Millions of children around the world are trapped in child labour, depriving them of their childhood, their health and education, and condemning them to a life of poverty and want. Of course, there is work that children do to help their families in ways that are neither harmful nor exploitative. But many children are stuck in unacceptable work for children – a serious violation of their rights.
Recent global estimates based on data of UNICEF, the ILO and the World Bank indicate that 168 million children aged 5 to 17 are engaged in child labour. Some 120 million among them are below the age of 14, while a further 30 million children in this age group – mostly girls – perform unpaid household chores within their own families. In addition, millions of children suffer in the other worst forms of child labour, including slavery and slavery-like practices such as forced and bonded labour and child soldiering, sexual exploitation, or are used by adults in illicit activities, including drug trafficking.
Despite a steady decline in child labour, progress is far too slow. At current rates, more than 100 million children will still be trapped in child labour by 2020. The continuing persistence of child labour poses a threat to national economies and has severe negative short and long term consequences for the fulfillment of children’s rights guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) – including denial of education and frequent exposure to violence.
Child labour spans various sectors, including agriculture, manufacturing, quarrying and mining, and domestic service. Often, it is hidden from the public eye. For example, the estimated 15.5 million child domestic workers worldwide – mostly girls – are often hardly visible and face many hazards. Child labour is the combined product of many factors, such as poverty, social norms condoning it, lack of decent work opportunities for adults and adolescents, migration, and emergencies.
Child labour reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty, undermines national economies and impedes achieving progress towards the Millennium Development Goals (see 2010 Outcome document of the MDG summit, p.13). It is not only a cause, but also a consequence of social inequities reinforced by discrimination. Children from indigenous groups or lower castes are more likely to drop out of school to work. Migrant children are also vulnerable to hidden and illicit labour.
Child labour is preventable, not inevitable. UNICEF believes that effective action against child labour requires children to be placed squarely at the centre of programmes designed to protect children’s rights. Looking at child labour through a broader lens – addressing the full range of children’s vulnerabilities and protection challenges – comes as a result of the recognition that these wider concerns are not always fully addressed in action against child labour. For more information on UNICEF’s approach to tackling child labour, click here.
UNICEF supports the 2010 Roadmap for achieving the elimination of the worst forms of child labour by 2016 and its follow-up Brasilia Declaration on Child Labour (2013) which provide guidance for an integrated response to child labour. UNICEF supports communities in changing their cultural acceptance of child labour, while supporting strategies and programming to provide alternative income to families, access to nurseries, quality education, and protective services. UNICEF works with governments to strengthen the application of national laws and regulate the working conditions of children old enough to work. At the policy level, UNICEF assists governments to provide support to child workers; promote decent youth employment; include child labour concerns in national education plans; and make social protection systems ‘child-sensitive’.
In various countries and regions, UNICEF and partners have strengthened child protection systems, which have led to a comprehensive response to children’s issues. In turn, this has resulted in decreased child labour and an overall improvement of children’s well-being. Access the most recent data on child labour prevalence by country and region here.
• In Burkina Faso, UNICEF, in partnership with government and civil society partners, developed a project to provide children working in artisanal gold mines with a comprehensive package of social resources and service. The package included support for schooling, vocational training, and literacy in their communities, accompanied by income generating activities for mothers. The project has contributed to more than 15,000 child workers leaving the artisanal mines.
• In Nepal, UNICEF collaborates with local government to develop district and municipality plans for eliminating child labour. As a result, more than 9,000 children, who had been in child labour and without family care, were provided with goods and services for their successful rehabilitation and reintegration services (including shelter, food, clothes, medical assistance, counselling, mediation with parents and employers, and legal support) and reunited with their families. After family reunification, children were given education support or vocational training, and families were offered help to increase their family income to reduce the risk of the child returning to labour.
• In Bolivia, UNICEF strengthened links between different levels of government and provided advice during the drafting of legislation to establish a minimum age for employment and protection for adolescent workers. UNICEF, the Departmental Service of Social Management of Santa Cruz, and the Bolivian Institute of Foreign Trade also launched an advocacy campaign to eradicate child labour in sugarcane harvests.
UNICEF also works with employers and the private sector to assess and address the impact of their supply chain and business practices upon children, and promote programmes that contribute to the elimination of child labour through sustainable solutions to address its root causes.
UNICEF also partners with civil society organizations to support a holistic child protection approach to child labour, contribute to the evidence base on child labour through research and data collection, and advocate across all stakeholders to end child labour.