Nearly every country has committed to protect children from work that could be harmful or interfere with their education by ratifying the International Labour Organization Minimum Age Convention (C138). Yet there is little transparency and accountability around whether countries have followed through on these commitments by passing legislation to protect children from work. The paper aims to discuss these issues.
This paper reports on analyses conducted of child labor legislation from all 193 United Nations member states to determine whether countries that have committed to ending child labor have taken the first step by passing legislation to protect children and youth from: work that is likely to be hazardous, work that is likely to interfere with their education and work that is harmful to their healthy development.
Findings show one in five ratifiers legally allow children to do hazardous work, and a similar number permit admission to employment at a young age. Moreover, legislative loopholes significantly undermine the protections that do exist in many countries.
Existing reporting mechanisms sometimes obscure whether central legal protections are in place, make cross-country comparisons difficult and impede the analysis of possible relationships between policies and outcomes across countries. This paper illustrates a novel approach to provide transparency and accountability on whether countries are meeting child labor commitments by using quantitative, globally comparable policy indicators.
de Guzman Chorny, N., Raub, A., Earle, A. and Heymann, J. (2019), "The state of child labor protections in 193 countries: Are countries living up to their international commitments?", International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 39 No. 7/8, pp. 609-626. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-12-2018-0229
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited
As of 2016, according to data from the International Labour Organization (ILO), there were 152m child laborers aged 5–17 globally, 73m of them engaged in hazardous work. The region with the highest number of child laborers was Africa (72.1m), followed by Asia and the Pacific (62m). Africa also had the highest proportion of children under the age of 18 who were engaged in child labor (19.6 percent). A majority of child laborers (70.9 percent) worked in the agricultural sector. Approximately one in six (17.2 percent) worked in the service sector, and 11.9 percent worked in goods-producing industries. Close to one out of three child laborers in the 5–14 years age group did not attend school (International Labour Organization, 2017).
Overall, boys were more likely than girls to engage in child labor; 88m and 64m did so, respectively, though these figures may underestimate rates of child labor for girls, who are more likely to engage in unaccounted types of child labor, such as unpaid household chores. In total, 29m children aged 5–14 were doing unpaid household work for over 28 h per week; two-thirds of them were girls (International Labour Organization, 2017).
Impact of child labor
In certain circumstances, work by youth may have benefits for them and their families. Their earnings can increase household income (Bourdillon, 2000; Cortez et al., 2007; O’Donnell et al., 2005), and can be used to help cover the costs of education (Islam and Choe, 2013; Maconachie and Hilson, 2016). Work by youth can help them develop skills that are useful later in life (Baker and Hinton, 2001; Bey, 2003; Hungerland et al., 2007; Zepeda and Kim, 2006), and develop youth’s social agency through increased autonomy and participation (Khan et al., 2007; Liebel, 2003; Rubenson et al., 2004).
However, the bulk of the evidence suggests that except in cases where a youth works only a few hours per week, child and youth labor is harmful to development, educational success and health. Studies from a range of countries, including Nepal, Ghana, Indonesia, Brazil and Vietnam, have found that child labor is associated with fewer years of education completed on average in comparison to nonworking children (Beegle et al., 2009; Doocy et al., 2007; Ilahi et al., 2009; Ray, 2002; Sim et al., 2017). Moreover, evidence from dozens of countries around the world finds that an increase in the number of hours spent on market or domestic work is associated with a decrease in the total years of schooling completed (Ray, 2002; Ray and Lancaster, 2005). Engagement in labor at an early age is also associated with higher grade repetition (Goulart and Bedi, 2008; Tyler, 2003), lower enrollment rates (DeGraff et al., 2016), lower school attendance (Allais, 2009; Dessy and Knowles, 2008; Edmonds, 2008; Ray and Lancaster, 2005) and lower academic achievement (Alfa and Karim, 2016; Emerson et al., 2017; Fetuga et al., 2007; Heady, 2003; Holgado et al., 2014; Le and Homel, 2015; Zabaleta, 2011). Studies from diverse countries show that working at an early age is associated with lower achievement in a range of subjects including math, science (Post and Pong, 2000), language (Gunnarsson et al., 2006) and reading (Post, 2011).
Child labor also has detrimental effects on children’s health (Cortez et al., 2007; O’Donnell et al., 2005). Studies of child laborers in countries around the world have documented high rates of work-related injuries (Beegle et al., 2009; Dalal et al., 2015; Doocy et al., 2007; Nuwayhid et al., 2005; Tiwari et al., 2004; Wolff and Maliki, 2008); high levels of toxicity (Ide and Parker, 2005; Junaid et al., 2017; Nuwayhid et al., 2005; Sughis et al., 2012); chronic sleep deprivation, malnutrition, exposure to hazardous chemicals and increased risk of injury, as well as verbal, physical or sexual abuse (International Labour Organization, 2007; Matsuno and Blagbrough, 2006; de Silva-de-Alwis, 2008; Zainab and Kadir, 2016); and poor mental health outcomes (Sturrock and Hodes, 2016). Moreover, a number of studies have shown that the health effects of laboring at an early age result in an increase in the likelihood of experiencing poor health outcomes as adults (Kassouf et al., 2001; Nuwayhid et al., 2005; O’Donnell et al., 2005; Rosati and Straub, 2007; Wolff and Maliki, 2008), including having at least one chronic disease and experiencing difficulty with mobility (Akee et al., 2010; Lee and Orazem, 2010; Nishijima et al., 2015).
