Global Report

under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

90th Session 2002

Report I (B)


This Report may also be consulted on the ILO Internet site

ISBN 92-2-112416-9 ISSN 0074-6681

First published 2002

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Executive summary

Millions of children worldwide are engaged in labour that is hindering their education, development and future livelihoods; many of them are in­volved in the worst forms of child labour that cause irreversible physical or psychological damage, or that even threaten their lives. This situation repre­sents an intolerable violation of the rights of individual children, it perpetu­ates poverty and it compromises economic growth and equitable development. The effective abolition of child labour is an essential element of the Inter­national Labour Organization’s goal of achieving decent work for all women and men.

A future without child labour, the third Global Report under the follow­up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, shows how the abolition of child labour has become a global cause for the new millennium. It explores the ever-changing manifestations of child labour throughout the world, and how girls and boys are affected differently, it presents new data on the scale of this stubborn problem, and it sheds new light on its complex, interlinked causes. It charts the growth of a global movement against child labour, reviewing the various types of action being taken by the ILO, its tripartite constituents (governments, employers’ and workers’ organ­izations) and other actors at international, national and local levels. The Re­port concludes with proposals for a three-pillar approach to strengthen the ac­tion of the ILO in this field, building upon the wealth of experience gained by the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) in the decade since its establishment.

A future without child labour traces the ILO’s historical concern with the abolition of child labour. At its very first session, the International Labour Conference adopted the Minimum Age (Industry) Convention, 1919 (No. 5). Over the years that followed, the concept of minimum age for entry into em­ployment was extended to different economic sectors, culminating with the adoption of the comprehensive Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138).

The inclusion of the effective abolition of child labour in the ILO Declara­tion on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up, adopted in 1988, highlighted the growing consensus across the world that child labour represents a serious threat to sustainable economic and social de­velopment everywhere. The unanimous adoption, the following year, of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), and its subsequent unprecedented rate of ratification, attest to the strength of the political will

among ILO member States to tackle, with employers’ and workers’ organiza­tions and all partners in civil society, these most extreme forms of child labour as a matter of the greatest urgency. Convention No. 182 has served to consol­idate resolve on the need for immediate action to combat the worst forms of child labour, accompanied by measures to eliminate and prevent all child labour in the longer term.

The Report clarifies the boundaries of child labour for abolition. The term “child labour” does not encompass all work performed by children under the age of 18. Many children, in very different national circumstances, carry out work that is entirely consistent with their education and full physical and mental development.[1] Drawing on the provisions of Conventions Nos. 138 and 182, the report identifies three categories of child labour to be abolished:

  • Labour performed by a child who is under a minimum age specified in national legislation for that kind of work.
  • Labour that jeopardizes the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, known as hazardous work.
  • The unconditional worst forms of child labour, which are internationally defined as slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of forced labour, forced recruitment for use in armed conflict, prostitution and pornography, and illicit activities.

Child labour is a complex phenomenon and difficult to research. The ab­sence of information on its extent and nature was, for many years, a serious impediment to effective action against it. But the situation is fast improving. In a new climate of openness, many countries are undertaking comprehensive surveys to investigate child labour. New global estimates by the ILO of the numbers of children who work, and of the numbers involved in each category of child labour for abolition, are presented in the Report. The estimates reveal several disturbing realities.

Some 180 million children aged 5-17 (or 73 per cent of all child labour­ers) are now believed to be engaged in the worst forms of child labour, com­prising hazardous work and the unconditional worst forms of child labour.[2] This amounts to one child in every eight in the world. Of the some 171 million children engaged in hazardous work, nearly two-thirds are under 15 and therefore require immediate withdrawal from this work and rehabilitation from its effects.

While 67 million children in the 5-14 age group are engaged in non- hazardous child labour that they should not be undertaking by virtue of their age, many more children (111 million) are involved in work that actually jeop­ardizes their well-being. Among older children aged 15-17 years (who are above the minimum age for employment), the estimates indicate that 59 mil­lion are involved in hazardous work. This represents an alarming 42 per cent of all working children in this age group.

Over eight million children worldwide are trapped in the unconditional worst forms of child labour. However, as the Report warns, this figure must be treated with great caution given the extreme difficulty of gathering data on these hidden and illegal activities.

