Editor's Chronicle

Volume 11, Issue 1, 2007

The Prevention of Hazardous Child Labour

It seems self-evident that children have to be removed from forced and bonded labour, armed conflict, prostitution and pornography, and illicit and criminal activities, and prevented from being trafficked, sold and bought like slaves. The time-bound programmes of the ILO/IPEC, presently initiated in a few countries (ie. Nepal, El Salvador and Tanzania) have concentrated on these forms of exploitation.

In terms of hazardous and unacceptable exposure to children, many forms of work-related conditions might be seen to border on these worst forms of child labour and some children's work in the home or with extended family, in the agricultural informal sector, in the armed forces, or on the street, only differ to a degree from what is defined in the ILO Convention 182.

It can be argued

  • that any form of pressure applied to a child by adults, including parents or relatives, for whatever the reason, to work instead of going to school, is unacceptable;
  • that any form of active military service for children in regions where armed conflicts are endemic, is unacceptable;
  • that most homeless, uncared for, street-living children are likely to be forced to survive on prostitution, pornography or illicit activities, and this is unacceptable.

A further category of unacceptable child labour is "work which by its nature or by the circumstances under which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children" (182, Art 3 d).

From a work environment perspective, the forms under which unacceptable exposure to physical, chemical, mental or moral hazards are experienced will matter to the practical task of risk reduction or elimination.

As a guideline to national stakeholders and activists, the ILO recommendations 190 suggest the following areas to be considered:

  • work which exposes children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse;
  • work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces;
  • work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads;
  • work in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging to their health;
  • work under particularly difficult conditions such as work for long hours or during the night or work where the child is unreasonably confined to the premises of the employer.

(ILO, R 190, II Hazardous work, 1999)

Exposures hazardous to children

In order to assess the relative severity of children's work exposure compared to adult workers, it might be useful to remember the following (Forastieri, 2002):

Traumatic injury represents the primary cause of death among children and adolescents, worldwide (Mancian & Romer, 1991). Inexperience, inability to perceive danger correctly or understand the risk involved, and immature (or childish) ways of moving, behaving and interpreting situations will increase the risk of traumatic accidents for children (Larsson, 1988).

Ergonomic hazards represent a major concern in relation to child labour. The physical capacities of the child, the muscular strength, the size of hands, the reach, the strength of the back, the strength and maturity of joints, represent reasons why children should not work. The acceptable physical work level for a child represent a minute fraction of the "just right" dynamical work level for an adult. Considerable average gender differences make the girl child even more sensitive to excessive physical load.

Children differ from adults in biological development; their bodies are growing, organs and tissues are developing, they have a larger surface area in relation to weight than adults, a higher metabolic rate, oxygen consumption and intake of air per unit of body weight, and a greater requirement of fluid in relation to weight. Children between 8 - 10 years of age doing exercise have a ventilation rate three times higher than adults doing light work (McGuigan, 1994). Working children will absorb larger amounts of airborne substances than adults, and toxic effects and other health consequences due to exposure to harmful substances will be much more severe in the child compared to the adult (Bengtsson, 2001).

Exposures to harmful substances with long effect latencies (eg. asbestos) will also, for sheer longevity of exposure, be more severe for children, who commence being exposed very early in life. Different forms of exposure to chemicals might be seriously interfering with the growth and development of the body and chemicals introduced to the young body might produce adverse health effects or disabilities in adult life. Chemicals absorbed might hinder growth itself.

Children are particularly sensitive to the exposure to and uptake of heavy metals (lead, mercury), which damage the nervous system and the brain and, at sub-clinical levels, will produce cognitive impairment and restrict overall growth and intellectual development.

Children have a lower tolerance to heat stress than adults because their sweat glands are still developing. Young workers are also more susceptible than adults to noise-induced hearing loss. Ionizing radiation is more damaging to growing tissues and will have more pronounced effects on children due to the cumulative nature of radiation risk.

Deprivation, under-development and social mobilisation

Maybe the most important aspect of child labour is its impact on psychological and social development. By being forced into regular work children are deprived of their childhood and the time and ability to play, explore, socialize with other children and use their creative energy for school and education. Hard work at tender years will have different effects on the individual psychological development of the child. But reduced school attendance and poor education will create under-developed generations of children, prolonging and perpetuating poverty and under-development of the region.