International agreements on child labor
Beginning in 1919, a series of international Minimum Age Conventions established minimum ages for employment in certain industries. The first was the Convention Fixing the Minimum Age for Admission of Children to Industrial Employment (in force as of 1921), which set forth a minimum age of 14 years for industrial employment (e.g. in mining, construction and transportation), along with some exceptions to the rule. Subsequent sector-specific conventions were adopted through 1965. It was not until 1973 that the ILO adopted a general convention setting a minimum age across industries and sectors. Ratified by 169 United Nations (UN) member states as of 2016, the ILO’s Minimum Age Convention (Convention 138, or C138) requires states to establish a minimum age of no less than 15 years for admission to employment. In its 18 articles, C138 explicitly requires ratifying nations to develop national policy frameworks to abolish child labor and increase the minimum age for employment in national laws.
C138 also contemplates the circumstances of “countries whose economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed,” allowing them to initially set a slightly lower minimum age “after consultation with the organizations of employers and workers concerned, where such exist” (see Table I).
Following the adoption of C138, ILO Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labor (Convention C182, or C182) was adopted in 1999. C182 complements C138 by identifying and prioritizing the eradication of the most egregious forms of child labor, including forced labor, sexual exploitation and illegal activities such as drug trafficking. Importantly, it also defines and operationalizes “hazardous work” through its corresponding recommendation (R190).
In 1989, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), since ratified by 192 UN member states, which covers a broad array of rights and explicitly condemns work that is detrimental to children. Article 32 establishes children’s right “to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development,” calling on States Parties to “provide for a minimum age or minimum ages for admission to employment” and “provide for appropriate regulation of the hours and conditions of employment” (UNHCR, 1989). General Comment No. 4 on the CRC calls on states to set these regulations consistently with ILO Conventions: “The Committee urges States Parties to take all necessary measures to abolish all forms of child labour, starting with the worst forms, to continuously review national regulations on minimum ages for employment with a view to making them compatible with international standards, and to regulate the working environment and conditions for adolescents who are working (in accordance with article 32 of the Convention, as well as ILO Conventions Nos. 138 and 182), so as to ensure that they are fully protected and have access to legal redress mechanisms” (CRC Committee, 2003).
The near-universal adoption of the CRC, with its provisions on the development of laws and policies consistent with the principles of C138, reflects the international community’s widespread commitment to establishing minimum standards for regulating the employment of children and youth. However, the effectiveness of these conventions depends on whether States Parties have translated its provisions within their national legal and policy frameworks. Moreover, while legislation is a necessary first step, it must be accompanied by the establishment of strong mechanisms for implementation. In the absence of concrete governmental action (resulting in new or amended laws and policies with meaningful enforcement mechanisms), even universal ratification cannot bring about real change in the lives of children, particularly those in poor families.
This study analyzes the extent to which UN member states that have committed to eliminating child labor have followed through in their national legislation by enacting laws consistent with ILO Convention 138 of 1973, and the UN CRC of 1989. Labor codes and all relevant child labor laws were gathered through October 2016, and then analyzed using a consistent methodology to create a set of quantitatively comparable indicators of the core legal protections specified in C138 and the CRC, which were used to determine whether countries protect children and youth from: work that is likely to be hazardous, work that is likely to interfere with their education and work that is harmful to their healthy development.
In order to obtain information about labor protections for children under the age of 18, a comprehensive analysis was conducted of all national labor and child-related legislation available online through the ILO’s NATLEX database, which compiles labor legislation from all ILO constituents. Where needed, findings were complemented with legislation located through the Foreign Law Guide database, the Legislation Database of the Lexadin World Law Guide and the website of the Legal Information Institutes. Finally, hard-copy legislation available through the ILO Library and the University of California, Los Angeles was consulted. A multilingual, transdisciplinary, international team of researchers standardized the information in these materials, converting it into quantitatively comparable indicators. All sources were analyzed independently by two researchers, who then compared their coding to ensure quality and consistency; additional quality checks were carried out following the completion of the database. This new data development builds on a previous quantitative data set examining child policy globally, completed in 2012 (Heymann, 2013).
The database used for this study captures national level legislation. For countries where labor protections are set at the state or provincial level, the database captures the level in the state or province with the lowest available level of protection. The goal is for the data to show all children and youth received at least the level noted. The database contains information on minimum legal ages for admission to employment in both light and hazardous work as well as specified exceptions to these age limits, legislated work-hour protections for young workers, mandated hours of rest and protections from night work. Depending on the indicator, data were available for 181–191 countries.
In total, 169 countries had ratified C138 by 2016. With the exception of the USA, all UN member states that were not party to C138 had nonetheless ratified the CRC. However, as an ILO member state, the USA is obligated by the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work to strive toward the effective abolition of child labor, among other principles. For this reason, national policies in all 193 UN member states that have ratified the CRC or C138, or are ILO member states were analyzed in this study.
Measures of protection
Variables were constructed around the three broad protections against child labor that are enshrined in both C138 and the CRC: protection from any work that is likely to be hazardous, protection from work that is likely to interfere with education and protection from work that is harmful to healthy development.
Protection from any work that is likely to be hazardous
To assess whether countries are protecting children from hazardous work, the legislated minimum age for hazardous work was captured. If a country explicitly defined hazardous work in its legislation, the minimum legal age based on this definition was captured. For countries that did not define hazardous work, the ILO’s definition of “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,” as operationalized in “Worst Forms of Child Labor Recommendation No. 190,” was used (International Labour Organization, 1973a, 1999). In cases where countries did not specify a separate minimum age for hazardous work, but did establish a minimum age for admission to employment, the latter information was captured.