Thus, despite the increasing commitment and efforts by governments, the social partners and civil society to tackle child labour, the problem

remains on a massive scale. Phenomena such as trafficking in children and increasing labour migration mean that all countries – developing, transition and developed alike – are affected to a greater or lesser extent by child labour. The figure for children engaged in hazardous work is considerably higher than was previously thought. The Report proposes that the time has come for the number and proportion of child labourers in a country’s child population, par­ticularly those engaged in the worst forms of child labour, to be considered as key indicators of economic and social development.

Numbers of child labourers of course give only part of the dynamic global picture that A future without child labour sets out to portray. In order to under­stand this complex phenomenon, it is necessary to examine in detail the na­ture of boys’ and girls’ participation in work in different economic sectors and social contexts. Such examination can throw light on the causes and con­sequences of different types of work for different groups of children (for example, children of different sex, age, ethnicity and nutritional, health and socio-economic status). The Report suggests that some activities that appear harmless at first sight may in fact be damaging to the children involved, par­ticularly in the long term; more research, however, is needed in this area.

Regardless of the economic sector in which it occurs, and almost by def­inition, child labour is associated closely with the unregulated informal eco­nomy, which is largely beyond the reach of formal institutions, including labour inspection services. Although media coverage has tended to focus pub­lic attention on certain groups of child labourers, such as street children, those in export-oriented manufacturing and those in commercial sexual ex­ploitation by foreign tourists, such groups are numerically in the minority. The majority of working children, some 70 per cent, are in reality to be found in the agricultural sector, most often on small-scale family holdings, but also on commercial agricultural plantations. While this work may in some cases be natural, many aspects of it – for example, long hours, use of poisonous chem­icals or inappropriate or dangerous equipment – can be extremely hazardous. Children in developing countries are not the only ones affected by the hazards of agricultural work. The Report shows that in some industrialized countries this sector accounts for the largest number of occupational fatalities of those under 18.

A future without child labour goes on to review children’s work in other economic sectors: fishing, manufacturing, tourism, domestic work, construc­tion, mining and quarrying, and in the urban informal economy. Key aspects of children’s work are highlighted, illustrating the diversity of activities in which they engage, how boys and girls are often involved differently and how countries at all levels of economic development may be implicated. Attention is drawn to the many different hazards that children face through their work.

Some child labourers are highly visible, such as street children working in the urban informal economy. Others, such as child domestic workers, are effectively hidden from public view and are thus particularly vulnerable, in­cluding to physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Rather than working in for­mal sector establishments that produce for export, the majority of child labourers in manufacturing toil in supply chains producing for the domestic market, for example, in the production of fireworks, matches or incense sticks. A reported increase in home-based production of these and other goods, in re­sponse to heightened competitive pressures, brings with it an increased po­tential for exploitation of child labour. Such hidden groups of children present particular challenges for research and effective action.

Having reviewed children’s participation in what are generally legit­imate sectors of economic activity, in which the type or conditions of work transform it into unacceptable child labour, A future without child labour

xii addresses the unconditional worst forms of child labour, which in all cases represent extreme violations of children’s rights. Labour practices such as child trafficking, debt bondage and forced recruitment into armed conflict, as well as child labour in prostitution, pornography and illicit activities such as the drugs trade, are tragically all too prevalent today. Although it is impossi­ble to know the extent of such activities with any degree of precision, their devastating effects on their child victims are obvious and increasingly being brought to the world’s attention.

Just as no country is immune from child labour, similarly none is pro­tected from the effects of shocks to development, such as financial crises, nat­ural disasters, armed conflicts, the HIV/AIDS pandemic as well as effects of economic and social transition. Although such crises are often in the public eye, their impact on children, and in particular on child labour, is still rel­atively poorly understood. The Global Report shows how children’s lives are thrown into turmoil by such events and how they often, as a result, become more vulnerable to child labour.

Part I concludes by exploring, in the light of the foregoing examination of its varied manifestations, why child labour occurs, distinguishing between its immediate, underlying and structural or root causes. The Report shows that poverty, while inextricably linked to child labour, offers neither a straight­forward nor a complete explanation for it. The various dimensions of poverty interact with other factors, which act at all levels from the individual girl or boy to the national economy and even beyond, to determine whether and which children work, go to school, do both or do neither. Inadequate social protection coupled with under-resourced, poor quality education systems play a large part in perpetuating child labour. Policy inconsistencies, such as the existence of a gap between the school-leaving age and the minimum age for employment, exacerbate the situation in many countries. Improved under­standing of the interlinked causes of child labour paves the way for the design of more effective strategies to combat it. Such strategies are now being intro­duced and implemented on an unprecedented scale.