One could say that a decent childhood, without abuse and exploitation at work, is a precondition for a decent adult working life. This also makes economic sense, as, in the long term, no society can achieve sustainable economic development on the back of its children (IPEC, 2001).

When households are so poor that the earnings of the child are necessary for the family to survive, then the only viable action is to address that poverty. If the family cannot afford to send their children to school, the quality and availability of the schools will not matter. To legislate against child labour and to make schooling compulsory will not make these families better off.

To reduce or eliminate child labour, and particularly the hazardous forms of child labour, it is necessary to influence and change the social, economic and political factors within the local community, which create or maintain the economic and cultural conditions for families to force their children to work.

The conditions for intervention and change in the local arena may vary greatly, but social mobilisation of the very families and children exposed to the poverty and exploitation is a necessary basis for change and development. Poverty is defined not only by access to private goods but, more importantly, by access to common goods. Local development will, to a large extent, depend on the organization of local collective life and the ability of the community to control local resources.

The local tools for economic and political liberation may include the forming of local labour unions and associations, the creation of local cooperative credit unions, the forming of production, distribution and consumers' cooperatives, the development of functional local infrastructure (roads, electricity, water, sewerage), the establishment of health care and educational facilities and the forming of local political organizations for communication with the national and global community.

Poverty, assets and credit

Poverty, birth control and child labour are interlinked. Large families have many to feed and are often poorer. Younger children from large families are more likely to work and less likely to attend school. Teenage pregnancy, and teenagers who send their own children out to work due to low household income perpetuate the poverty cycle.

Children born to families living in debt bondage under an employer's exploitative treatment are forced to work. This form of slavery robs the parents of their power over their children's upbringing and reduces children to sellable assets.

Children may be forced to work to directly increase family income for subsistence, but they are also used as reserve income providers. Families balancing on the poverty threshold are vulnerable to income loss such as bad harvests or unemployment. Sending out more family members to work will extend and provide bridging income and this particularly applies when families or single-parent households have no savings or ability to borrow.

Limited access to credit perpetuates chronic poverty and tends to trap non-poor households in phases of poverty following unforeseen income losses. Households without earnings and assets are unable to acquire credit and this can force families to sell children into bonded labour in return for lump sums of money or debt repayment.

Locally provided credit can assist households to make it through periods of transient poverty. Credit can be tied to school attendance and to undertakings in local development projects, such as state investments in infrastructure or other projects designed to reduce chronic poverty.

Unionisation and control of the labour force

The participation of children in the labour market may influence this market in several different ways. Child labour can aggravate poverty by increasing unemployment or under-employment of adults, while putting downward pressure on wages. However, child labour may also facilitate adult employment. Women are able to enter the job market by using their children to mind the home and look after siblings. Children working in the informal sector may have little effect on adult employment, filling niches that are not attractive to adults.

Some children work, not because of absolute poverty but because they and their families believe that the benefits of working, both immediate and future, are greater than the benefits of education.

Some of the worst forms of child labour attract relatively high income: soldiering, prostitution, and mining. To remove children from these relatively lucrative activities may involve creating alternative income opportunities, eg. local employment guarantees for adults and educational guarantees, with possible subsidies, in the case of children.

The influence of local labour unions is needed to create the counter-force required to reduce and control child labour. By gaining some control over the local labour force supply, better compliance with laws and regulations might be achieved. Local unionists will also be local parents with an objective interest in the future of their children.


Households in villages where state-provided infrastructure includes potable water, electricity and roads are economically far better off than households with the same income but without these amenities (IPEC, 2001). Children, as well as adult women, in many rural villages are heavily engaged in getting water from faraway sources.

Investment in infrastructure projects may relieve the local community of its dreariest and heaviest tasks, often carried out by its children, and extend the local employment opportunities for the duration of the project. Long term it will improve the prospects of job growth and general economic development in the local community.


A number of factors help explain the failure of formal education systems to cater for the needs of children engaged in child labour or at risk:

  • Structural factors, under-development and extreme regional poverty will make sending children to school an impossible option for destitute families,
  • Social norms or cultural attitudes towards education within the target population might favour work over schooling, turning the necessary into something virtuous and beneficial to the child,
  • Education tends to be of low quality, particularly in poor regions, with inadequate support for teachers, lack of infrastructure, training and aids, and conservative attitudes among teachers and decision makers in the education system.

