From the Field

Child labor: Facts, FAQs, and how to help

About 160 million children worldwide — nearly 1 in 10 children — worked in child labor in 2020, engaging in jobs that deprived many of education, jeopardized their well-being, and infringed upon their basic rights. Among the children, 63 million were girls and 97 million were boys. Child labor, by definition, is a violation of child protection and rights.

Child labor: Facts, FAQS, and how to help

Fast facts: Child labor

  • Nearly half of child laborers — 79 million children — were working under hazardous conditions in 2020.
  • 1 in 3 children in child labor are out of school.
  • Approximately 70% (112 million) of child laborers work in agriculture like farming and livestock herding.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of child laborers at 86.6 million children, followed by Central and Southern Asia with 26.3 million.
  • June 12 marks the United Nations–sanctioned World Day Against Child Labour, a time to reflect on young workers deprived of their childhood, education, and a rightful future.


What is child labor?

Child labor is the exploitation of children who are either too young to work or are engaged in work that compromises their physical, mental, or social or educational development. Children, especially vulnerable during their early developmental years, are at risk of injuries that may not be evident as physical and mental health problems until later stages of life.


Why is child labor a problem, and where is it prevalent?

Child labor affects millions of children around the globe by depriving them of their childhood, education, and fundamental human rights. Child labor poses risks of physical, emotional, and psychological harm to the children involved.

Data from the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) shows that slightly more than 1 in 5 children in the world’s poorest countries engage in potentially harmful work, as of 2023. This issue is prevalent in areas of insecurity and armed conflict.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of child laborers, with nearly 24% of children ages 5–17 engaged in child labor. Some contributors to children entering the labor force in low-income countries are family poverty and ill-equipped schools. However, child labor isn’t limited to low-income countries. It persists to some extent in all countries: More than half of all child laborers live in middle-income countries.


What are the worst forms of child labor?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 182 demands that hazardous and morally damaging labor practices for children be immediately and completely eliminated. The worst forms of child labor, as defined by this document, include:

  • Slavery or similar practices
  • Child trafficking
  • Forced recruitment into armed conflict
  • Prostitution and pornography
  • Drug production and trafficking or other illegal acts
  • Debt bondage
  • Hazardous work that can cause injury or moral corruption


What is the primary driver of child labor?

Poverty is the primary reason children are forced to work, perpetuating a crushing cycle that denies them education, a crucial tool to break free from poverty. According to the ILO, approximately 70% of child laborers toil in agriculture. Others work long hours in factories and domestic service or face even more exploitative forms of labor — like as child soldiers or being exploited in the commercial sex trade.

A boy wearing flip-flops leans over a motorcycle in a repair shop, where tools are scattered across the ground.
His family struggling in poverty, Sajal* (pictured at 14) left school to work at a motorcycle repair workshop in Nilphamari, Bangladesh. His daily struggle reflects the challenges of approximately 79 million children engaged in hazardous work worldwide. World Vision has been in Nilphamari since 2009, our programs supporting improved child well-being. Local staff note increased school enrollment, livelihoods, and reduced social violence as a result of our programs. Sadly, child labor persists for many children, exacerbated by chronic poverty and worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. (©2022 World Vision/photo by Aboni Albert Rozario)

“The work I do at the workshop is very painful. I often get cuts and bruises on my hands and I have to lift very heavy machinery,” says Sajal*, a child laborer in Bangladesh. “I don’t want to work here but I will starve if I don’t work. The kids I used to go to school with now bully me sometimes. They tell me that I don’t belong with them anymore now that I have to work while they get to go to school.”

*Name changed to protect identity.


Has child labor increased or decreased over time?

According to a joint UNICEF and ILO publication, child labor worldwide increased to 160 million in 2020, up by 8.4 million in several years. This marked the first halt in global progress to end child labor in over two decades. In sub-Saharan Africa, factors like population growth and extreme poverty added 16.6 million children to child labor in the last several years. UNICEF and the ILO emphasized that the global impacts of COVID-19 and extreme weather events could threaten millions of additional children.


What is World Vision doing to end child labor?

At World Vision, we endeavor to end child labor and help equip communities for long-term transformation. Placing children at the heart of our work, we empower children to know their rights and strive toward their own well-being. Together with parents and communities, we support the building of protective environments, working toward a world where no child’s future is stolen by labor exploitation.

Our initiatives focus on:

  • Enhancing teaching quality and improving learning spaces through educational services
  • Supporting parents to improve their incomes and food security, eliminating the need for children to work
  • Advocating for the enactment and enforcement of national child labor laws
  • Promoting social accountability for communities, governments, and businesses
  • Equipping communities, including faith leaders, parents, and community groups, to monitor vulnerable children to prevent hazardous work
  • Promoting decent work for youth who are above the minimum working age through training, life skills, and entrepreneurship, coupled with access to savings and credit services


How can I help end child labor?

  • Pray: Join us in praying for all children who are trapped in child labor.
  • Give: Support programs that work to protect kids from labor and other forms of exploitation, abuse, and violence.
  • Sponsor a child: By investing in a child’s life, you’ll help equip them for brighter futures. Child sponsorship benefits entire communities through programs like education and resources that help children stay in school and create better job opportunities for them to pursue as adults.


History of child labor

Throughout history, children have played a role in supporting their families through farming and handicrafts. However, the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries brought about significant changes, leading to the exploitation of children in factories and farms under hazardous conditions. This, in turn, prompted laws that regulated conditions for kids working and mandated education. Key milestones:

1938: The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act restricted hours and types of jobs for individuals under age 16.

1973: The Minimum Age Convention, ratified by 172 countries, established the minimum age for employment with some exceptions.

1989: The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child was enacted to guarantee the protection of children’s rights to grow and thrive.

1992: The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)  was founded to promote the global elimination of the practice and support countries in their efforts.

1999: The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, ratified by 186 countries, required ending practices like slavery, human trafficking, debt bondage, forced labor in armed conflict, prostitution, pornography, drug trafficking, and other illicit activities.

2021: The U.N. General Assembly declared 2021 the Year for the Elimination of Child Labor.

2025: Target 8.7 of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals is to end all forms of child labor by 2025.


Sevil Omer of World Vision’s U.S. staff contributed to this article.

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