Child labour

27 Jul 2018

Heavy load for girl in Viet Nam by ILO / Tran Quoc Dung on Flickr

All children and young people around the world are protected by laws that give them rights to things like education, safety, a voice in the decisions taken concerning them, and to space and time to play. However, for tens of millions of children around the world, those basic rights are at risk because they have to work.

Teaching about the topic of child labour can be an impetus for classroom discussions about universal children’s rights and responsibilities. Focusing on the issues around working children and child labour can also help develop qualities such as empathy, fairness, and integrity.

What is child labour?

Some types of work make useful, positive contributions to young people’s development. Work can help young people learn about responsibility, independence, and develop particular skills that will benefit them and the rest of society. Where families struggle to make ends meet in poorer countries, their work is a vital source of income that helps everyone in the family.

This short film clip The Working Children’s Union examines how and why children work in India, and offers some useful perspectives on the role of work in their lives. It could be used in class to stimulate a discussion about the differences between child labour and working children, and to debate the extent to which children need to be protected.

There’s a huge difference between children working and helping their families, and child labour – just as there’s a huge difference between taking out the rubbish in return for pocket money, and doing household chores for 30 hours a week meaning that attending school becomes difficult. This makes child labour a human rights issue. Child labourers work to earn money or spend most of their time on household chores from collecting water to looking after siblings, meaning that school work, playing with friends or even attending school often suffer.

This short film provides a useful overview of a global campaign against child labour: All Together Against Child Labour.

How many children are involved in child labour?

Boy working in the fields
Boy working in the fields

Child labour is hard to define and harder to measure. However, according to UNICEF more than one in ten of the world’s children are involved, although in some countries it’s as high as five in ten. UNICEF’s definition of a child labourer measures children who have been economically active for an hour or more each week, or done over 28 hours of ‘household chores’, and there are different measures for older children.

It’s estimated that 168 million children are involved worldwide. Ninety-eight million work in agriculture, with most of the rest (54 million) working in the service industry. Again, there’s a big difference between those young people who help out on their family’s farm a bit at the weekends, so they can learn skills to grow food, and those who work day in day out on plantations, on the streets doing odd jobs, or even in factories.

This short animation tells the story of Anima, a 14-year-old from Mali, who left home to be trafficked to work on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire.

Across the world, tens of millions of children do extremely hazardous work in harmful conditions, putting their health, education, personal and social development, and even their lives at risk. These are some of the circumstances they face:

  • Full time work from an early age
  • Dangerous workplaces
  • Using hazardous machinery or toxic chemicals
  • Long working hours
  • Subjection to psychological, verbal, physical or sexual abuse
  • No access to education.

There are even nearly 10 million children trapped in modern-day slavery, forced to work in people’s homes, businesses or on the street without being paid, often separated from their families with no means of returning home. They are also used to do illegal or dangerous jobs such as in mines, the drug trade, prostitution. About 250,000 of these children are members of groups taking part in armed conflict, working as combatants, porters, chefs or acting as ‘wives’ to soldiers.

These short films from Terre Des Hommes describe situations for domestic child workers: in Bangladesh through photography and through interviews with children in Peru.

The Millennium Development Goals and child labour

The Millennium Development Goals, adopted in 2000 and aimed at tackling some of the key causes of poverty, have had a positive impact on child labour. Improvements in access to education, in particular, have meant more children leaving child labour to go to school. Globally, the number of children in child labour has declined by one third since 2000, from 246 million to 168 million children.

Those involved in hazardous child labour have fallen from 171 million in 2000, to 85 million.

The focus on girls’ education has also made a contribution. Child labour among girls has fallen by 40% since 2000, compared to 25% for boys.

This film clip, Out of work and into school (11 minutes) provides some examples of how education is having a positive impact on child labour.

The Sustainable Development Goals and child labour

The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), constructed in 2015, aim to stimulate action in areas which are critically important to eradicating poverty and strengthening universal peace. These goals focus on the 15 years until 2030, in which heads of state and organisations will commit to focusing their efforts on 17 crucial areas which are critical for ensuring that no one is left behind.

Both Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth and Goal 16: Peace and Justice, focus on ensuring that child labour is eradicated.

To find out more about teaching resources on the SDGs and helping students understand their aims, visit The World’s Largest Lesson.

Why teach about child labour?

Two-thirds of British children have worked by the time they reach the age of 16. Work is a concept that all children can understand, and many can relate to, through their own experiences. But whilst children in the UK are protected by employment laws, there are many places in the world where this legislation does not exist, or is not enforced, even though children everywhere are protected by international laws and treaties such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Child pulling a plough
Child pulling a plough

The topic of child labour also leads naturally to many others, such as the causes of poverty, access to education, and the role of national and international governments. There are arguments about whether certain forms of child labour should be banned, and how, but no clear-cut answers. The topic would be a great stimulus for a classroom discussion or debate, focusing for instance on the definition of child labour, the extent to which it should be outlawed, or how it should be tackled.

Teaching resources

Child labour is a very broad topic, which links well with many areas of the school curriculum, particularly within Geography, PSHE and Citizenship.

Browse through free teaching resources on this website relating to child labour >>

The Rights Respecting Schools Award recognises achievement in putting the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child at the heart of a school’s planning, policies, practice and ethos. A rights-respecting school not only teaches about children’s rights but also models rights and respect in all its relationships: between pupils and adults, between adults and between pupils.

War Child’s learning resources feature lesson plans, films and activities on themes related to children who are part of armed groups.

TEACHUnicef Child Labor has a collection of teaching resources on the topic of child labour (US site)

Global calendar

Visit our online calendar to find out more about the following dates relevant to child labour:

Red Hand Day for Child Soldiers on 12 February
World Day Against Child Labour on 12 June
Anti-Slavery Day on 18 October
Universal Children’s Day on 20 November
International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December
Human Rights Day on 10 December.

Links to further background reading

The International Labour Organization is the UN agency which seeks the promotion of social justice and internationally recognised human and labour rights. Their website has information about what the United Nations is doing to combat the worst forms of child labour: ILO child labour information

Anti-Slavery is a charity which campaigns to end all forms of modern slavery. Their website includes examples of children who were forced to work: Anti-Slavery – Slavery Today information

The Concerned for Working Children is a not-for-profit secular, democratic development agency based in Bengaluru, India. Active since the late 1970s, they were one of the first organisations in India to focus on working children and their needs: The Concerned for Working Children

SOS Children’s Villages has a useful web page How does child labour undermine literacy?, which has an in-depth summary of the reasons for, and effects of child labour.

The photo at the top of the page is Heavy load for an indigenous girl in Viet Nam’s northern mountain, by ILO/Tran Quoc Dung on Flickr.com and is used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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