From the Field

Child labor: Facts, FAQs, and how to help end it

About 160 million children ages 5 to 17 around the world are engaged in child labor, working in jobs that deprive them of their childhood, interfere with schooling, or harm their mental, physical, or social development. Nearly half of them — 79 million children — work under hazardous conditions. By definition, child labor is a violation of both child protection and child rights.

June 12 is the United Nations-sanctioned World Day Against Child Labor, a time to remember the young workers who have been robbed of their childhood, education, and the future they deserve.

FAQS: What you need to know about child labor

Get facts about this issue, and learn how you can help end it.

Fast facts: Child labor

  • At the beginning of 2020, 63 million girls and 97 million boys were in child labor, accounting for about 1 in 10 children worldwide.
  • About 70% of these children — 112 million — work in agriculture, mostly in farming and livestock herding.
  • Across all age groups, boys are more likely to work than girls.
  • 1 in 3 children in child labor are out of school.
  • 86.6 million children are engaged in child labor in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by central and southern Asia with 26.3 million.
  • Numbers are rising, particularly in the 5- to 11-year-old group, and the coronavirus pandemic threatens to reverse years of progress.


What is the definition of child labor?

Child labor is the exploitation of children who are deprived of their childhood by work that prevents them from attending school or causes physical, mental, or social harm. Children are especially vulnerable to injuries in their early developmental years, even though physical and mental health problems may not be evident for years.


Where is it a problem?

Child labor is concentrated in the world’s poorest countries. It is also common in the most dangerous places where insecurity or armed conflict exist. Sub-Saharan Africa has 86.6 million child laborers, more than anywhere else.

Family poverty and ill-equipped schools are two major reasons children in low-income countries are in the labor force. However, child labor isn’t confined to low-income countries. It’s a problem in all countries, to some degree: More than half of all child laborers live in middle-income countries.


What is a primary driver of child labor?

Poverty is the primary reason children are sent to work. Sadly, child labor keeps children from getting the education they need to break the cycle of poverty. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a U.N. agency, about 70% of child laborers work in agriculture. Others work long hours in factories, domestic service, or forced labor, such as child soldiers and children exploited in the commercial sex trade.


What are the worst forms of child labor?

The ILO’s Convention No. 182 defines hazardous and morally damaging forms of labor and calls for their immediate and total elimination. Worldwide, the ILO estimates that 22,000 child laborers are killed at work each year. As defined by the convention, the worst forms of child labor 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


Has child labor increased or decreased over time?

From 2000 — when the ILO began monitoring this issue — to 2016, the number of children exploited fell by 94 million, a dramatic global reduction. However, the decline slowed between 2012 and 2016, and global progress was stagnant between 2016 and 2020 — the most recent reporting period.

The positive trend and stagnation have shifted negatively. “Global estimates in 2021 showed an increase of 8.4 million children in child labor in the last four years and a 6.5 million increase in the number of children engaged in hazardous work. As these figures suggest, there are still far too many children in exploitive work,” reports the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs.


How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted child labor?

Due to rising poverty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 8.9 million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labor by the end of 2022. A strong global effort will be required to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating all forms of child labor worldwide by 2025.


What is World Vision doing to end child labor?

World Vision places children at the center of all our work to transform communities for good. We empower children to know their rights and work toward their own well-being. And we work with their parents and communities to see that kids are protected and that their futures are not stolen by labor exploitation.

By taking initiative in these areas, we help create a protective environment that cares for and supports all children:

  • Providing educational services to enhance teaching quality and improve learning spaces
  • Providing support for parents to improve their incomes and food security so that children don’t need to work
  • Advocating for national child labor laws and their enforcement
  • Promoting social accountability for communities, governments, and businesses
  • Equipping communities — faith leaders, parents, and community groups — to monitor vulnerable children to keep them out of hazardous work and help their families survive without their child’s income
  • Promoting decent work for youth who are above the minimum working age through training, life skills, and entrepreneurship, as well as access to savings and credit services


How can I help end child labor?

  • Pray for children trapped in work that puts them in danger or prevents them from attending school. Ask God to protect them from further exploitation so that they may enjoy the physical, mental, and spiritual nurture they need to live life to the full.
  • Give to support World Vision’s work around the world to protect children from labor and other forms of exploitation, abuse, and violence.
  • Sponsor a child. By investing in a child’s life, you’ll help them stay in school. You’ll also help build up their community so that there’ll be more job opportunities for them to pursue as adults.


History of child labor

Throughout history, children have contributed to the economic upkeep of their families through farm labor and handicrafts. However, the growth of manufacturing and farm mechanization during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries led to many children working under dangerous conditions in factories and farms. This in turn prompted laws that not only regulated conditions for kids working but also mandated education. Through the years:

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

1973: The Minimum Age Convention, ratified by 172 countries, sets the minimum age for employment but allows some exceptions.

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

1992: The International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC) is founded to promote the global elimination of child labor and support countries in their efforts.

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

2021: The U.N. General Assembly declares this to be the Year for the Elimination of Child Labor.

2025: International commitment is set to end all forms of child labor this year under Target 8.7 of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.


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

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