Exceptions to the minimum legal age for hazardous work were also assessed to determine whether they undermined protections. In evaluating the extent of legal loopholes, the following were excluded: exceptions activated by “force majeure” (i.e. extraordinary circumstances such as war); and exceptions for vocational training, as C138 authorizes employment for vocational trainings or orientation programs that are held in schools and approved by governmental authority (International Labour Organization, 1973a, b, Art. 6).
Protection from work that is likely to interfere with education
To assess whether countries are protecting children from work that is likely to interfere with their education, the minimum legal age for admission to employment, as stated in legislation, was first captured. A measure of legal limits on work hours on school days was then constructed using limits on work hours per day and per week, as well as provisions specifically limiting work during school hours or total work hours on school days or weeks. In cases where labor legislation did not establish work-hour regulations specific to school days, the general maximum hours of work per day or week were used, assuming that these regulations also applied to school days. If a country did not explicitly restrict work hours but did prohibit work during school, it was credited with prohibiting work during a 6-h school day. This information was combined with any restrictions on night work to determine the number of work hours permitted on school days. Finally, an analysis of legal exceptions was conducted to determine whether they undermined those protections.
Protection from work that is harmful to healthy development
To determine whether countries are protecting children from work that is harmful to healthy development, this study first assesses whether children are only allowed to do light work, which is defined as not harmful to healthy development. C138 defines light work as “(a) not likely to be harmful to their health or development; and (b) not such as to prejudice their attendance at school, their participation in vocational orientation or training programs approved by the competent authority or their capacity to benefit from the instruction received” (International Labour Organization, 1973a, b, Art. 7.1). Minimum age provisions in a number of countries specifically address and define light work. When this was not the case, work that met the following criteria was considered to be “light”: its description in legislation matched the ILO’s definition and the legislation explicitly identified a minimum age for this work, and it was below the age for admission to employment. The ILO’s Minimum Age Recommendation No. 146, which provides guidelines for the application of C138, specifies “a minimum consecutive period of 12 hours’ night rest” for children and young persons under the age of 18 (International Labour Organization, 1973b). For this reason, work protections guaranteeing night rest to children and youth were also assessed.
The various dimensions of legislative protections for children on a global scale were analyzed, as every country except the USA has committed to protecting children from child labor through ratification of the CRC and/or C138. The USA has commitments through the UN Sustainable Development Goals and through ILO membership, which binds countries to the core standards, including eliminating child labor. The present study also assesses whether those countries that had ratified C138 before October 2016, thus making a more specific commitment to ending child labor, had instituted stronger protections against child labor. Finally, this study evaluates the extent to which countries met their specific commitments under C138 by establishing a minimum age for admission to employment that conforms to the standard they supported at ratification.
Protection from any work that is hazardous
Globally, despite strong provisions for protecting children from hazardous work in both the CRC and C138, nearly a quarter of countries have not established a minimum legal age of at least 18 years for hazardous work (see Table II). The 3 percent of countries that do not establish any national minimum age for hazardous labor, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, San Marino and Tonga, do not have any legislation protecting children from labor, hazardous or not.
In total, 19 percent of countries legislate a minimum age for hazardous work that is less than 18 years old. The majority of these countries establish a minimum age under 18 specifically for hazardous work or jobs that the ILO deems hazardous. For example, New Zealand’s Health and Safety at Work Regulations state that “A PCBU must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that no worker aged under 15 years carries out the following types of work […] the manufacture, use, or generation of hazardous substances […],” thus leaving youth aged 15 and older unprotected from dangerous work (Health and Safety at Work (General Risk and Workplace Management) Regulations, 2016, Art. 46). In some cases, however, legislation includes the option for regulations to explicitly address hazardous work. For example, Oman’s legislation states that “the Minister may, by a decision, raise [the general minimum age of employment] in respect of some industries and works if the nature of such work so requires” (Sultani Decree No. 22 of 2014 Promulgating the Child Law, 2014, Art. 46).
Protections from hazardous work are stronger in countries that have ratified C138. Only 19 percent of countries that ratified C138 before 2016 have a legal age for hazardous work that is under 18, compared to 50 percent of countries that had not ratified C138. Still, ratifiers are not in complete compliance.
Exceptions to the minimum age for hazardous work can undermine protections for children. Upon considering these exceptions, findings show that 40 percent of countries legally allow children to do hazardous work before their 18th birthday (see Table III). In Antigua and Barbuda, Singapore and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, there is no explicit minimum age for hazardous work with family members. For example, in Singapore’s Employment Act, the definition of “industrial undertaking” includes mining, manufacturing, construction and work with heavy loads, and states that “a child may be employed in an industrial undertaking in which only members of the same family are employed” (Employment Act (Ch. 91), 1968, Art. 68). Yet family members may not be in a position to protect children from exposure to hazards, as evidenced by the high fatality rate of children working on family businesses in countries such as the USA, where 42 percent of all work-related fatalities to children younger than 18 occurred in this context (US Government Accountability Office, 2018). Moreover, family members doing hazardous work may increase the likelihood that children engage in hazardous work. Researchers found that children in Brazil whose parents have a risky occupation or whose parents own a family farm are more likely to be engaged in hazardous work (DeGraff et al., 2016). Other countries allow children to do hazardous work in certain circumstances with ministerial approval. For example, Bulgaria allows younger children to work in industries deemed hazardous “after a thorough preliminary medical examination and a medical ruling which certifies their fitness to perform the respective work” (Labour Code (S.G. No. 26/1.4.1986), Art. 303). While leaving open hazardous work for youth, the extent of risk of this provision depends on whether it in fact produces careful review.
