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More than 1 in 10 children are trapped in child labour

The number of child labourers has decreased by a third since 2000, but there are still 168 million child workers.

New Statesman
Indian children work nearby to their parents at a construction project in Delhi, 2010. Photo: Getty.

The number of child labourers has declined by a third since 2000, a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has found, but there are still 168 million child labourers, accounting for 11 per cent of children aged 5-17. 

The ILO definition of child labour does not include all children in employment, but refers to “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” Of the 168 million child labourers, 85 million are engaged in hazardous work, defined as work that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development.

Sub-Sahara Africa has the highest rate of child labour, with 59 million or 1 in 5 children affected, but Asia-Pacific has the highest overall number of child workers, with 78 million.

The report reveals a few unexpected features of child labour. Firstly, it finds that child labour is not limited to the world’s poorest countries, suggesting that the factors affecting the number of child workers are more complex than poverty alone. Although the percentage of child labourers is highest in low income countries, the overall numbers of child workers is greater in middle income countries. Within countries, child labour isn’t confined to the poorest households.

Secondly, it notes that while child labour is highest in the agricultural sector, as might be expected, the number of children employed in the service sector has increased. This means policy-makers need to ensure that their interventions target the service and manufacturing industries as well as farming.

Finally, the report has found that child labour has decreased at a faster rate for girls than for boys (40 per cent versus 25 per cent.) However, it says it can be harder to monitor child labour among girls, particularly if they are doing domestic work in private households. This points to a broader problem with child labour: it’s very hard to measure. It’s often illegal and concentrated in the informal economy, and governments in the countries with the highest rates of child labour are unlikely to have strong data collection abilities.

UNICEF, for instance, publishes data on child labour by country, but many countries don’t submit any data for this. Of the countries reported on in its State of the World’s Children 2013 publication, Somalia, Benin and Burkina Faso were the worst offenders, with the percentage of child labour at 49 per cent, 46 per cent and 39 per cent respectively. Beyond Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambodia has the highest rate of child labour, at 36 per cent.

Even accounting for significant constraints in data collection, however,  the rate of child labour is worryingly high, with ILO set to miss its target of eliminating the worst forms of child labour by 2016.