What are the causes of child labour?

Not all work performed by children is child labour. Child labour is defined by international standards as work that is hazardous, demands too many hours, or is performed by children who are too young. Children work because their survival depends on it, because adults take advantage of their vulnerability, and because national education systems are weak. Child labour is sometimes the result of ingrained customs and traditions.

How and why it happens

Even well-intended customs and traditions can be harmful, such as:

  • The view that work is good for children because it helps them build character and develop skills
  • The tradition that children should follow their parents’ footsteps and learn their trade at an early age
  • The importance of traditions that push poor families into debt, such as social occasions or religious events, which are paid off through child labour

Schooling is another important factor. Many communities do not have enough schools, or do not view education as a good alternative to work. Sometimes, children seek work themselves, because their families are financially strained. Economic hardship can lead to family dysfunction and, ultimately, child labour. Ending child labour is a complex process, but it is within reach. The key components are strictly-enforced legislation, followed by incremental societal change.

International concern is growing, driven by:

  • Globalized markets
  • Economic transparency
  • Consumer awareness

What does child labour look like?

Globally, 160 million children aged 5 to 17 are in child labour. About half of them (79 million) perform hazardous work that places their health, safety, or moral development at risk.

  • There are now more children in child labour in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined.
  • More than half of the affected children live in low and lower-middle-income countries.
  • The problem is more prevalent in countries experiencing conflict and disaster.

Some children in child labour work 43-hour weeks. Estimates for boys involved in child labour are higher than those for girls, but those estimates don’t include household chores.

  • 70% of children in child labour work in agriculture, mainly in subsistence and commercial farming and herding livestock.
  • More than one third of children in child labour are completely outside the education system, and those that do attend perform poorly.

How can we end child labour?

With the right policy approaches and practical responses, the end is in sight. Here’s what we need to do:

  • Advance the legal commitment to ending child labour
  • Promote decent work for adults and young people of legal working age
  • Build and extend social protection systems, including floors, to help poor families
  • Expand access to free, quality public education as the logical alternative to child labour
  • Address child labour in supply chains
  • Protect children in situations of fragility and crisis


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