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Definition & Legal Instruments


According to the ILO, the term “child labour” is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that:

  • Is mentally, physically, socially, or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or
  • Interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.

It is important to distinguish between minimum age violations and the worst forms of child labour. The minimum age for work is defined as follows:

  • The minimum age for work should not be less than the age for completing compulsory schooling, and in general, not less than 15 years. However, States whose economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed may initially specify a minimum age of 14 years as a transitional measure (Minimum Age Convention No. 138).
  • Children can engage in light work from 13 years of age (or 12 as a transitional measure), provided that it does not interfere with their education or vocational training and that it does not have a negative impact on their health (Minimum Age Convention No. 138).

The worst forms of child labour include (Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention No. 182):

  • The sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;
  • The use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution or pornographic performances;
  • The use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities (e.g. production and trafficking of drugs).

Child labour also includes hazardous work performed by young workers over the legal minimum age for work but under 18 years. According to the ILO, hazardous work is defined as work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children. Examples of hazardous child labour include:

  • Work that exposes children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse;
  • Work underground, underwater, 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.

The ILO provides further guidance on types of hazardous work, while national legislation often includes lists of prohibited hazardous activities for children.

Legal Instruments

ILO and UN Conventions

Two ILO Conventions and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provide the framework for national law to define a clear line between what is acceptable and what is not in terms of child employment. The effective abolition of child labour is one of the five fundamental rights and principles at work by the ILO which member states must promote, irrespective of whether or not they have ratified the respective conventions listed below

The ILO Convention No. 182 has been ratified by all 187 ILO Member States (the only ILO Convention that has achieved universal ratification). The UN Convention on the Right of the Child has also been ratified by all countries except the United States (although the United States signed the Convention). Furthermore, most States have ratified ILO Convention No. 138. This means that in most countries relevant national legislation should be in place to implement the terms of these international legal instruments. However, ratification does not guarantee that these countries are free from child labour, as the existence and enforcement of national laws to address child labour varies.

Therefore, in due diligence, it is important to check the ratification status for particular countries as an indicator of potentially more limited state protections against child labour.

The fight against child labour is included as one of the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact: Principle 5: Businesses should uphold the effective abolition of child labour”. The four labour principles of the UN Global Compact are derived from the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

These fundamental principles and rights at work have been affirmed and developed in the form of specific rights and obligations in International Labour Conventions and Recommendations and cover issues related to child labour, discrimination at work, forced labour and freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Member States of the ILO have an obligation to promote the effective abolition of child labour, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question.

Other Legal Instruments

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) set the global standard regarding the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights in their operations and across their value chains. The Guiding Principles call upon States to consider a smart mix of measures — national and international, mandatory and voluntary — to foster business respect for human rights.

Domestic Legislation

Companies are increasingly subject to non-financial reporting obligations in the jurisdictions in which they operate, which often include disclosures on their performance. There are several high-profile examples of national legislation that specifically mandate human rights-related reporting and other positive legal duties, including the United Kingdom Modern Slavery Act 2015Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018, the Dutch Child Labour Due Diligence Law 2022, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act 2010, the French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law 2017, the German Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains 2023 and the Norwegian Transparency Act 2022.

The EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence (CSDD) Directive, which came into force in January 2023, establishes a duty of corporate due diligence to identify, prevent, mitigate, cease, and account for negative human rights and environmental impacts in operations, subsidiaries and value chains.. The Directive’s full entry into force is not expected until 2027.

These mandatory disclosure laws require companies to publicly communicate their efforts to address actual and potential human rights impacts, including the worst forms of child labour. Failure to comply with these obligations leads to real legal risk for companies.

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