The worst forms of child labour

Convention No. 182 concerns the worst forms of child labour. This section provides more information on what these worst forms are. You can then explore this further through the Taking action and useful resources section.

This section details with difficult issues, but issues that are widespread all over the world today and affecting young people of all ages. It is important that we are correctly informed in order to better understand the situation, however when discussing these issues with much younger children please approach them sensitively.

The worst forms of child labour

Slavery and similar issues such as the trafficking of children, debt bondage, serfdom, children in armed conflict:

Slavery is where one person is owned by and made to work for another person without having any say over what happens to them. Slaves are held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase, or birth, and are not allowed to leave or to refuse to work.

Child trafficking is the illegal trading (buying, selling and movement) of children for labour or sexual exploitation. Children are trafficked for many reasons, including forced labour, prostitution and recruitment as child soldiers and beggars.

Debt bondage is forced labour, where work is exchanged to pay off loans that people cannot pay off with money or goods. For example, a poor family may hand over their child to someone to pay off their debt, and that child will have to work for years until the debt is cleared.

Serfdom is when a person is forced to live and work on land belonging to another person, often with little or no pay.

Forced labour is when someone is made to work against their wishes. For example, Children in armed conflict are forced to fight or to work as cooks, porters and messengers. These children are abused and exploited, often being forced to kill or maim other human beings.

The sexual exploitation of children (prostitution, pornography and pornographic performances):

Sexual exploitation is the mistreating, abusing and/or taking advantage of someone for personal gain and profit, by involving them in prostitution or commercial sexual activity. Prostitution is the exchange of sexual activities for money.

Children around the world, girls and boys, are exploited sexually, used by adults for sex or used in sexual images (pornography) or performances. They may be bought and sold into marriage, prostitution or slavery – in both developing and industrialized countries. Children are also kidnapped and then trafficked across borders and then sold to be prostitutes in foreign countries.

This form of child labour has serious short and long term consequences. Children are at a high risk of physical abuse, malnutrition and sexually transmitted diseases. It is extremely difficult for children to get out of this situation and very hard for them to deal with what they have experienced physically and mentally.

The involvement of children in illicit activities, for example, the production and trafficking of drugs:

Illicit activities are illegal activities or crimes.

Producing and trafficking drugs is an illicit activity that often involves children. Trafficking is illegal trading (buying or selling). Children might do this against their will or with the belief that this will give them status and money. Children who produce or traffic drugs are at great risk of abuse and many also become addicted to drugs at a very young age.

Children are also involved in other crimes as defined in national laws, such as buying stolen goods, shoplifting, robbery, hijacking cars, theft and burglary. They may be forced with threats and violence to take part in criminal activities, or be under pressure to find money for their survival and that of their family. Some children get involved in crime through gangs, or because they think this is a way to obtain respect.

Street children, runaways or children living in poverty are also used in organized beggary. Children are sometimes even intentionally disfigured to attract more money from passers by, and they may be beaten if they don’t manage to collect enough money.

Children involved in illicit activities are often exposed to violence, which can severely affect their mental and physical development. In addition, they may not develop good social skills and are much more likely to suffer from depression, alcohol and drug addictions and identity difficulties and become juvenile delinquents.

Work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children:

Work which could harm children’s health or well-being and/or expose them to danger is also a “worst form of child labour”.

This could be work in a dangerous environment, such as in a mine, where children risk death or injury from tunnel collapses, accidental explosions or rock falls. In industry, the children may be exposed to dangerous chemicals and substances, so burns and serious injury are common. They may also be exposed to toxic substances such as mercury and lead, and can develop chronic health conditions such as silicosis (a respiratory disease in the lungs). Agricultural work also presents great dangers, especially where children have to work with dangerous tools and equipment or with chemical substances, like pesticides for crops. Much of the time, the children have either no safety equipment, or it is adult equipment, which does not fit properly and does not provide proper protection.

Many types of work are physically harmful to children, especially when done for long periods of time. For example, children may have to sit bent over in one position, or crawl in small spaces which can cause disfigurement, spinal injuries and difficulty walking straight. This could be work such as sewing footballs or clothes, breaking bricks and rocks for road building, making matchsticks, crawling through a mine, making bricks. Or they might constantly be bent over from carrying loads that are too heavy.

Furthermore, child labourers are involved in hazardous work when they are exposed to all types of weather conditions (e.g. scorching hot sun, hard rain) and may not have shoes or adequate clothing. They can easily develop coughs and catch pneumonia or other illnesses.

Children are also exposed to hazardous work when the workplace is unsanitary, poorly lit and poorly ventilated. This is also true when clean drinking water, health services and schools are unavailable, especially in the more remote areas. In these conditions, children are more at risk of catching illnesses and disease.

All of these types of work interfere with a child’s education, as most children have neither the time, nor the energy, to attend school. Their families rely on the little wages the children make to survive.

The pictures on this page come from the GenevaWorld Association exhibition “Children’s views of child labour”. Pictures on the top of this page were drawn by Vitoria, 13 yrs, Romania; Tivoràn, 9 yrs, Hungary; Stella, 14 yrs, Côte d’Ivoire; Apurva, 11 yrs, Pakistan. © GenevaWorld.