In most countries, industrialised and developing alike, there is often a complete divide between ministries responsible for education and ministries dealing with social protection, including child labour issues.

It is difficult to enrol ex-child workers in the educational system without in some way substituting the lost income from the child's work. This can be done by picking up the indirect costs of education (books, shoes, etc), providing free school meals linked to participation in classes, offering stipends, or by supporting income generation opportunities for adult members of the family. A combined educational and social welfare approach of this kind might be effective, but is difficult to produce if education and social protection are politically unrelated.

Primary education in principle is free in many countries, but there are still indirect costs to parents in many systems, such as uniforms and textbooks. In situations where education is not affordable or parents see no value in education, families send children to work, rather than to school. This particularly affects children in poor families and those belonging to the culturally and socially disadvantaged and excluded groups, who become victims of child labour and exploitation. Education policies generally do not make special provisions to accommodate the needs of these children or their families.

For children born into households with limited economic assets, publicly funded education offers an escape from the poverty trap, a route to economic and social mobility. Education increases the probability of finding wage employment and also attracts a higher wage rate, once in employment. Educated parents are found to produce better outcomes for their children, even after adjusting for the level of household income. The social and common returns to education exceed the private returns. This is related, for example, to the wider application of knowledge, to lower fertility and to more effective political participation. As in the case of other activities generating positive results, there is a very clear case for government intervention and investing in education.

A recent survey on basic education in India found that there is a massive popular demand for schooling by parents. They do not have, however, much faith in the school system's ability to impart a good education (IPEC, 2001). In many countries, where schools are available, the quality of education is sometimes poor and the content taught is perceived as not relevant.

Teachers and educators who are primarily responsible for providing education to children from poor families in rural or urban areas are faced with innumerable problems, such as lack of the most basic facilities, materials and support systems. Often, their working conditions are poor and they assume demanding workloads without adequate compensation and recognition for their efforts.

The removal of barriers to basic education is urgently needed. Basic education in most countries is not completely free and in most developing countries schooling is not accessible to all children. Many children are not enrolled in school due to the long distance, particularly in rural areas. Social norms might also prevent children from attending school. Children from one Indian hamlet may be reluctant or unable to go to school in another hamlet due to caste or other tensions. Girls' restricted freedom of movement exacerbates this problem of social distance.


Sixty percent of children out of school worldwide are girls. Their work is largely hidden, uncounted and unvalued (e.g. household chores, domestic servitude, agricultural work, home-based work). In many cultures, parents tend to invest in the education of their sons and prefer to retain their daughters' working contribution to the household.

To increase girls' education, strong efforts to eliminate child labour are required. Several cultural and normative issues further constrain girls' educational opportunities. Long distances between home and school (personal security), the relative status of women in the community (separate girls schools with only female teachers), and religious and quasi-religious traditions can make the increased schooling of girl children an even more complex task.

The Indian State of Kerala has often been cited as an example of a place where girls and women have reaped the greatest benefits of increased primary education spending. In the early 1980s, the State government spent US$ 1.60 per capita on primary education as compared to the US$ 0.83 per capita average for all Indian States. This emphasis on primary education has resulted in literacy rates today as high as 94% for men, 86% for women and 98% for boys and girls 10-to-14 years. It has also lowered the drop out rate to close to zero and produced a child labour participation rate significantly lower than the national average. Kerala has half the infant mortality rate of the country as a whole as well as a fertility rate lower than the Indian average. There are other structural and economic factors that make the State of Kerala different to other Indian States, but this reinforces the causal relationship between a high level of educational achievement, particularly for women, and lower fertility and infant mortality rates (Ramakumar & Devi, 1989).

For instance, a fairly systematic finding in the recent literature on the micro-econometric analysis of developing country household surveys is that the children of educated mothers come from smaller families, are more likely to survive beyond the age of five, are generally healthier and are more likely to be enrolled in school (IPEC, 2001).

Local traditions

Parents sometimes value child work. Many cultures nurture a belief that work is good for children's growth and development, for their upbringing and socialisation. While societies should determine, within international parameters, which types of work are acceptable, the worst forms of child labour should clearly not feature among them. Poor quality schooling in many developing countries reinforces this. Consequently, policy action needs to focus on investments in the real and perceived returns of education.