Part II of the Report is devoted to a review of the global response to child labour, through action taken at local, national and international levels, focus­ing on the work of ILO constituents with support from IPEC and other ILO programmes. National governments are, without doubt, the essential players in the abolition of child labour. Political commitment translated into concrete policy change backed by resource allocation in favour of children is the sine qua non for the effective abolition of child labour. In addition to providing the right legal framework, other key areas where governments can make a differ­ence are in strategies for poverty reduction, including investments in social protection, social services and education, and in supporting targeted pro­grammes to eliminate child labour.

Working closely with governments are the social partners – employers’ and workers’ organizations – who are uniquely placed to understand and to change the realities of the workplace so that child labour simply has no part to play. The Report illustrates the range of the initiatives taken by these or­ganizations in recent years, from which lessons have been learnt for future work. Particularly promising are those initiatives involving strong tripartite partnerships, extending also to other organizations in civil society.

Partnerships operate horizontally at national level and also vertically be­tween national, regional and international players. A future without child la­bour shows how such collaboration helps to build a supportive framework in which effective action to combat child labour can be taken within and between countries. For example, a joint research project between IPEC, UNICEF and the World Bank aims to strengthen the global information base on child labour


and its elimination, as well as to enhance national capacities to generate and analyse information. International cooperation is increasingly apparent in the fields of children’s rights, education and poverty reduction. Regional coopera­tion is emerging to combat trafficking and other cross-border phenomena af­fecting children. Recent agreements to eliminate child labour across entire sectors of economic activity, reached by international organizations of em­ployers and workers together with actors at the national level, embody this spirit of cooperation at all levels. Such joint endeavours surely point the way forward.

Within the ILO, IPEC has been at the forefront of efforts to combat child labour since its establishment in 1992. The programme has undergone re­markable expansion particularly since 2000, and it currently works in 75 countries with 26 donor countries and organizations. IPEC stimulates and fa­cilitates practical action on the ground by its many in-country partners, for ex­ample, in the form of ratification of Conventions and subsequent changes in laws and policies, awareness raising and community mobilization and build­ing capacity in the various institutions with responsibility for children and child labour. It also supports direct interventions by government agencies, employers’ and workers’ organizations, non-governmental organizations and other civil society groups to assist child labourers and their families. From small beginnings in the early years of the programme, in which different ap­proaches to child labour in particular industries and locations were tried and tested on a pilot basis, IPEC has progressively expanded its activities. Over time, policies have been broadened to target ever-larger numbers of children and families across entire geographical areas, industries or economic sectors, and through projects operating at subregional and regional levels.

Time-bound programmes represent the latest step in IPEC’s evolution; these aim to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in a country within a specified, and relatively short, period of time (five to ten years). These are am­bitious undertakings; nearly 100,000 children are targeted in the first three countries to implement such programmes – El Salvador, Nepal and the United Republic of Tanzania.

The vast amount of project experience gained by IPEC and its partners over the past ten years could not be summarized in this Report. Instead, examples are given to illustrate the range of approaches applied to address child labour, spanning advocacy and social mobilization, education and train­ing, social protection and welfare, rescue and rehabilitation, and monitoring and enforcement. Important lessons learned are highlighted: for example, the need to understand the problem by thorough research and consulting with a wide range of stakeholders, including children; the need for an integrated ap­proach that combines prevention with rescue and rehabilitation; the need for viable economic alternatives for families to be in place before children are withdrawn from labour; the importance of local ownership of all project inter­ventions; the central role of education in any strategy to combat child labour; and that efforts to combat child labour must be firmly embedded in overall na­tional economic and social policy frameworks.

Part III of the Report traces the contours of a possible ILO action plan to combat child labour, for consideration by the ILO constituents and the Gov­erning Body. It is built on three pillars: reinforcing IPEC’s work in advocacy, research and policy, and technical cooperation; mainstreaming the effective abolition of child labour across the ILO to achieve decent work for all and uni­versal respect for the fundamental principles and rights at work; and forging closer partnerships between the ILO and other actors to achieve the shared goal of a world free of child labour.

A future without child labour demonstrates that many of the building blocks to achieve the goal of the effective abolition of child labour are in place and that progress is being made. However, much remains to be done. The ILO calls on all partners in this endeavour to redouble their efforts, to give all chil­dren, everywhere, the childhood and the future that they deserve.

[1] In line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989, a child means “every human being below the age of eighteen years”.

[2] The estimates relate to numbers of child labourers globally in the year 2000.