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Kyrgyz children working at tobacco fields

Children work because their survival and that of their families depend on it, and in many cases because unscrupulous adults take advantage of their vulnerability. It is also due to inadequacies and weaknesses in national educational systems. It is deeply ingrained in cultural and social attitudes and traditions.

Poverty is certainly the greatest single force driving children into the workplace. Income from a child's work is felt to be crucial for his/her own survival or for that of the household.

Popular perceptions and local customs and traditions (even when they are well-intended) also play an important part, such as:

  • The view that work is good for the character-building and skill development of children;
  • The tradition that children are expected to follow in their parents' footsteps in a particular trade, and to learn and practice that trade at a very early age;
  • Traditions that push poor families into indebting themselves heavily for social occasions or religious events, then relying on their children's work to pay off the debt. The phenomenon of bonded labour, recognized as one of the worst forms of child labour, is still widespread largely because of the vulnerability of poor families to such pressures;
  • The widely held view that girl children are less in need of education than boys, which leads to them being taken out of school at an early age and placed in work at home, or sold into domestic employment or sex work.
  • Child labour may be so deeply ingrained in local customs and habits that neither the parents nor the children themselves realize that it is against the interests of children and illegal;
  • Children from large families are more likely to be at work than those from small families, simply because the parents' income is quite insufficient to support a large family.

The availability and quality of schooling is among the most important factors:

  • many communities do not possess adequate school facilities;
  • even where schools exist the education provided is often not perceived by children or their parents to be a viable alternative to work. For many families, schooling is simply unaffordable. Even when it is "free" it involves a perceived opportunity cost of the income foregone when a child is at school rather than at work;
  • the education provided is frequently of poor quality, and/or perceived by the parents and the children themselves to be irrelevant to local needs and conditions. It is hardly surprising therefore that they see no point in attending school;
  • traditional views prevail that girls are better prepared for adult life by sending them to work than by investing in their education;
  • as a result of the above factors, vast numbers of children enter early into the unskilled labour market. They are frequently illiterate and remain so throughout their lives, and they lack the basic educational grounding which would enable them to acquire skills and to improve their prospects for a decent adult working life.

Families themselves are a major factor. Large numbers of children are unpaid workers in family enterprises (farms, informal sector workshops, etc.), which depend on family labour in order to survive. Many national laws and regulations, as well as international standards like Convention No. 138, allow exceptions in such cases. However, even in family enterprises, children can be exposed to serious risks to their health and safety.

According to the experts, the main reasons for the emergence of child labour in bigger cities are unhealthy family life and economic deprivation. Families strained by financial difficulties cannot cope with the increasing demands of their children and sometimes even fail to provide them with adequate nutrition. This appears to be the main reason children look for their own sources of income. In socially disadvantaged, alcoholic or morally bankrupt families, pecuniary challenges are often coupled with destructive dynamics in the relationships. These factors combine to spur children into the street, temporarily or permanently, leading them to a vagrant existence, required too early to make independent decisions. Economic hardships and family dysfunction can therefore be named as the main causes of child labour. Another important cause mentioned by the experts is the overall social and economic situation in the country.

Any diagnosis has to begin by recognizing the complexity of the problem. Legislators and policy-makers have to beware of oversimplified explanations for the existence of child labour.

For instance:

  • there is a widely held belief that there is nothing much that can be done to combat child labour Р that it is a result and a manifestation of poverty and can only be eliminated when poverty itself has been eliminated;
  • according to another school of thought, child labour only exists because unscrupulous adults exploit children in order to make quick profits and to gain an unfair advantage over competitors. All that needs to be done, according to this school of thought, is to bring the full force of the law against the offenders and to send the children back to school where they belong.

The basis of the elimination of the worst forms of child labour within a relatively short time-frame must be legislation, which keeps the total elimination of child labour as the ultimate goal of policy, but which explicitly identifies and prohibits the worst forms of child labour to be eliminated as a matter of priority. Such legislation must also provide adequate sanctions for violators and adequate compensation for victims, and be rigorously and impartially enforced.

For all these reasons, even when it has been declared illegal, child labour continues to be tolerated and accepted as the natural order of things Р and much of it is invisible. It is frequently surrounded by a wall of silence, indifference and apathy. But that wall is beginning to crumble. The process of globalization and the development of modern means of communication have made the plight of working children a major issue on the agenda of the international community.

The growing international concern with the problem of child labour, reflected by these and other events, has been the result of a number of developments, notably:

  • The trend towards greater liberalization of trade and capital movements. This has brought about increasingly vocal demands that children should not be victims of the increased competition among countries and firms struggling to obtain a comparative advantage in world markets through the cheap and docile labour of children.
  • Greater transparency in the world economy and the abolition of blocs after the end of the Cold War.
  • The indignation of consumers at the thought that the goods they purchase may have been produced in abusive conditions, including child labour; and
  • The publicity given to the commercial sexual exploitation of children, particularly children in prostitution and pornography and sex tourism.

At the same time it has resulted in a fuller understanding of the complex causes of child labour, and in particular the fact that it is deeply rooted in poverty, in the lack or inadequacy of schooling and in social and cultural traditions and structures. Its elimination cannot be achieved merely by a stroke of the legislator's pen, but is recognized to be a very long-term goal. However, growing concern has emerged that certain situations of child labour are so grave and inhumane that they can no longer be tolerated.

Thus a consensus emerged in the 1990s that the highest priority should be given to eliminating the worst forms of child labour, that visible results should be achieved within a short time-frame rather than in some indefinite future, and that a concerted programme of action should be launched at the national and international levels in order to achieve rapid results.

In Child Labour section

12 June - World Day Against Child Labour


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Last update:13.02.2008 ^ top