Once exceptions to the minimum age for hazardous work are considered, the difference in the level of protection between countries that have ratified C138 and those that have not decreases. Among non-ratifiers, only two countries see their minimum ages for hazardous work drop when exceptions are considered: New Zealand and Vanuatu. But among ratifiers, the percentage of countries that legally protect children from hazardous work until age 18 drops from 82 percent to only 62 percent, with many exceptions facilitating work for children under the age of 16.
Protection from work that is likely to interfere with education
Globally, 76 percent of countries establish a minimum age for admission to employment of 15 years or older, consistent with C138’s general guidelines (see Table IV). The Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, San Marino and Tonga do not establish a national minimum age for employment. New Zealand and Pakistan do not specify a minimum age for admission to employment, regulating only when children can begin engaging in hazardous work. An additional 2 percent of countries set the minimum age for admission to employment at 12 or 13 years. Solomon Islands’ legislation, for example, states that “no child under the age of twelve years shall be employed in any capacity whatsoever” (Labour Act (Chapter 75), 1981, Art. 46).
The minimum age for admission to employment is generally higher in countries that have ratified C138 than in those that have not. While only 57 percent of countries that have not ratified C138 provide for a minimum age for admission to employment of 15 years or older, 78 percent of countries that have ratified C138 have a minimum age of at least 15.
Upon ratification of C138, countries must stipulate an age for admission to employment. C138 allows countries “whose economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed” to initially stipulate a minimum age of 14 (International Labour Organization, 1973a). While nearly half of countries stipulate age 15, 30 percent of countries stipulate the lower age (see Table V). Meanwhile, 25 percent of countries stipulate age 16, which is higher than C138’s minimum. While most countries’ legislation either meets or exceeds the stipulated age, 6 percent of countries overall are not meeting their own targets, including 4 percent of countries stipulating age 14, 4 percent of those stipulating age 15 and 12 percent of those stipulating age 16.
Exceptions may undermine the minimum age for employment. Once these exceptions are considered, only 56 percent of countries establish a minimum age for admission to employment of 15 years or older and nearly a quarter have no explicit national minimum age (see Table VI). For example, Cameroon’s labor code establishes a minimum age of 14 “except as otherwise authorized by order of the minister in charge of labour, taking account of local conditions and the jobs which the children may be asked to do” (Loi No. 92/007 du 14 août 1992 portant Code du Travail, 1992, Art. 86).
While protections remain stronger in countries that have ratified C138, exceptions to the minimum age for admission to employment are widespread regardless of ratification status. A common exception found in labor legislation allows children to work at an earlier age with the authorization of the child’s parents or legal guardian. For example, Belarus stipulates a minimum age of 16 for admission to employment, but allows that “with written permission of one of the parents (guardians), [the] labour contract can be concluded with a child aged 14 years” (Act of 19 November 1993 on Children’s Rights, 1993, Art. 24).
In Minimum Age Recommendation 146, the ILO calls on countries to place a “strict limitation of the hours spent at work in a day and in a week, and the prohibition of overtime, so as to allow enough time for education and training (including the time needed for homework related thereto), for rest during the day and for leisure activities” (International Labour Organization, 1973b). Countries limit the number of hours children can work on school days using a range of methods, including explicit references to a maximum number of hours. For example, Denmark’s legislation states: “Daily working hours for young persons under the age of 15 years, or young persons subject to compulsory education, shall not exceed two hours on school days, and seven hours on other days than school days […]. The total working hours per week may not exceed 12 hours in weeks with school days, and 35 hours in weeks other than school weeks” (Order (No. 268 of 2005) consolidating the Work Environment Act (No. 784 of 1999), 2005, Art. 61.2).
Other countries lack explicit limits on total work hours per school day, but broadly prohibit children from working during school hours. In some cases, these protections – combined with guarantees of nightly rest – may ensure that children are effectively protected from working long hours. For example, Greece guarantees that “employees under the age of 18 have the right to a daily rest of at least twelve consecutive hours […] The employment of minors who attend high school or public or private technical professional schools has to start at least two hours after school courses have ended and has to finish at least two hours before school courses start” (Law No. 1837, 1989, Arts. 2–3). Thailand does not explicitly address school hours, but prohibits all work “between the hours of 22.00 hrs and 16.00 hrs unless written permission has been obtained from the Director-General or a person assigned by the Director-General” (Labour Protection Act 1998 (B.E. 2541), 1998, Art. 47).
Globally, more than a fifth of countries allow 14-year-olds to work six or more hours on a school day, leaving insufficient time for education, rest and leisure. By age 16, children are protected from six or more hours of work in only 9 percent of countries. Although countries that have ratified C138 have stronger protections than those that have not, significant gaps in work-hour regulations exist even among ratifiers, with 62 percent allowing 16-year-olds to work eight or more hours on a school day (see Table VII).
In some countries, exceptions undermine protections. For example, before its repeal in 2015, Liberia’s labor law stated: “a person may employ minors under sixteen if he keeps a register and the school certificates of such employees open to inspection, which certificates shall show that each of the said minors listed in the register is attending school regularly and is able to read at sight and write simple sentences legibly” (Labour Practices Law (Title 18 and 18A), 1956, Art. 74).
