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Child labour

Protecting children from having to work

Social protection measures can help reduce the incidence of child labour, says Constance Thomas, Director of the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC).

Comment | 30 April 2013
Constance Thomas, Director of the ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)
Around 215 million children world-wide are engaged in child labour. Much of this work is harmful, hazardous or even dangerous to their health and to their future life development. Children everywhere should be able to have a real childhood, to play, to learn at school and to dream of a brighter future.

However, eradicating child labour is a difficult and complex task because many families send their children to work, not because they want to but because they have to. They may not have enough household income or enough money to pay health bills or school fees, without the child working.

Sometimes these vulnerable families are targeted in social protection programmes which can prevent them from falling into abject poverty. Rarely are these programmes specifically aimed at reducing child labour but ILO researchers have found that they can have an important side effect: social protection programmes often help families keep children in school and out of work.

The evidence for this is outlined in the World Report on Child Labour: Economic vulnerability, social protection and the fight against child labour, a new ILO study.

The report took the first hard look at scientific evaluations of social protection programmes in a number of countries from the perspective of child labour.

Child labour: Facts and figures
215 million children are involved in child labour. These figures are from the latest Global Report (2010). New figures are expected to come out in September 2013:
  • 115 million children involved in the worst forms of child labour - which includes practices akin to slavery, debt bondage, offering a child for prostitution, using a child for illicit activities and work that is harmful to health, safety or morals of children.
  • 15.5 million children are involved in domestic work.
  • Most child labourers continue to work in agriculture (60 per cent). Only one in five working children is in paid employment. The overwhelming majority are unpaid family workers.
Researchers found that there were often significant reductions in child labour where cash transfer schemes operated. Under these schemes, families are paid a certain amount per month, sometimes with a condition that their children go to school. One Brazilian programme, Bolsa Familia, has played a key role in the reduction of child labour both in rural and urban areas.

The report also found a strong link between health shocks and child labour: When a household’s main breadwinner is incapacitated by illness or injury or a household must pay for the care of a sick member, it may have to rely on child labour to lessen the economic impact. In Togo and Zambia, for instance, there were significant rises in child labour when a household member fell ill or died. In Zambia, the rate increased by nine per cent. The evidence also points to a decline in school attendance, compromising children’s future prospects.

The linkage between health and child labour points to the potential impact social protection can have. A study in Guatemala showed that children from households where at least one member is covered by health insurance are less likely to work.

Income security for the elderly – through guaranteed, reliable pensions – can also have a noticeable positive impact on children in their care or in multi-generational households. Between 50-60 per cent of orphans in Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe live with their grandparents. Studies in South Africa and Brazil have shown that pensions help reduce child labour and improve schooling outcomes.

Public employment programmes that provide jobs for adults also have the potential to reduce child labour – this has been seen in Ethiopia and India.

Given this evidence, it is clear that social protection measures can be an important part of the overall policy response to child labour, along with education, jobs for adults and law enforcement. They can help to tip the balance when households need to decide whether a child works or goes to school.

To be most effective, when social protection programmes are being designed, policy makers need to consider how the positive impact on children can be maximised.

The ILO recently approved a Recommendation on Social Protection Floors, which promotes the importance of ensuring a basic level of income security throughout the life cycle, as well as access to essential health care. With only about 20 per cent of the world’s working-age population having adequate access to social protection, it is vital that progress is made in extending the reach of such programmes to all families throughout the world. In so doing more children will be saved from the turmoil and drudgery of child labour.

The issue of how social protection can be better used to end child labour will be one of the many topics discussed at the Third Global Conference on Child Labour to be held in Brazil in October 2013. This Conference, which is expected to have over a 1000 participants, will review progress on the goal of eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016.