest risk of being in child labour than elsewhere in South Asia, with over one-quarter (26 per cent) of all 5-17 year old engaged in child labour.

Children in Employment

  • Recent national surveys from seven South Asian countries put working children at more than 29 million – a low estimate as it excludes many children in a number of countries and all children in employment in Afghanistan.
  • Involvement in employment increases as children get older, from below 4 per cent for 7 year old in all countries where data are available (with the notable high exception of Bhutan) to variations of over 20 per cent by the time they turn 17 years.
  • A substantial share of employment of 15-17 years old is hazardous in nature – 75 per cent in Bangladesh, 72 per cent in Sri Lanka, 41 per cent in Pakistan, 30 per cent in Nepal, 20 per cent in India and 6 per cent in Bhutan.
  • Family labour accounts for a significant percentage of employment, declining as children get older. A majority of working 7-14 years old in Bhutan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka and 10 -14 years old in Pakistan are engaged in family work.
  • Girls continue to lag behind boys in school attendance in many South Asian countries. In Pakistan, school attendance for 10-17 years old girls is almost 15 per cent below boys of the same age. Four South Asian countries have the highest gender disparities globally. Pakistan (82:100) and Afghanistan (71:100) have high disparities at the expense of girls; Bangladesh (94 boys: 100 girls), Nepal (92:100) have high disparities at the expense of boys.
  • Rural children in most South Asian countries face greater challenges than urban children. In Bhutan and Nepal, 7-17 years old children living in rural areas are more than twice as likely to be employed. In Bhutan, India and Nepal, the school attendance rate for rural children is more than 4 per cent below urban children, and in every country reporting data besides Sri Lanka, rural children are more likely to be inactive – missing in education and employment statistics.
  • Agriculture absorbs the highest percentage of children in employment in every South Asian country.

School and Work

  • Work has a negative effect on the education of the substantial numbers of children who combine school and work.
  • Children in employment are generally less likely to attend school than their non-working peers.
  • Out-of-school children constitute a formidable challenge in the South Asia region. A total of over 24 million in the 7-14 years age group in three countries are out of school: India (12.3 million), in Pakistan (7.3 million) and in Bangladesh (4.5 million).

Missing in Statistics

  • Some 28 million South Asian children, mostly girls, are reported as inactive, neither working nor attending school. Girls are more likely than boys to be inactive, and to be involved in domestic chores or work that is not captured by the survey instruments. This is so, 1.5 times in Bangladesh, 2 times in India, and 3 times in Pakistan.

Source: Measuring Children’s Work in South Asia: Perspectives from national household surveys (ILO and UCW, 2014)

Read more about Child labour in South Asian Countries:
Afghanistan - Bangladesh – Bhutan – India – Maldives – Nepal – Pakistan - Sri Lanka - South Asia (forthcoming)

The Global situation

An estimated 168 million children worldwide are in child labour, accounting for almost 11 per cent of the child population (5-17 years old). More than half of these, about 85 million are in hazardous work, which jeopardises the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or because of the conditions in which it is carried out. The largest number of child labourers is in the Asia and the Pacific region.

Check Facts and Figures for Child Labour globally

Not all work done by children is classified as child labour. Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development nor interferes with their schooling is generally regarded as being something positive. Child labour refers to work undertaken by children below the appropriate legal minimum working age, based on ILO standards on child labour : the ILO Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), as well as child labour defined by the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999, (No. 182).

Read more about the definition of Child Labour

The ILO global report, Marking progress against child labour, shows the global number of child labourers declined by one third between 2000 and 2012, from 246 million to 168 million, with the greatest decline between 2008 and 2012. The Asia and the Pacific region registered the largest decline among 5-17 year-olds for the 2008-2012 period.

International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)

The ILO’s technical cooperation programme focusing on child labour and addressing the issue in the fold of the Decent Work Agenda is the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). Created in 1992, IPEC supports countries to progressively eliminate child labour through strengthened capacities and knowledge. It also promotes a worldwide movement to combat child labour. IPEC currently has operations in 88 countries. In South Asia, IPEC provides technical assistance to ILO constituents and stakeholders through the Decent Work Country Programmes (DWCP) and promotes sharing of experience across countries and regions and inter-agency partnerships to encourage mainstreaming of child labour issues in different regional and national frameworks and initiatives.