2. Child Labour

Sustainable Development

Decent work

Economy Social Environment Employment Protection Rights Dialogue
Relevant SDG Targets
8.7, 16.2
Relevant Policy Outcomes
2, 8, 10

On this page: DWA-SDG Relationship | Cross-cutting policy drivers | Partnerships | ILO Capacity | Resources

Significant progress has already been made towards the elimination of child labour in the last two decades. However, many challenges remain: while the global number of children in child labour has declined by one third since 2000, 168 million children are still in child labour and more than half of them, 85 million, are in hazardous work. ILO’s mandate in the area of child labour is grounded in two core conventions, namely the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No.138) and particularly the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No.182), which quickly became ILO’s most ratified instrument (180 ratifications to-date).

Considerable differences exist between the many kinds of work in which children are engaged. Some are difficult and demanding, others are more hazardous and morally reprehensible. Not all work done by children should be classified as child labour that is to be targeted for elimination. Children’s or adolescents’ participation in work that does not affect their health and personal development or interfere with their schooling, can be regarded as something positive (16).

The term “child labour” in the narrower sense is defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that deprives them of the opportunity to attend school, obliges them to leave school prematurely, or requires them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

In its most extreme forms, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age. ILO’s priority is to eliminate without delay the worst forms of child labour as defined by Article 3 of ILO Convention No. 182:
  1. 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;
  2. the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;
  3. 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;
  4. 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.
Labour that jeopardises the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or because of the conditions in which it is carried out, is known as “hazardous work” (17).

Recent ILO statistics on child labour also reveal that:
  • Asia and the Pacific still has the largest numbers (almost 78 million or 9.3 per cent of child population), but sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region with the highest incidence of child labour (59 million, over 21 per cent).
  • There are 13 million (8.8 per cent) of children in child labour in Latin America and the Caribbean; and in the Middle East and North Africa there are 9.2 million (8.4 per cent).
  • Agriculture remains by far the most important sector where child labourers can be found (98 million, or 59 per cent), but the problems are not negligible in services (54 million) and industry (12 million) – mostly in the informal economy.
  • Child labour among girls fell by 40 per cent since 2000, compared to 25 per cent for boys (18). 
ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), now integrated into the FUNDAMENTALS Branch, aims at progressively eliminating child labour worldwide. Since it began operations in 1992, IPEC has worked to achieve this in several ways: through country-based programmes which promote policy reform, build institutional capacity and put in place concrete measures to end child labour; and through awareness raising and mobilization intended to change social attitudes and promote ratification and effective implementation of ILO child labour Conventions. These efforts have resulted in hundreds of thousands of children being withdrawn from work and rehabilitated or prevented from entering the workforce. Complementary to this direct action throughout has been substantial in-depth statistical and qualitative research, policy and legal analysis, programme evaluation and child labour monitoring, which have permitted the accumulation of a vast knowledge base of statistical data and methodologies, thematic studies, good practices, guidelines and training materials. IPEC+ (combining the fight against child labour with the eradication of forced labour) is one of ILO’s five flagship programmes19.

DWA-SDG Relationship

Child labour is a violation of fundamental human rights and has been shown to hinder children’s development. There is a strong link between household poverty and child labour, which also contributes to perpetuating poverty across generations by inhibiting upward social mobility based on proper education and schooling.

The elimination of child labour is explicitly referred to in SDG target 8.7 which commits the global community to “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”. SDG target 8.7 refers to the “people” dimension, the social pillar and the rights-based nature of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. Work related to child labour also supports SDG target 16.2: “end abuse, exploitations, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children”, and contributes to the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990.

As mentioned above, the elimination of child labour is the subject of two of ILO’s eight fundamental conventions, which must be observed by all ILO member states, whether they have ratified them or not. All ILO constituents are united in the struggle for the eradication of the worst forms of child labour, and many technical departments contribute to this struggle in addition to IPEC.

Cross-cutting policy drivers

The elimination of child labour is not only codified in C.138 and C.182 but also referred to in many other ILO conventions and recommendations, most prominently in the Decent Work for Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No.189). The fact that many ILO units across the organization contribute to the fight against child labour illustrates the cross-cutting nature of this work.

The fight against child labour cannot be won without the involvement of workers’ and employers’ organizations through a process of social dialogue with governments. In 2010, the global worker and employer organizations (ITUC and IOE) came together to establish the Child Labour Platform which operates under the UN Global Compact Labour Working Group.

Child labour is a phenomenon that affects both girls and boys; whether a child is a boy or a girl can determine at what age they are sent to work and in which particular occupation. Gender differences may affect a child’s access to education and assistance. The ILO considers these and many other issues that influence child labour in carrying out actions to eliminate it.

Many children are engaged in hazardous occupations such as waste-picking in rubbish dumps or the recycling of electronic waste. Programmes that improve working conditions in such occupations, such as ILO’s Green Jobs programme, will also reduce the plight of the children working in them.


The fight against child labour has been supported by voluntary contributions, domestic funding as well as support from the private sector, non-state actors, foundations and like-minded UN agencies.

Several child-labour related partnerships have been formed to sustain ILO’s work: the Global March against Child Labour formed in 1998 is a worldwide network of trade unions, teachers' and civil society organizations working together to eliminate and prevent all forms of child labour, slavery and trafficking and ensure access by all children to education. The Global March was complemented in 2007 by the International partnership for cooperation on child labour in agriculture, in 2010 by the above-mentioned Child Labour Platform, and in 2016 by the Alliance 8.7 which seeks to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour.

ILO Capacity

The ILO Capacity at headquarters and in the field to fight against child labour has been to a large extent determined by the size of the IPEC development cooperation programme, since the large majority of ILO child labour specialists is being funded from extra-budgetary resources. IPEC is still one of ILO’s single-largest development cooperation programmes worldwide, but its size has shrunk considerably in recent years, together with the related ILO capacity. Since 2014, the ILO IPEC team at headquarters has been integrated into the FUNDAMENTALS Branch, which belongs to the Governance Department.


The web site of the ILO IPEC programme provides links to a broad range of technical subjects, data and information resources, active projects, partners and country activities. Additional resources can be found at the ILO topic web page on child labour, at the web sites referenced under “partnerships”.

16. ILO. What is child labour? ILO IPEC. [Online] 01 December 2016. http://ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang--en/index.htm.

17. —. What is child labour (IPEC). International Labour Organization. [Online] 6 November 2016. /ipec/facts/lang--en/index.htm.

18. ILO-IPEC. Marking progress against child labour - Global estimates and trends 2000-2012. Geneva : ILO, 2013.

19 - IPEC+: the ILO has integrated many of its existing technical projects, including IPEC+, into five flagship programmes, designed to enhance the efficiency and impact of its development cooperation with constituents on a global scale. Those five programmes are: IPEC+, Better Work, GAP-OSH, Social Protection Floor, Jobs for Peace and Resilience.