Protection from work that is harmful to healthy development
Globally, 77 percent of countries establish the minimum age for light work at 13 years or older, consistent with C138 guidelines (see Table VIII). In total, 23 percent establish a minimum age of 14, and 35 percent set the age at 15 or older. C138 allows countries “whose economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed” to initially set a minimum age for light work of 12 years old; an additional 12 percent of countries meet this standard. In total, 11 percent of countries do not establish a minimum age for light work. While the majority of countries do not place restrictions on the type of light work children can perform, 9 percent of countries limit it to specific activities. For example, Slovakia allows children to perform light work at any age “only for the purposes of a) taking part in a cultural performance and artistic performance, b) sports events, c) advertising activities” (Act No. 341/2011, Consolidated Version of the Act No. 311/2001, Labour Code, 2011, Art. 11).
Ratifiers tended to set a higher minimum age for light work compared to non-ratifiers, with the majority of countries setting the minimum age at 15 or older compared to 14 for non-ratifiers. Despite this, a lower share of ratifiers (76 percent) established the minimum age for performing light work at 13 years or older, compared to non-ratifiers (83 percent).
Night rest is essential to children’s healthy development. Minimum Age Recommendation 146 states that children and young persons should be given “a minimum consecutive period of 12 hours’ night rest” (International Labour Organization, 1973b). Despite this, globally, only 56 percent of countries guarantee at least 12 h off from work at night to children and youth until they are at least 16 years of age (see Table IX). Protections are stronger for younger than for older children. At age 12, 96 percent of countries either guarantee at least 12 h of nightly rest or protect children from work, and at age 14, 89 percent of countries make this guarantee.
At age 16, 28 percent of countries prohibit night work, but not for a period long enough to ensure at least 12 h of rest. For example, Sudan mandates that no child younger than 16 “shall be required to work at night between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.,” thus guaranteeing only 10 h off from work at night (Labour Code 1997, 1997, Art. 21.3). In some of these countries, youth are subject to the same guarantees of rest as adults, but with the additional requirement that they not be employed at night. For example, all workers in Albania are guaranteed at least 11 h of daily rest, but youth are also forbidden from doing night work (Loi No. 7961 du 12 juillet 1995 portant Code du travail, 1995, Art. 101).
Protections for at least 12 h of night rest are more prevalent among countries that ratified C138. While 59 percent of ratifiers guarantee at least 12 h off from work at night to youth aged 16, only 29 percent of non-ratifiers do so. Perhaps even more striking is that 57 percent of non-ratifiers have no night rest guarantees for youth aged 16, compared to only 11 percent of ratifiers.
Our analysis of child labor legislation shows that the majority of the 169 UN member states that ratified C138 by 2016 have enacted laws to protect children and youth from hazardous work, work that interferes with their education and work that is harmful to their healthy development. However, not all ratifiers have taken this essential first step. One in five ratifiers establish a legal minimum age of less than 18 years old for hazardous work, and less than 15 years old for admission to employment. Moreover, legislative loopholes significantly undermine the protections that do exist in many countries.
Importantly, however, across the vast majority of measures of protection that were examined, C138 ratifiers have stronger legal protections than non-ratifiers. A larger share of countries that ratified C138 establish 18 as the minimum legal age to perform hazardous work: 82 percent of ratifiers compared to 50 percent of non-ratifiers (including legal exceptions this drops to 62 percent of ratifiers compared to 45 percent of non-ratifiers). Similarly, a larger share of ratifiers have a minimum age for admission to employment of at least 15: 78 percent of ratifiers compared to 57 percent of ratifiers (59 percent of ratifiers and 30 percent of non-ratifiers when exceptions are taken into account). Countries that ratified C138 were also more likely to protect children from long hours of work on school days: 19 percent of ratifiers allow 14-year-olds to work six or more hours on a school day compared to 43 percent of non-ratifiers. The minimum age for light work was more likely to be higher for ratifiers, with 37 percent setting the minimum age at 15, compared to 22 percent of non-ratifiers. Finally, guarantees of at least 12 h of night rest are more prevalent among countries that ratified C138, with 59 percent guaranteeing at least 12 h off from work at night to youth aged 16, compared to 29 percent of non-ratifiers.
The evidence suggests that although child labor laws (as is the case for many other types of laws) are not always fully implemented and complementary strategies are essential, legislation has been, and can be, an effective component of a multi-pronged strategy for decreasing child labor. Using data from 16 countries, one study found that a smaller percentage of children worked high hours where legislation established a minimum age for employment. Across the countries in the study, the proportion of children under the minimum employment age working at least 28 h per week was half the corresponding proportion among children at or above the minimum age (Allais, 2009). Detailed country studies reveal similar results. For example, an evaluation of Pakistan’s 1991 Employment of Children Act, which prohibits the employment of children under 14 in hazardous settings and increases the penalties for violators, found that the law had a significant impact on children aged 13 and among boys aged 10–13 years (Fasih, 2007). If laws can be effective, then it is worth focusing on efforts to increase the passage and implementation of adequate laws.
