Child Labour

Work that interferes with the health, development, education or family life of persons under 18

It is estimated that 168 million children worldwide are engaged in child labour and that of these, around half are engaged in the worst forms of child labour, including sexual exploitation, slavery, bonded labour and hazardous work. In many ways, patterns of child labour reflect the human rights enjoyment of communities and families. For example, poverty, HIV/AIDS, conflict, limited government capacity and discrimination may be factors that correlate to a higher prevalence of child labour.

Children are defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as those up to 18 years of age. Children who work are usually more vulnerable than adult counterparts to exploitation and violence, including sexual exploitation and abuse in the workplace. As child labour often occurs in informal and under-regulated sectors, such factors are exacerbated. Child labour can have permanent negative impacts on children’s physical and cognitive development with permanent consequences on their health, development and well-being. Child labour also interferes with the right to education or can result from the lack of access to this human right. Where this is the case, valuable opportunities for breaking the cycle of poverty in communities can be lost.

Businesses may come into contact with children as consumers, workers, family members of employees and community members. Children are among the most powerless stakeholders in terms of exercising and enjoying their rights, and there is a rapidly growing attention on children’s rights within business and human rights.

This includes a focus on the full range of children’s rights and potential adverse business impacts on children. While issues such as child labour and trafficking have received attention within the business world for some time and remain critical issues, attention now extends to wider business impacts on children, including health and access to education. The Human Rights and Business Country Guide provides an overview of the child labour and trafficking context in each country, but also includes information on development outcomes, educational access and other areas that may be impacted by businesses.

Companies may cause, contribute or be directly linked to the following human rights impacts:

  • Use of underage workers in violation of international minimum age standards for light work, fulltime work or harmful work.
  • Engaging young workers under the age of 18 in work that would interfere with their health, education or family life.
  • Practices of the worst forms of child labour by local contractors, suppliers, or other business partners, including employing underage workers for harmful work or in bonded labour relationships involving coercion, human trafficking, debt bondage or withholding of payment or personal documents.
  • Restrictions on access to education, either through employing children to the detriment of their schooling or employing family members at a wage that does not allow them to afford school fees for their children in the local context.

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  • Areas for Attention

    Key components of the corporate responsibility to respect human rights

    Child labour and the rights of young workers are addressed by ILO Convention No.182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour and ILO Convention No.138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment.

    Child labour can be defined as including work that:

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

    More detailed provisions are included in ILO Convention No.138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and Work. ILO Convention No.138 applies to all children under 18 and provides strict guidelines on the age and type of work that children are allowed to undertake.

    The key principles are:

    • Children under 12 are not allowed to work;
    • Minimum age for work should be 15 (possible exception of 14 for developing countries). This is the age at which compulsory schooling ends;
    • Minimum age for hazardous work should be 18; and
    • Light work (i.e. work not affecting the child’s health, education or development) can be undertaken between the ages of 13 and 15 (possibly between the ages of 12 and 14 in developing countries).


    Worst Forms of Child Labour

    The Human Rights and Business Country Guide provides information on the worst forms of child labour in the country, including how many children are estimated to be engaged in such child labour, which sectors they are employed in, and under which conditions they are labouring.

    ‘Hazardous work,’ meaning labour that jeopardises the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child, either because of its nature or because of the conditions in which it is carried out, is prohibited for children below the age of 18. ILO Convention No. 182 (Worst Forms of Child Labour) further defines the worst forms of child labour as being:

    • all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as 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, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;
    • the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties;
    • 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.

    It is important to note that even though the Human Rights and Business Guide deals with the issues of forced labour and human trafficking under the following issue called ‘Forced Labour’, forced child labour as well as all information relating to the trafficking of children is covered under ‘Child Labour,’ as they are by definition part of the worst forms of child labour.



    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights stipulates that education shall be free and compulsory, at least in elementary and fundamental stages. International standards do not state an age limit for compulsory education, so interpretation at the national level varies between countries. In many countries it corresponds with the completion of secondary education and the minimum age for entry into employment.

    The Human Rights and Business Country Guide provides information, where available, on the percentage of children enrolled in primary education, literacy rates, gender parity in access to education and the quality of education. Furthermore, the Guide identifies potential barriers to access to education, including high fees or corruption in local administration.

  • International Instruments

    As noted above, child labour is defined in the following instruments

    • ILO Convention No.182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour
    • ILO Convention No.138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment.
    • ILO Convention No.138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and Work
    • ILO Convention No.182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour
    • ILO Recommendation 190 on Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour provides guidance to governments on what factors they should consider in identifying hazardous work for children

    The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child also has two optional protocols of potential relevance to business:

    • The Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography, specifically addresses businesses by requiring States to adopt laws making legal persons liable for acts involving the sale of child prostitution or involvement in child pornography
    • The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict requires states to do everything they can to prevent individuals under the age of 18 from taking a direct part in hostilities.
  • Human Rights Guidance for Businesses

    Guidance by the Danish Institute for Human Rights and other institutions to help companies ensure respect for human rights when addressing common challenges.

    Due Diligence Library

    The following recommendations have been developed by The Danish Institute for Human Rights through research and engagement with companies


    Child Labour

    Does the company comply with minimum age standards?
    • The company does not employ workers under 15 years of age for full-time work, 13 years of age for light work and 18 years of age for hazardous work (please see the question description for exceptions).
    • If the company employs minors below the age of 18, the company has a list of job functions that can safely be performed by minors.
    • The company is aware of local age-levels for completion of compulsory education and does not employ workers under that age for work that may interfere with such education.
    • The company has a reliable procedure to check the age of young job candidates by birth certificate, other official forms of identification, or by alternative means such as physical appearance or knowledge of historic events.
    • Company apprenticeship programmes do not constitute the main portion of the workforce, are limited in duration, are performed in conjunction with a school programme (or supervised by Labour Ministers or Labour Organisations), and do not interfere with the child’s compulsory education.
    • If the company becomes aware that it is employing young workers below minimum age, it ensures that they are enrolled in education programme, and that their dependents are compensated for the resulting loss of income.

    Standards & Guidance

    NGO and institutional resources to enhance human rights due diligence efforts by businesses. These resources are drawn from the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre



    Key Resources

    Organisations & Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives