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Child labour or acceptable work? Do you know the difference?

Across the world, the ILO estimates that there are 218 million children in employment. 152 million of these children are involved in child labour and 66 million are doing work which is considered light work. But what does this mean and how do we know the difference ? To understand what is child labour, and what isn’t, we use the ILO’s definitions.

What is child labour?

Child labour refers to work done under the minimum working age (in most countries 15) and is harmful to their health, education or development. If a child between the age of 15 and 17 and is doing work which is hazardous, for example night work, long hours, exposure to forms of abuse, in dangerous environments, or in unsafe conditions, this is also considered to be child labour.

What is acceptable work for children?

The ILO says that light work for children aged 13–15 (for limited hours and not harming their health, safety or school attendance and achievement), or for those aged 12-14 if the minimum age is set at 14, can be permitted. Helping around the house in a safe way can be an important part of childhood in some cultures, and often "can be a normal part of growing up in a rural environment". Light work, however, should not be for more than 14 hours per week. For children above the minimum working age (say 15-18 in most countries) can work full time so long as they are not doing work which is considered a « Worst Form of Child Labour. »

The Worst Forms of Child Labour

Slavery, child trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour, children in armed conflict, and children working in illegal activities are considered to be some of the worst forms of child labour. Hazardous work is also one of the worst forms of child labour. It should not be done any child under 18 years old, even if he or she is over the legal minimum working age. Child labour which is considered hazardous “is work that is performed by children in dangerous and unhealthy conditions" (ILO). This means that the work is unsafe by nature, and inappropriate for children under 18 years-old regardless of the conditions or the safety equipment. Some examples of work that is hazardous by nature include handling dangerous chemicals or operating heavy machinery.

Still not sure what the difference is? Ask yourself these questions

Over 70% of child labour in agriculture so it’s important to support both farmers and families distinguish between child labour and appropriate child work. To do this we often encourage them to ask themselves the following question. If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes' then it is child labour and should be stopped immediately.

  • Would this work take up too much time and prevent the child from going to school?
  • Would this work make the child too tired to go to school or do homework?
  • Would this work stop the child from having time to play and participate in social/family activities?
  • Does any part of the work make the child feel unsafe, excluded or threatened?
  • Does any part of the work harm the child physically or morally?
  • Does this work involve using or being around chemicals, like fertilisers, heavy machinery or sharp tools?
  • Is any part of this work illegal?