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Numbers of child workers in the developing world. How many?

Estimates of the number of child workers worldwide are notoriously unreliable.

This is partly because the definition of child labour is unclear ­ at what point does helping out the family become work? But it is also because governments are not keen to measure a phenomenon that is officially not supposed to exist. The best estimate of 250 million comes from the International Labour Organization. But this not only excludes children in the industrialized world ­ it also does not measure the child workers hidden from the statistician's view, notably girls doing domestic work. Including these child workers from the shadows would push the total up to nearer 500 million ­ or half the children in the developing world aged 5-14.

Photo by Gianni Muratore / Panos

What about the rich world?

Global figures on child labour do not tend to include the children of the West. Yet part-time work by rich-world children in their early teens is routine and considered socially acceptable. Children, particularly those from ethnic minorities, are also employed in hazardous conditions ­ for example, in agriculture or in garment workshops.

Child workers in the US:

  • In 1990 100 adolescents were killed and a further 70,000 injured while at work in the service sector.4The national Institute for Occupation Safety and Health estimates that 70 teenagers are killed each year in work-related accidents and that more than 200,000 working teenagers are injured annually.5
  • A study by the US General Accounting Office showed a 250-per cent increase in child-labour violations between 1983 and 1990. In 1990 a three-day 'sting' operation by the Department of Labor discovered more than 11,000 children working illegally.6
  • The involvement of migrant children in US agriculture is routine. In the 1980s the United Farm Workers union estimated that 800,000 under-aged children worked harvesting crops.7
  • In 1990 a survey of Mexican American children working on farms in New York state showed a third of them had been sprayed with pesticides.8

Isn't there a law against it?

Most countries have laws against child labour.

But those laws kick in at different ages, are routinely abused ­ and the very definition of exploitative child work varies the world over.

The International Labour Organization's Minimum Age Convention sets a basic minimum age for employment of 15 years while allowing light work at 13 and prohibiting hazardous work until 18. But only 49 countries have ratified the Convention and none of these are countries considered to have the highest incidence of hazardous child labour.

Where are they?

Most child workers in the South are to be found in Asia.

But these figures are slightly misleading given that the population is much higher in Asia than elsewhere ­ the proportion of African children who work is twice as high as in Asia. While the most extreme examples of exploitative child labour tend to come from Asia, an African child is more likely to work.

Official figures always tend to underestimate the numbers of children working. But an ILO study of child workers aged 10 to 14 indicates with some reliability which countries have the highest incidence of child labour. Notable by their absence from the top ten are the countries most readily associated with child labour ­ India and Pakistan ­ whose respective percentages were 14.37% and 17.67%.

Countries with the highest incidence of labour by children aged 10-14

pie chart of number of child workers found in each continent

Why aren't they in school?

Children not in school are likely to be working and one in five of the world's children aged 6 to 11 is not attending school ­ around 140 million.9

The proportions of children out of school are much higher in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where enrolment in primary school is still very low. In Latin America enrolment is higher but many more children than elsewhere drop out early.

The single biggest reason why the world has not succeeded in delivering universal primary education to all its children is that it has not invested enough resources in decent schooling. Sub-Saharan Africa currently pays $12 billion in servicing its debts ­ yet just $2 billion would be enough to offer all the region's children a place in school.


1 The 250 million figure comes from ILO, Child Labour: Targeting the intolerable (ILO, Geneva 1997). The 500 million estimate is NI's own; UNICEF's estimate is 400 million in The State of the World's Children 1997. 2 ILO Bureau of Statistics, June 1996. 3 Child Labour in Britain, Report to the International Working Group on Child Labour, 1995. The bar chart shows the median number for each age. The survey showed the following ranges: 11 years old, 15%-26%; 12, 22.5%-36.5%; 13, 34%-49%; 14, 36%-59%; 15, 36%-66%. 4 Kinney 1993, quoted p 47. 5 Child Labor Monitor, Vol. VI, No 1, June 1996. 6 World Labour Report 1992, ILO. 7 Food and Justice, Vol 2, No 2. 8 SH Pollack et al, 'The Health Hazards of Agricultural Child Labor' in Migrant Health: Clinical Supplement, May-June 1990. 9 UNICEF, The State of the World's Children 1997.10 Victoria Johnson, Joanna Hill and Edda Ivan-Smith, Listening to smaller voices (ActionAid, London 1995).

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