Turning to more general forms of child work, of which household-owned farms or small enterprises are the most common, the benefits of work experience may be high if children inherit these assets and remain in the same occupation once they are adults. To counteract this, and to encourage inter-generational occupational mobility, the local labour market must grow and provide increased real access to a diversity of jobs in and outside the community.

Children may follow in their parents' footsteps, sometimes for reasons of geographical proximity. This is the case when a factory or mine is a town's main employer. Other causes may be social marginalisation or exclusion, as seen with the children of sex workers who are more likely to enter sex work, or tradition, as in the case of the children of leather tanners who help out with work from an early age.

Imperfect labour markets strengthen the incentives faced by parents who own land or other assets and who may eventually put children to work on the farm. In particular, the more assets like land or livestock a household owns, the higher the marginal productivity of family labour (other things being equal, such as household size). In the absence of a well-functioning labour market, it may be difficult to substitute hired labour for family labour, creating an incentive for parents to employ their children.

Parental attitudes will play a major role sending a child to work. Surveys indicate that, in some cases, parents did not know the kind of work or the consequences of the work to which they were sending their children. For example, in a West African region parents thought that their children were going to a good job in another region but where, in fact, their children were forced to work as domestic labourers or prostitutes (IPEC, 2001).

Since gender norms restrict the opportunities available for girls, the likelihood of them attending school is low. Many societies believe that it is good for girls to be trained as housekeepers, therefore rendering it acceptable to send girls out to work as domestics. In societies where girls suffer particularly severe discrimination, boys are given education while girls are sent to work. Boys are often sent to work outside the home where they are more visible than girls - for example to factory work instead of domestic labour - thus, boys may benefit disproportionately from interventions to increase school attendance, while the girls remain hidden away in domestic and reproductive chores.

Motives for parents' investments in their children are culturally and economically specific. In many countries, parents rely on their children for support in old age. Dependence on children for old-age security will lead to high fertility and, where household incomes are limited, to lower levels of investment in children. Public health investments that reduce child mortality, combined with wide-coverage pension schemes, will contribute to the reduction of child labour.

Rapid social change and desire for material goods can be a strong push factor into child labour. Media representations of material wealth travel much faster to poor areas than does development itself. It is not only parents who push their children into child labour, children themselves often decide that they wish to remove themselves from poverty and seek jobs in urban areas with dreams of cash and consumption.

Historically, developed economies were able to come to grips with child labour by creating productive, well-paid jobs in the formal sector. This resulted in slower population growth, a more prosperous population and a social fabric that restricted the exploitation of children.

These factors underlying child labour supply are not mutually exclusive. It is useful to investigate which of these is predominant in any particular region and time. The history and geography of child labour offer some support for the poverty explanation. However, there is evidence from field studies and from household survey data that the incidence of child labour in households above the poverty line is not insignificant (IPEC, 2001; Chaudhri, 2001). In some cases, and especially for girls, this appears to be the result of low educational returns. Overall, the existing evidence indicates some role for each of the factors discussed. Case-by-case data analysis is necessary in order to establish a ranking of alternative policies in any region. Rapid Assessments (RAs) provide further in-depth information essential for understanding the causes of child labour in particular sectors or regions, which are crucial when planning interventions (IPEC, 1999).

Global movement

Local organizations undertaking practical child labour reduction or elimination projects will benefit from contacts with and support from global social movements on human rights, child protection, consumer advocacy and occupational health and safety. In areas where child labour can be linked to specific commercial exploitation and trade, and consumer and investment interests are informed about child labour practices, global campaigns can reduce or eradicate employment in sub-sectors of child labour.

Such global consumer and investment mobilisation will only be of benefit to developing regions if they are combined and coordinated with other social and political activities in the region, and stem from the organised efforts of local communities to improve living standards, health and education.

As indicated above, the Teacher, the Banker, the Politician, the Union Organiser and the Health and Safety Professional can play the key roles in the local projects to restrict and prevent child labour.

In terms of prevention, child labour can only be eradicated by the people in the regions now practicing it, but this will only happen if the global community is mobilised and support such developments in the impoverished and under-developed regions of the world.


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Tore J Larsson