Despite the valuable and extensive information produced by supervisory systems such as the ILO’s Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, important limitations remain. Lengthy country self-reports make cross-country comparisons difficult and impede the analysis of possible relationships between policies and outcomes across countries. Furthermore, evidence shows that even when observations by international bodies produce valuable information and recommendations, they are seldom widely disseminated nationally or internationally, and the committees and their reports are largely unknown in many areas of the world (O’Flaherty, 2006). Accurately monitoring progress requires a complementary approach.
Widely available and globally comparative policy data enable policymakers and citizens to see the extent to which their country is meeting its commitments, as well as how their country’s approaches compare to those of similarly situated countries. Providing useful comparisons to policymakers and enabling citizens to advocate for new legislation, effective implementation, and enforcement, such data can help to advance effective child labor laws, reward action and hold policymakers accountable for their commitments to reducing child labor.
Legislation is a necessary first step but requires complementary policies and implementation. The importance of complementary steps is illustrated by countries where minimum age laws and high rates of child labor coexist. For example, minimum age laws and high rates of child labor coexist in countries such as Burkina Faso, where the minimum age for admission to employment is set at 16 years of age without exceptions – and yet 39 percent of children in the country aged 5–14 engaged in child labor in 2010 (additional examples of countries where minimum age laws and high rates of child labor coexist are provided in endnote 5) (UNICEF, 2017; WORLD Policy Analysis Center, 2016). Such high rates of child labor highlight the importance of accompanying child labor laws with strong enforcement mechanisms and adequate wages for adults.
In addition, the broader legal framework – particularly complementary legislation related to children, such as tuition-free and compulsory education policies – must be constructed to support provisions in child labor laws. For example, a law that establishes the age of completion of compulsory and free schooling at the same age as the minimum for employment supports child labor protections. Moreover, by making every child’s age verifiable, the universalization of birth registration would enhance the law’s reach to more eligible children. In every region of the world, poor children are less likely to have had their birth registered than children from higher-income families. As a result, they are at an increased risk of involvement in child labor (among other harmful experiences, such as child marriage). For example, in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, approximately one-quarter of the poorest children were registered, compared to over 60 percent of children from the richest families (UNICEF, 2013).
Our analysis shows that loopholes in many laws severely limit their coverage. Common examples include exceptions for work that is conducted with family members, or part of a specified list (e.g. agricultural, temporary and seasonal). Moreover, in many countries domestic labor is excluded from the requirements outlined in the labor law, leaving children unprotected. Evidence shows that some children, especially girls in low- income countries, can spend large quantities of time in domestic labor, which has been shown to correlate with negative health and education outcomes (Assaad et al., 2010; Fassa et al., 2005; International Labour Organization, 2017).
Some of these forms of child labor may be reduced through complementary approaches that address family poverty. For example, initiatives in Brazil and Honduras illustrate two distinct ways of compensating families for the income lost as a result of children’s school attendance. In the 1990s, Brazil introduced legislation and a new constitution establishing a minimum age for employment of 14, eight years of compulsory schooling, and income support targeting families in rural areas where many children had been engaged in “the worst forms of child labor” (World Bank, 2001). Following this program’s implementation, the proportion of children doing hazardous work fell, while their hours spent in work were halved. At the same time, the average number of hours spent in school increased from 11 to 17 per week (Yap et al., 2009). Meanwhile, beginning in 2000, Honduras implemented a cash transfer program that provided $50 (USD) per year for each child between 6 and 12 who enrolled in and regularly attended Grades 1–4. In the following year, children whose families received a transfer were eight percentage points more likely to be enrolled in school, and three percentage points less likely to be working (Galiani and McEwan, 2013).
Countries in diverse settings have implemented similar programs, enhancing the effects of their child labor provisions by combining compulsory schooling with conditional income support to families. Such countries – including Nepal, Colombia and Malawi – have seen higher school attendance and a decrease in the rate of child labor (Barrera-Osorio et al., 2011; Covarrubias et al., 2012; Edmonds and Shrestha, 2014). It should be noted that the level of income support must be adequate to raise family income over the poverty line, or a level at which income from child labor is no longer necessary for economic stability. Even though these initiatives carry costs, the benefit-cost ratio of programs that eliminate child labor has been estimated to exceed 6.7:1 when measured over a 20-year period (International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, 2004).
Anti-poverty policies are clearly important for reducing the number of children engaged in work that interferes with their education or harms their health and development. Minimum and living wage policies for adults also bolster families’ ability to achieve basic economic security without depending on income earned by children. At the same time, bans on child labor can complement efforts to reduce poverty. When child labor is prohibited, children can stay in school, thereby increasing their earning potential and reducing their likelihood of living in poverty as adults. Child labor legislation and policies addressing poverty are interconnected and complementary; in concert, they can yield better outcomes than either individually. Fully implemented national legislation providing loophole-free protection from child labor, especially hazardous work and work that interferes with education and healthy development, remains foundational to reducing the rate and impact of child labor.
