What is Child Labour?

Child labour is work that harms children’s well-being and hinders their education, development and future livelihood, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Not all child labour is harmful; for example, if it is light work and does not interfere with a child’s education or right to leisure, as for example, children helping their parents on a farm with non-harmful activities or in a shop outside of school hours. Moreover, youth employment and student work are considered legal and may contribute positively to the development of children and young people.

What is the Dilemma?

The dilemma for responsible business is how to address child labour responsibly given the complex social and economic context in which it occurs. While a business may seek to respect the principles contained in international labour standards and national laws on minimum age, removing children (or having children removed) from their operations or supply chains without considering the implications for them could potentially worsen their situation. For example, removing children from the workplace without providing safer and suitable alternatives may leave them vulnerable to more exploitative work elsewhere (e.g. in subcontractor companies), as well as lead to negative health and well-being implications due to increased poverty within their family.

Prevalence of Child Labour

The ILO and UNICEF estimate that 160 million children — 63 million girls and 97 million boys — were in child labour globally at the beginning of 2020, accounting for almost 1 in 10 of all children worldwide.[1] 79 million children (nearly 50% of all children in child labour) were involved in hazardous work such as agriculture or mining, operating dangerous machinery or working at height. However, this number is an approximation — child labour is difficult to quantify because it is often hidden due to its illegal nature. The identification of children in the workplace can be further impeded by a lack of reliable documents such as birth certificates and the fact that it often occurs in rural settings or in areas of cities where authorities have little visibility.

Key trends include:

  • Global progress against child labour has stagnated since 2016 despite global efforts to eradicate child labour by 2025, as per target 8.7[2] of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • The COVID-19 crisis threatens to further erode global progress against child labour. ILO estimates suggest that a further 8.9 million children may be in child labour by the end of 2022 due to rising poverty driven by the pandemic.
  • In 2020, child labour risks increased in more than 20 countries. Africa remains the highest risk region, with 7 of the 10 highest risk countries (Verisk Maplecroft). According to the ILO, there are now more children in child labour in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined.
  • The year 2021 was designated as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour by UN Member States to further increase global efforts in eliminating child labour.

Impacts on Businesses

Businesses can be impacted by child labour risks in their operations and supply chains in multiple ways:

  • Reputational and brand risk: Campaigns by NGOs, trade unions, consumers, media and other stakeholders can result in reduced sales and/or brand erosion.
  • Financial risk: Divestment and/or avoidance by investors and finance providers (many of which are increasingly applying environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria to their decision-making) can result in reduced or more expensive access to capital and reduced shareholder value.
  • Legal risk: Legal charges can be brought against the company, up to and including criminal charges, which can result in imprisonment in some countries and usually involve significant fines and/or surrendering of goods produced by child labour (see section ‘Definition and Legal Instruments’). Former child workers may also be able to sue their exploitative employers, potentially including companies further up in the supply chain.
  • Operational risk: Changes to a company’s supply chains made in response to the discovery of child labour may result in disruption. For example, companies may feel the need to terminate supplier contracts (resulting in potentially higher costs and/or disruption) and direct sourcing activities to lower-risk locations.

Impacts on Children’s Rights

Child labour has the potential to impact a range of children’s rights,[3] including but not limited to:

  • Right to health and to an adequate standard of living (CRC, Articles 6.2 and 27.1): Children’s health and personal development may be negatively impacted through engagement in work activities, which are not age-appropriate.
  • Right to education (CRC, Article 28): Working hours may preclude children from attending school. Likewise, working children may be too tired to benefit fully from their studies. Children’s ability to learn and join the formal labour market at a later date may also be compromised by child labour.
  • Right to rest and leisure and to cultural life (CRC, Article 31.1): Children involved in child labour often do not have sufficient time to develop socially and culturally through play and interaction with other children.
  • Right to protection from economic exploitation (CRC, Article 32): Children have the right to be protected from economic exploitation. This includes the right to be protected from work that is hazardous or likely to interfere with the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.

For further information on children’s rights, please refer to UNICEF’s helpful summary of children’s rights listed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The following SDG targets relate to child labour:

  • Goal 8 (“Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all”), Target 8.7: 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
  • Goal 16 (“Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”), Target 16.2: End abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence and torture against children

Progress on these targets and Global Goals will also help advance other goals, for example Goal 3 (“Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”) and Goal 4 (“Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”).

Key Resources

The following resources provide further information on how businesses can address child labour responsibly in their operations and supply chains:

  • ILO and UNICEF, Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward: The most up-to-date global estimates of child labour from the ILO and UNICEF, including an overview of the impact on child labour from COVID-19.
  • ILO and International Organisation of Employers (IOE), Child Labour Guidance Tool for Business: This tool helps companies meet the due diligence requirements laid out in the UN Guiding Principles, as they pertain to child labour.
  • Ethical Trading Initiative, Base Code Guidance: Child Labour: A step-by-step guide for businesses on eliminating child labour in global supply chains.
  1. ILO and UNICEF, Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward, New York, 2012

  2. “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”

  3. By introducing the due diligence-based corporate responsibility to respect human rights, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) shift the focus from impacts on businesses to impacts on human rights. Further information on UNGPs is included in section ‘Due Diligence Considerations’.

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