By: Alejandro Fernández / GICJ


June 12 every year, we celebrate the “World Day Against Child Labour”. Launched by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2002, the date was designated to “[…] to help spread the message that child labour remains a serious problem and that we must do more to combat it […]”[1]

What is child labour?

Child labour does not refer to any kind of job performed by a child. It could be beneficial for children -especially during adolescence- to engage in work as long as it does not affect their health or interfere with their education. Helping with the house chores, assisting in a family business or working for some extra money outside school hours can have a positive impact in children’s development, insofar as it teaches them skills and responsibility, and prepares them for work during adulthood.[2]

The term “child labour” refers only to the type of work which is harmful for children’s physical or mental health, hampers their development or undermines the full enjoyment of their childhood years.[3] According to ILO standards, child labour will encompass work which:

"1. is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or

2. interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work."[4]

ILO Convention No. 138 defers to States the decision to determine the minimum age for employment, as long as it is not below the age of completion of compulsory schooling, or 15 years in any case.[5] However, States whose education system is not yet sufficiently developed may lower the minimum age to 14 after conducting consultations with organizations of employers and workers.[6] For jobs which are likely to jeopardize the worker’s health, safety or morals, the minimum age shall be always 18.[7]

ILO Convention No. 182 defines the worst forms of child labour as:  

(a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

(b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;

(c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties;

(d) work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.[8]

Involvement of children in this type of labour must be banned by law, and ratifying States must take appropriate steps to ensure its eradication.[9] ILO Recommendation No. 190 gives some examples of what should be understood as hazardous work in the terms of article 3.d:

  • work which exposes children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse;
  • work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces;
  • work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads;
  • work in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging to their health;
  • work under particularly difficult conditions such as work for long hours or during the night or work where the child is unreasonably confined to the premises of the employer.

In 2020, Convention No. 182 became the first labour standard in ILO history to achieve universal ratification, with all 187 member States adhering to the treaty,[10] reflecting the overwhelming commitment of the international community to abolish child labour.


What is the current situation of child labour?

According to data gathered by the ILO between 2012 and 2016, there are approximately 152 million children engaged in harmful labour.[11] Child labour is more prevailing in Africa, which concentrates 19.6% of the total, followed by Asia and the Pacific, with 7.4%, and then the Americas, with 5.3%, Europe and Central Asia, with 4.1% and the Arab States, with 2.9%.[12] Regarding gender distribution, 58% are boys and 42% girls.[13] Girls, however, tend to be more vulnerable to sexual exploitation.[14]