C138 minimum age guidelines and exceptions
|Minimum age for admission to employment||Possible exceptions for low- and middle-income countries|
|Hazardous work: work which is likely to jeopardize children’s health, safety or morals||18 (16 when exceptions are taken into account)||18 (16 when exceptions are taken into account)|
|Basic minimum age: the minimum age for work should not be below the age for finishing compulsory schooling, and in any case not less than 15||15 (with lower age requirements in specific cases)||14 (with lower age requirements in specific cases)|
|Light work: work that does not threaten children’s health and safety, or hinder their education or vocational orientation and training||13||12|
Sources: Adapted from ILO, ILO Conventions and Recommendations on child labor, “ILO Convention No. 138 on the minimum age for admission to employment and work” www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/ILOconventionsonchildlabour/lang--en/index.htm
Legislated minimum age for hazardous work by C138 ratification status
|Legislated minimum age for hazardous work||Countries that had not ratified C138 by 2016||Countries that had ratified C138 by 2016||All countries|
|No minimum age||4 (18%)||1 (1%)||5 (3%)|
|12 or 13 years old||0 (0%)||0 (0%)||0 (0%)|
|14 or 15 years old||3 (14%)||8 (5%)||11 (6%)|
|16 or 17 years old||4 (18%)||21 (13%)||25 (13%)|
|18 years old||11 (50%)||135 (82%)||146 (78%)|
Note: Due to rounding, totals may not always add to 100 percent
Legislated minimum age for hazardous work considering exceptions by C138 ratification status
|Legislated minimum age for hazardous work with exceptions||Countries that had not ratified C138 by 2016||Countries that had ratified C138 by 2016||All countries|
|No minimum age||4 (18%)||4 (2%)||8 (4%)|
|12 or 13 years old||1 (5%)||2 (1%)||3 (2%)|
|14 or 15 years old||3 (14%)||26 (16%)||29 (16%)|
|16 or 17 years old||4 (18%)||30 (18%)||34 (18%)|
|18 years old||10 (45%)||102 (62%)||112 (60%)|
Note: Due to rounding, totals may not always add to 100 percent
Legislated minimum age for admission to employment by C138 ratification status
|Legislated minimum age for admission to employment||Countries that had not ratified C138 by 2016||Countries that had ratified C138 by 2016||All countries|
|No minimum age||5 (22%)||2 (1%)||7 (4%)|
|12 or 13 years old||1 (4%)||2 (1%)||3 (2%)|
|14 years old||4 (17%)||33 (20%)||37 (19%)|
|15 years old||8 (35%)||70 (42%)||78 (41%)|
|16 years or older||5 (22%)||61 (36%)||66 (35%)|
Note: Due to rounding, totals may not always add to 100 percent
Legislated minimum age for admission to employment compared to age stipulated when ratifying C138 in countries that ratified C138 by 2016
|Legislated minimum age for admission to employment||Countries that stipulated a minimum age of 14||Countries that stipulated a minimum age of 15||Countries that stipulated a minimum age of 16|
|No minimum age||1 (2%)||0 (0%)||1 (2%)|
|12 or 13 years old||1 (2%)||1 (1%)||0 (0%)|
|14 years old||30 (60%)||2 (3%)||1 (2%)|
|15 years old||6 (12%)||61 (80%)||3 (7%)|
|16 years old or older||12 (24%)||12 (16%)||37 (88%)|
Note: Due to rounding, totals may not always add to 100 percent
Legislated minimum age for admission to employment considering exceptions by C138 ratification status
|Legislated minimum age for admission to employment with exceptions||Countries that had not ratified C138 by 2016||Countries that had ratified C138 by 2016||All countries|
|No minimum age||10 (43%)||35 (21%)||45 (24%)|
|12 or 13 years old||2 (9%)||7 (4%)||9 (5%)|
|14 years old||4 (17%)||27 (16%)||31 (16%)|
|15 years old||4 (17%)||60 (36%)||64 (34%)|
|16 years or older||3 (13%)||39 (23%)||42 (22%)|
Note: Due to rounding, totals may not always add to 100 percent
Legislated maximum hours of work permitted on a school day
|Countries that had not ratified C138 by 2016||Countries that had ratified C138 by 2016||All countries|
|8 or more hours||5 (23%)||2 (1%)||7 (4%)|
|6-7.9 hours||0 (0%)||2 (1%)||2 (1%)|
|3-5.9 hours||1 (5%)||4 (2%)||5 (3%)|
|1-2.9 hours||0 (0%)||4 (2%)||4 (2%)|
|Protected from any work||15 (68%)||126 (75%)||141 (74%)|
|Only light work permitted||1 (5%)||30 (18%)||31 (16%)|
|8 or more hours||8 (38%)||19 (11%)||27 (14%)|
|6-7.9 hours||1 (5%)||13 (8%)||14 (7%)|
|3-5.9 hours||4 (19%)||12 (7%)||16 (9%)|
|1-2.9 hours||1 (5%)||18 (11%)||19 (10%)|
|Protected from any work||5 (24%)||62 (37%)||67 (36%)|
|Only light work permitted||2 (10%)||43 (26%)||45 (24%)|
|8 or more hours||17 (81%)||104 (62%)||121 (64%)|
|6-7.9 hours||2 (10%)||48 (29%)||50 (26%)|
|3-5.9 hours||1 (5%)||5 (3%)||6 (3%)|
|1-2.9 hours||0 (0%)||2 (1%)||2 (1%)|
|Protected from any work||0 (0%)||2 (1%)||2 (1%)|
|Only light work permitted||1 (5%)||7 (4%)||8 (4%)|
Note: Due to rounding, totals may not always add to 100 percent
Legislated minimum age for light work by C138 ratification status
|Legislated minimum age for light work||Countries that had not ratified C138 by 2016||Countries that had ratified C138 by 2016||All countries|
|No minimum age||1 (6%)||20 (12%)||21 (11%)|
|12 years old||2 (11%)||20 (12%)||22 (12%)|
|13 years old||5 (28%)||29 (17%)||34 (18%)|
|14 years old||6 (33%)||36 (22%)||42 (23%)|
|15 years old or older||4 (22%)||61 (37%)||65 (35%)|
Note: Due to rounding, totals may not always add to 100 percent
Legislated minimum hours of nightly rest
|Countries that had not ratified C138 by 2016||Countries that had ratified C138 by 2016||All countries|
|No rest guaranteed||4 (19%)||1 (1%)||5 (3%)|
|Less than 10 hours||1 (5%)||0 (0%)||1 (1%)|
|10-11.9 hours||0 (0%)||1 (1%)||1 (1%)|
|At least 12 hours||0 (0%)||2 (1%)||2 (1%)|
|Protected from working at night||16 (76%)||164 (98%)||180 (95%)|
|No rest guaranteed||4 (19%)||3 (2%)||7 (4%)|
|Less than 10 hours||1 (5%)||3 (2%)||4 (2%)|
|10-11.9 hours||1 (5%)||10 (6%)||11 (6%)|
|At least 12 hours||4 (19%)||22 (13%)||26 (14%)|
|Protected from working at night||11 (52%)||130 (77%)||141 (75%)|
|No rest guaranteed||12 (57%)||19 (11%)||31 (16%)|
|Less than 10 hours||2 (10%)||28 (17%)||30 (16%)|
|10-11.9 hours||1 (5%)||22 (13%)||23 (12%)|
|At least 12 hours||5 (24%)||91 (54%)||96 (51%)|
|Protected from working at night||1 (5%)||8 (5%)||9 (5%)|
Note: Due to rounding, totals may not always add to 100 percent
In Brazil, child labor before age 12 is estimated to reduce the number of years of education completed by approximately two years.
