Government of Canada

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada

Child Labour

Child Labour in 2012—The Facts

  • According to the International Labour Organization, about 215 million children around the world work, often full-time.
  • Most of these children work in the agricultural sector. They usually work wage free for their parents.
  • The highest number of child labourers is found in South Asia.
  • Certain forms of labour are not harmful to a child's development. According to the United Nations, however, some 115 million children are forced to work in the worst categories. These include slavery, prostitution, and military work.

Why do all these children work?

Millions of children work to meet their basic needs and support themselves if they go to school; others, to contribute toward family income or to ensure the success of the family business.

A boy walking in a rice field. © ACDI-CIDA/Nancy Durrell McKenna
A young boy transplants rice in the village of Saraibari, in Bangladesh.

In many families, particularly in those affected by illness, children, most often the girls, work at home, taking care of their parents or their brothers and sisters.

In some regions, a great number of children work because available schools do not meet their needs or because they have been victims of violence or negligence at those schools.

Unfortunately, some children are also forced to work.

Is work always bad for children?

No. Some forms of labour are not harmful to children and can even be beneficial to them, for example:

  • When their wages allow them to live better and get an education
  • When they work part-time, leaving them time to study and play
  • When their work enables them to develop a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence
  • When they learn social and occupational skills that will later be useful
Five children stacking loudspeaker parts. © ACDI-CIDA/David Trattles
In Jaipur, India, children sort loudspeaker parts. Some of the children are only four years old. After work, they are taught to read.

In many developing countries, however, millions of children and youth are subject to labour practices harmful and hazardous to their health and safety.

For example, some children are exposed to toxic pesticides. Others must lift heavy loads or work in buildings that are unsanitary or poorly lit.

In the worst forms of labour, the basic rights of the child are not respected. These forms of labour include:

  • Slavery, the sale and trafficking of children, and debt bondage
  • Forced or compulsory labour, including forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts
  • Prostitution and production of pornography
  • Illicit activities, such as production and trafficking of drugs
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by many countries, outlines the basic rights of children around the world:
  • the right to survival
  • the right to develop to the maximum extent possible
  • the right to be protected from harmful influences, maltreatment or exploitation
  • the right to participate fully in family, cultural, and social life

Children exposed to these forms of labour may be subject to violence and abuse. They may be injured. They may find themselves with mental and physical health problems, including diseases such as HIV/AIDS. They may even die. If they work full-time, they have no chance of going to school and qualifying for a better job in the future.

In 1999, the International Labour Organization described the most harmful forms of child labour in the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. In 2006, the ILO established an objective: to prohibit and eliminate these forms of labour by 2016.

Girl workers face special difficulties

In several cultures, future prospects for girls are fewer than for boys. Thus, often girls are encouraged to quit school and go to work at a very young age.

A boy pushing a wheelbarrow. © ACDI-CIDA/AGreg Kinch
In El Alto, Bolivia, a young boy helps his family collect gravel. This gravel will be used in making cement.

In many cases, they are required to stay at home to take care of their brothers and sisters. They may also be responsible for doing family chores such as fetching drinking water and wood when there is none close to home or tending livestock.

Most girls who work outside the home work for other people as servants, keeping house or taking care of children. In these situations, they are at greater risk of being exploited and of being subjected to physical, psychological, or sexual violence.

Helping child labourers by making education more accessible

Some children have to work. It is not always effective to prohibit child labour. When children are taken out of the labour market, they often find themselves doing more dangerous work, for example, prostitution or drug trafficking.

Alternatively, we must ensure that child labourers can get the knowledge and tools they need to be all they can be. One way to achieve this is to give all children access to quality basic education.

In developing countries, 67 million children still do not have access to schools or to basic education.

One of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals aims to ensure by 2015 that all children will be able to complete a full course of a primary schooling.

Canada's solutions

Canada has a strategy for securing the future of children and youth that aims, in part, to:
  • Better protect the rights of children and youth, especially of girls, who are at greater risk of being victims of violence, exploitation, and abuse
  • Give children and youth greater access to basic education and to learning opportunities, at school and elsewhere
  • Make sure schools are safe, free of violence and maltreatment, and offer an environment that is conducive to learning

Canada also supports projects to help young workers. For example:

A young girl transporting garbage in a dump. © ACDI-CIDA/Samuel Gervais
Nearly 1,500 people live in the sprawling dump on the shores of Lake Managua, in Nicaragua. Eleven-year-old Jessel collects plastic with his whole family.
  • In Colombia, children and youth are made use of in armed conflicts, in mines, in the sex trade, and in the production of drugs. An International Labour Organization project funded by Canada from 2009 to 2011 aimed to prevent children and teens from being recruited into the worst forms of labour and to withdraw those already recruited. An effort was made to restore to children and youth their right to an education and to creative use of their free time.
  • Since 2006, Canada has helped 200,000 children and youth engaged in occupations that prevent them from going to school in Bangladesh's six major urban centres. These children and youth are aged 10 to 14; 60 percent are girls and about 10 percent are involved in hazardous work. A UNICEF project funded by Canada enables them to acquire literacy and numeracy skills. In 2009, 6,646 learning centres were set up. This project also made it possible to develop a basic education curriculum and educational material that focus on practical knowledge and life skills useful to children from disadvantaged urban environments.
  • In a World University Service of Canada project funded by Canada until 2008, occupational training was provided for more than 700 youth working on tea plantations in central Sri Lanka. Now, 85 percent of these youths have jobs outside plantations.

Overall, Canada is pursuing its aim of helping people get themselves out of poverty for good, by and large improving the conditions that now require millions of children and youth to work. As for those children and youth who are work already, Canada is supporting them in bettering their chances of reaching their full potential.

How you can help

  • Get informed
    Several organizations aim to protect children from the worst forms of labour.
  • Make your voice heard
    Organizations helping child labourers maintain websites and use social media.
    Follow their feeds and newsletters and join in the discussions online!
    • UNICEF's Voices of Youth, a discussion forum on topics of interest to youth around the world
  • Take action and make a difference
    • Celebrate World Day Against Child Labour on June 12
    • Take part in child labour awareness campaigns
    • Volunteer for a non-governmental organization that works with young labourers
    • Use social media or publish articles in local newspapers to raise public awareness of child labour
    • When buying food, clothing, or any item, do so responsibly by avoiding products made using child labour
    • Make a cash donation to an organization carrying out projects to fight child labour in developing countries or organize a fundraiser for that organization