Definition: What is meant by child labour?

Where to draw the line between the acceptable and the unacceptable?

It is first necessary to clarify what is not meant by the term child labour. Children's or adolescents' participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling, is generally regarded as being something positive. This includes activities such as helping their parents care for the home and the family, assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays. It contributes to children's development and to the welfare of their families; it provides them with skills, attitudes and experience, and helps to prepare them to be useful and productive members of society during their adult life.

In no way can such activities be equated with child labour. Child labour refers to 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 obliging them to leave school prematurely; or
- by requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

In its most extreme forms, it involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities - all of this often at a very early age.

Child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.

But it is difficult to give a precise dictionary definition of the term "child labour" applicable to all situations and all countries. How can a line be drawn between "acceptable" forms of work by children on the one hand and child labour on the other?

Whether or not particular forms of work can be called child labour depends on the child's age, the types of work performed, the conditions under which it is performed and the objectives pursued by individual countries. The answer varies from country to country, as well as among sectors within countries.

It is a matter of building a nation's future

It is crucial to provide children with a decent childhood to prepare them for decent work during their adult life - i.e. work which is both productive to society and rewarding. The employment of children in conditions that are harmful to their dignity, morality, health and education seriously undermines the economic viability and cohesion of society and compromises its longer-term development prospects.

Child labour has to be seen not only as a consequence, but also as a cause, of poverty and underdevelopment. Children subjected to extreme forms of exploitation, with little or no basic education, are likely to grow into illiterate adults, physically and mentally stunted, who have virtually no prospect of breaking out of the trap of poverty into which they were born or contributing to the development of society.

Likewise, their children's chances of doing so will be small. In today's competitive world, the prosperity of any country depends critically on the quality of its human resources; to tolerate the worst forms of child labour is inconsistent with the massive investment in its people, which every society must make in order to secure its future.

Even if there were any short-term economic advantages to be gained from child labour, these must be weighed against the loss to a nation's longer-term development potential that it entails.