Background information on child labour and ILO

What is child labour?

Child labour is a violation of fundamental human rights and has been shown to hinder children’s development, potentially leading to lifelong physical or psychological damage. Child labour refers to work that is harmful to children’s physical and mental development and includes work that:

  • is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children, and
  • interferes with their schooling:
  • by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school;
  • by making them leave school prematurely; or
  • by requiring them to go to school as well as doing heavy work or working long hours.

In the worst cases, child labour can make children slaves, separate them from their families, expose them to serious dangers and illnesses and/or leave them to look after themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age.

Find out more about child labour in the Taking action and useful resources section.

What is not child labour?

Not all work done by children however can be classified as child labour. When children or adolescents participate in stimulating activities, volunteering or work that does not affect their health and personal development, or interfere with their education, this is generally seen as being positive. For example, activities such as helping parents around the home or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays.

Some basic facts:

  • There are over 218 million child labourers in the world
  • Around 126 million children are engaged in hazardous work
  • You can make a difference by raising awareness and understanding the issue!

What is the International Labour Organization (ILO)?

Created in 1919, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reflects the belief that universal and lasting peace can only be accomplished if it is based on social justice. The ILO is the global body responsible for drawing up international labour standards (ILS), whose aim it is to ensure that economic development goes hand in hand with the creation of jobs and working conditions in which people can work in freedom, safety and dignity.

The ILO aims to ensure that it serves the needs of working women and men by bringing together governments, employers and workers to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes. Its tripartite structure makes the ILO unique among world organizations because employers' and workers' organizations have an equal voice with governments in all its deliberations.

The ILO supervisory bodies are responsible for overseeing the application of all ILS, including those concerning child labour. Click here for more information on ILS and ILO supervisory bodies.

Conventions, which are one form of ILS, are drawn up by governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, and are adopted at the annual International Labour Conference in June.

The elimination of child labour has always been central to the aims of the ILO. In fact the first international standard to regulate child labour was adopted in 1919. From this time onwards, ten child labour standards have been adopted and a Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) was drawn up in 1973. In 1999 the ILO adopted Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour, which is discussed in more detail throughout this resource.

Established in 1992, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) is the ILO’s biggest technical cooperation programme.

IPEC works towards the elimination of child labour, taking action throughout the world to improve the situation of child labourers every day. Thanks to IPEC’s efforts, hundreds of thousands of children have been taken out of work and given better opportunities or have been prevented from having to work.

The pictures on this page come from the GenevaWorld Association exhibition “Children’s views of child labour”. Pictures on the top of this page were drawn by Letícia, 15 yrs, Brazil; Choi, 12 yrs, South Korea; Zack, 16 yrs, Armenia; Sabina, 9 yrs, Tajikistan. © GenevaWorld.