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What’s child labour?

The big picture

Child labour is work that would harm or have negative consequences on children’s development and wellbeing. However, when it comes to the details as to what exactly constitutes child labour, in terms of children’s ages as well as forms, types or conditions of work, this needs to be clearly defined in national laws. The worst forms of child labour involve 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 – often at a very early age.

ILO’s fundamental conventions on child labour, namely: the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) entail concrete legal obligations for action by ratifying ILO member States and are both nearing universal ratification.

What’s child labour to be abolished?

The elimination of child labour does not mean no child below 18 should engage in any work. Child labour basically comprises situations in which a child is too young to work (i.e. below the minimum working age, which should be in harmony with the end of compulsory education), or is engaged in work that is too hazardous or otherwise unacceptable and prohibited for all persons below the age of 18.

How widespread is child labour?

According to the most recent estimates released in 2021, 160 million boys and girls between 5 and 17 years are in child labour. They are often deprived of education and of the potential for a bright future with decent work. 79 million are in hazardous work that directly endangers their safety, health and moral development.

Economic shocks and consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have worsened the situation, and the report warns that nearly 9 million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest share of young children in child labour

Child labour is a global phenomenon present in all regions. While the number of children in child labour has declined in other parts of the world, it has increased in sub-Saharan Africa. A large number of affected children (86.6 million) live in Africa where 23.9% of all children in the age group 5-17 years are in child labour. Prevalence is significantly high in rural economies, the informal economy, the family context, and in crisis situations resulting from conflict or disasters.

Increased attention to youth employment 

There is no contradiction between the elimination of child labour including hazardous work by children above the general minimum age for work on the one hand and the promotion of youth employment on the other. This overlapping age group who are still “children” below 18 years of age are also in the younger age range of “youth” whose employment should be promoted. The ultimate goal for these adolescents must not just be getting them out of hazardous work, but also ensuring their transition into decent youth employment with appropriate protection of their occupational safety and health.

Impact of COVID-19

Without mitigation measures, the number of children in child labour could rise from 160 million in 2020 to 168.9 million by the end of 2022.

Number of children aged 5 to 17 years in child labour, projected to the end of 2022:

  • 206.2 million
    If austerity measures or other factors cause a slippage in social protection coverage.
  • 168.9 million
    Due to an increase in poverty and in the absence of additional mitigation measures.
  • 144.9 million
    If social protection coverage is increased.