Extending and improving schooling for children is the most effective way to eliminate child labour

There can be no universal blueprint for action against child labour. Moreover, it should be noted that programmes to combat the worst forms of child labour (which are the subject of this Handbook) generally contain elements necessary for combating all forms of child labour. It is a question of giving first priority to children at greatest risk and to rehabilitating those subjected to the most abusive and hazardous forms of exploitation.

In spite of their differences all national programmes must have three basic objectives:
  • to prevent the engagement of children in the worst forms of child labour;
  • to remove children from the worst forms of child labour;
  • to provide for the rehabilitation and social integration of such children.
To attain these objectives requires action on five broad fronts:
  • sensitizing public opinion;
  • legislation;
  • enforcement;
  • education; and
  • support for the children and their families.

Sensitizing public opinion

The struggle against child labour is first and foremost a matter of changing attitudes. Key actors in society, beginning with the children themselves and their parents - as well as politicians, political parties, local authorities, employers, trade unions and teachers - have first to be convinced that child labour is a problem at all. All too often it is looked upon simply as a source of income for poor families, or a means of learning a trade.

And even if people can be persuaded that there is something negative about children having to forego or neglect their education in order to work, they have to be convinced that there are viable alternatives to work. To poor families, arguments about the importance of their children attending school are bound to seem somewhat hypothetical when they are confronted with the immediate problem of survival from one day to the next.


The elimination of the worst forms of child labour cannot be achieved by legislation alone, but it certainly cannot be achieved without it. The indispensable basis of any legislative programme to eliminate the worst forms of child labour must include:

clear legal definitions of the minimum age below which children should not be engaged in particular types of work;
similarly clear definitions of the hazards to which no child under 18 should be exposed;
laws which ban unacceptable practices such as forced and bonded labour, the sale and trafficking of children and the use and procurement of children for prostitution and pornography, and which prescribe penalties for practicing, encouraging or conniving in such activities.
It will be necessary to ensure not only that various existing laws provide adequate coverage and to amend them if they do not, but also that they provide for sanctions against the perpetrators of inhuman forms of exploitation of children that are sufficiently tough to discourage such activities, while providing for adequate compensation and protection for victims.


A particularly complex problem arises from the fact that in many countries, protective labour legislation, including minimum age legislation, excludes whole sectors or occupations from its scope. These include agriculture, domestic service and small workshops in the informal sector, which are precisely the sectors where a majority of working children are to be found, and where they are liable to be employed in potentially hazardous and in some cases abusive conditions. Even when such sectors are covered by legislation, the enforcement of legislation is exceptionally difficult.

Many of the most abusive types of child labour are hidden, and the perpetrators of such abuses (for instance, slave labour, bonded labour and other extreme forms of exploitation) go to great lengths to make sure that they are not discovered.

Labour inspection services are often so inadequately staffed that they have little chance of discovering, let alone remedying, even the worst forms of child labour. When they do attempt to take action to remove children from hazardous occupations and abusive conditions, labour inspectors tend to meet with much resistance from powerful economic interest groups and even from the children themselves and their parents. Labour inspectors alone are not in a position to provide educational or other alternatives to work for children or, indeed, income for the families.

Furthermore, many of the worst forms of child labour, such as trafficking of children, use of children in prostitution or drug trafficking, are criminal acts requiring the intervention of police, rather than the labour inspectorate - or at least requiring close collaboration between them.

Closer cooperation and partnerships between official law enforcement agencies and other public or non-governmental bodies - including business organizations, trade unions, social workers, local community organizations - can achieve impressive results.


The obvious alternative to child labour is education, as is made clear in international labour standards on minimum age for admission to employment. Laws and regulations making school attendance compulsory for all children up to the minimum age established for admission to employment would, if they were properly enforced, make a major contribution to eliminating many of the worst forms of child labour.

Regular school attendance would make bonded labour and many other forms of exploitation of children virtually impossible. It would also rule out the employment of children in many hazardous industries and occupations which require presence at the work-site for a full shift. Beyond these immediate benefits, good quality education brings many longer-term benefits to the child concerned and to society at large. It would, in time, lead to the ultimate eradication of all forms of child labour.