ILO Conventions 138 and 182 allow countries to determine the types of work that are considered hazardous “by the competent authority, after consultation with the organizations of employers and workers concerned” and taking into consideration guidelines from the ILO. In the absence of binding standards for determining the type of activities that are considered hazardous work, it is not possible to evaluate the appropriateness or strength of each country’s definition of hazardous work, which constitutes another potential area in which countries may not be meeting their commitments. Unfortunately, systematic analyses of countries’ definitions of hazardous work are not currently available.
According to the ILO, statistics on occupational injuries and illnesses for children in low- and middle-income countries are extremely limited. However, data from high-income countries, where work-related injuries and illnesses are often underreported, provide insights into the potential risk for children of working with family members in hazardous occupations in other countries.
Female child laborers are more likely to work in households or domestic labor and in the agriculture sector, neither of which are covered by the law’s prohibition. This study examined the employment of children aged 10–13 in the months before and after the law’s implementation, comparing it with the change in employment over the same period in a control group that was not affected by the new law. The authors suggest that, given their status as close substitutes to 14-year-olds in the labor market, the treatment group of 13-year-olds may be particularly useful for comparison.
While estimates of child labor rates include both work that is likely to be regulated by labor laws and work that often falls outside the scope of legislation such as domestic labor, other examples of countries where minimum age laws and high rates of child labor coexist include Sierra Leone, where the minimum age for admission to employment is set at 15 years of age without exceptions, yet 37 percent of children aged 5–14 were engaged in child labor in 2013; Equatorial Guinea (minimum age for admission at 18 without exceptions, 28 percent of children aged 5–14 engaged in child labor in 2000); Angola (minimum age for admission at 16 without exceptions, 23 percent of children aged 5–14 engaged in child labor in 2015); Comoros (minimum age for admission at 15 without exceptions, 22 percent of children aged 5–14 engaged in child labor in 2012); and Cambodia (minimum age for admission at 15 without exceptions, 19 percent of children aged 5–14 engaged in child labor in 2014).
At this time, the program also implemented a health transfer of about $40 (USD) per year for each child under three or pregnant mother who regularly visited a health center.
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About the authors
Nicolas de Guzman Chorny, MA (Political Science), is Senior Policy Analyst at WORLD Policy Analysis Center in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. He has contributed to the creation of WORLD’s quantitative global policy databases in the areas of adult and child labor, equal rights and discrimination, and education, among others. He has published on child labor, education, the availability of paid leave policies and human rights monitoring.
Amy Raub, MS (Economics), is Principal Research Analyst at WORLD Policy Analysis Center in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Raub has led the development and analysis of WORLD’s quantitative global databases on constitutional rights, laws and policies. She is responsible for the translation of WORLD’s comparative policy research on all 193 UN countries to findings for policymakers, citizens, civil society and researchers. Raub has published widely on the availability of paid family and medical leave policies globally and in high-income nations.
Alison Earle, PhD (Public Policy), is Senior Research Associate at WORLD Policy Analysis Center in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Her research focuses on cross-national comparative analysis of labor and social policies and their influence on economic and gender inequality. With Dr Jody Heymann she previously served as Co-Director of the Project on Global Working Families at Harvard School of Public Health. In addition to numerous journal articles and policy briefs, she is Co-author with Jody Heymann of Raising the Global Floor: Dismantling the Myth that We Cannot Afford Good Working Conditions for Everyone (Stanford University Press, 2009).
Dr Jody Heymann, MD, PhD (Public Policy), is Founding Director of WORLD Policy Analysis Center, and Distinguished Professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Luskin School of Public Affairs, and Geffen School of Medicine. Heymann is an elected member of the US National Academy of Sciences. She held a Canada Research Chair in Global Health and Social Policy and was Founding Director of the McGill University Institute for Health and Social Policy. Dr Heymann is author of over 300 publications, including 17 books.