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Bureau of International Labor Affairs
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International Child Labor

The International Labor Organization (ILO) establishes and supervises the application of international labor standards including child labor standards. Its basic philosophy on child labor was set in the early part of this century: "Under a certain age children should not need to engage in an economic activity." 5

The term "child labor" generally refers to any economic activity performed by a person under the age of 15. Not all work performed by children is detrimental or exploitative. Child labor does not usually refer to performing "light work" after school or legitimate apprenticeship opportunities. Nor does it refer to young people helping out in the family business or on the family farm. Rather, the "child labor" of concern is generally employment that prevents effective school attendance, and which is often performed under conditions hazardous to the physical and mental health of the child.

International standards provide guidelines on the minimum age for employ ment, allowing for exceptions based on the conditions of work. ILO Convention 138 on the Minimum Age for Employment, adopted in 1973, states: "The minimum age. . . should not be less than the age of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15 years." Convention 138 allows countries whose economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed to initially specify a minimum age of 14 years and reduce from 13 years to 12 years the minimum age for light work. 6

Convention 138 defines "light work" as work that is not likely to harm the child's health or development, or prejudice his/her attendance at school. Conven tion 138 also prohibits any child under the age of 18 from undertaking dangerous work that is, work that is likely to jeopardize the health, safety or morals of young persons.

Partly due to the focus on the child labor issue in the last few years, there have been further discussions about more clearly defining what constitutes "exploit ative" child labor that violates the human rights of a child and for which a strong international consensus exists for immediate abolition. 7 The ILO has begun the effort to adopt a new standard on the abolition of the most "intolerable forms" of child labor by 1999.

In the meanwhile, the ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), established in 1992 to assist countries in the phased elimination of child labor, refers to certain categories of child labor as "intolerable": children working under forced labor conditions and in bondage; children in hazardous work ing conditions and occupations; and very young working children (under 12 years of age).8

Whether child labor is defined by age or conditions of work, no reliable information exists on the actual number of children working throughout the world. Most available data and it is partial only covers economic activity of children between the ages of 10 and 14. The ILO estimates that there are at least 73 million economically active children in this age group.9 The number of child workers under 10 is thought to be significant in the millions.10 However, according to the ILO, the probable total number of child workers around the world today may be in the "hundreds of millions."11