All too often, however, the school system has been part of the problem rather than the solution. Lack of school facilities in many communities, and a shortage of teachers and poor quality education in many others, have been among the factors driving children into work. A renewed commitment to free, compulsory education for all children (girls as well as boys), a massive investment in education and teacher training and - in many countries - a complete overhaul of the curriculum so that it has more relevance to local needs and situations: these are essential basic requirements for making schooling attractive and affordable to all, and thus to eliminating the worst forms of child labour.

Support for children and their families

Increasing the availability and improving the quality of formal schooling is not enough. It takes many years to show results, and even in countries where substantial progress has been made and average school enrolment rates are high, there are still children from poor population groups who do not benefit from this progress. And applying pressure and sanctions on poor families to oblige them to send their children to school is not necessarily an effective approach. An important lesson from experience is that simply removing children from work and attempting to put them straight into regular schooling is seldom successful - for at least two reasons:

Children who have been subjected to the most unacceptable forms of exploitation need rehabilitation before they can benefit from regular schooling - health care, training, counselling - as well as a safe environment and sometimes legal aid and police protection. To give one, rather extreme, example: a child who has been forced to kill, rape, torture and loot in armed conflict - often under the influence of drugs - can hardly be expected to become overnight a diligent and disciplined pupil at school.
The worst child labour abuses occur among the poorest and the most vulnerable groups in society. Children from such groups will continue to be sent to work as long as their families depend on their income in order to survive. In such cases, improved access to education for the children needs to be accompanied by various incentives - including subsidies of various sorts, such as the provision of stipends, free meals, text books, health care or clothing for the children, as well as training or income-generating programmes for their parents. Such programmes need to address simultaneously the need for improved income for adults and schooling for children, in order not to encourage the employment of children along with or instead of the employment of adults.
Other support measures can be of a preventive nature. It is important to identify children who are in the greatest danger of being drawn into intolerable forms of child labour, and to motivate them to remain in school before it is too late. For instance, a particularly vulnerable group are young girls who are likely to be lured into prostitution and may find themselves in prison-like conditions - perhaps in a remote country.

Programmes designed to provide such girls with education, skills and access to other less exploitative forms of employment can be very effective. Preventive measures directed at parents are also important - for instance warning parents of the techniques used by traffickers to lure children into their networks. Preventive measures also include programmes to motivate children (and their parents) at a very early age to appreciate education and to be aware of their rights and the dangers of being drawn into work prematurely.

Another important preventive measure is to ensure that areas, workplaces and industries from which children have been removed remain child labour free, so that new children do not take the place of those who have been removed. To achieve this goal, workplace and community monitoring mechanisms need to be set up, with the active participation of employers, managers, contractors and subcontractors as well as trade unions and local authorities and community groups. This is necessary because the commitment to free an undertaking and an entire industry from child labour may call for changes in production processes, as well as a concerted effort to provide alternative educational and income support activities for the children and their families.

As the IPEC (2001) surveys in Moscow demonstrates, the problem of child exploitation cannot be easily resolved - not only because this category of labour is in demand among employers, but also because children are quick to adopt "street-smart" skills. Finding themselves in the street, they very soon embrace an alternative value system and become accustomed to regarding street work as indispensable even if it had not been so viewed before. As a result, not every child is prepared to abandon street work in favour of a different, even more decent, alternative. This attitude is shared by 72% of the respondents; only one fourth of respondents considered other options. At the same time, many more children involved in prostitution (40%) and even a greater proportion of those involved in criminal activities (70%) expressed a desire to change their current lifestyle.

Analysis of the children's opinions about their living arrangements demonstrates that while leaving home and living in the street may be easy, withdrawing from the street is a much greater challenge. Re-entry is the most difficult for children with substantial experience of street life. In view of this, special attention should be given to preventive measures aimed at high-risk families and their children and to creating conditions whereby they will not become working street children in the first place.