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Executive Summary

A.     Congressional Mandate

This is the fifth Congressionally-mandated report in the international child labor series of the Department of Labor's Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB). It reviews the child labor situation in 16 countries where child labor has been identified as a problem and the level and types of action being undertaken to reduce child exploitation in those countries. The report has been prepared in accordance with the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill of 1998, P.L. 105-78.

B.     Overview

Until recently, child labor has not been widely recognized as an issue of important global concern. International public attention regarding child labor has steadily grown over the past few years, however, provoking worldwide discussion of the problem and possible solutions. This increasing international concern has generated actions by various governments and organizations to eliminate child labor.

This report provides an assessment of the child labor situation in 16 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, and Turkey. It reviews the extent and nature of child labor in these countries and establishes a framework that can be used in future studies to evaluate progress in eliminating the problem. While there are many policies and programs that can be implemented by governments that could have a positive impact on reducing child labor, this report focuses on three main areas: law and enforcement, provision of universal, affordable primary education, and the implementation or advancement of targeted initiatives to combat child labor. The ultimate goal of these actions is to move children out of inappropriate work and into situations where they can learn and develop to their full potential. Tens of millions of children today are deprived of this opportunity.

The information contained in the report is based on material gathered during field visits to the 16 countries, testimony submitted to the Department of Labor, and various other reports and materials. The countries visited were selected because (1) allegations of child labor were documented in previous ILAB reports, and/or (2) significant efforts are currently underway to eradicate child labor. Since uniform and reliable data were not available for all countries, the report does not rank the child labor situation across countries. Nor does it compare the present situation to that of previous years. Rather, it is intended to serve as a baseline for further study.

C.     Child Labor: An Assessment
         of the Challenge

Chapter II describes the nature and extent of child labor in the 16 countries examined for this report, including available data on the magnitude of child labor and an overview of the types of work children perform and the conditions under which they work. The report uses International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 138 on the Minimum Age for Employment as its principal standard on child labor. Under ILO Convention No. 138, 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 light work after school or legitimate apprenticeship opportunities, nor to youths helping out in a family business, with household chores, or on a family farm. Rather, the child labor of concern is generally work that prevents effective school attendance or is performed under conditions hazardous to the physical and mental health of the child.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that at least 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 are working in developing countries. Approximately 120 million of these children work full time, and tens of millions of these work under exploitative and harmful conditions. According to the ILO, the majority of the world's working children (61 percent) are found in Asia, followed by Africa (32 percent) and Latin America and the Caribbean (seven percent).

Child workers are found in a wide range of economic activities. The largest numbers work in agriculture, the services sector, and small-scale manufacturing workshops that are generally not covered under the scope of national laws. Current available data show that, on average, more boys work than girls. This gender difference, however, may be due to the fact that girls more commonly work in less visible forms of employment such as domestic service, which are often underestimated by statistical surveys.

Many of the world's working children labor in occupations and industries that are dangerous or hazardous. In agriculture, large numbers of children are exposed to harmful pesticides during their formative years. Others work in occupations and industries--including mining, construction, manufacturing, and services--in which they are exposed to toxic and carcinogenic substances such as asbestos, benzene, and mercury. Working children often perform tasks that are beyond their physical capacity, such as lifting and carrying heavy loads or handling dangerous tools and equipment. Work hazards affect children to a greater degree than adults, in some cases causing irreversible harm to their future development.

Quantitative measures of child labor are essential for setting national goals for its elimination and measuring progress once programs are instituted. However, reliable national data on child labor are rare and, when available, often incomplete. Table II-1 presents the best available official estimates of the number of working children in the 16 countries researched for this report. Appendix B provides a detailed description of the characteristics and coverage of these data.

Recently, the ILO's Bureau of Statistics has begun to provide assistance to countries in collecting and reporting child labor statistics. Through the Statistical Information and Monitoring Project on Child Labor (SIMPOC), the ILO hopes to compile enough data to create a comprehensive database on child labor within several years. While a number of countries have taken steps to improve their monitoring of child labor, many continue to lack comprehensive systems for compiling reliable and timely data.

D.     Legislation and Enforcement Efforts

One of the most basic strategies for addressing the exploitation of child labor is the enactment and enforcement of child labor laws. Chapter III reviews child labor laws and enforcement efforts in the 16 countries studied for this report. All 16 countries have laws prohibiting certain forms of work by children under a specified age and regulating the conditions of work for older children.

Table III-1 outlines the basic and hazardous minimum work ages in each of the 16 countries, while Appendix D identifies relevant child labor provisions in the laws of each of these countries. The minimum age for employment in these countries varies from 12 (Bangladesh, Peru, and Tanzania) to 16 years (Kenya). In some countries, there is one basic minimum work age, while in others, there are several age standards, depending on the industry or sector.

Child labor legislation often applies only to certain sectors or exempts entire industries or occupations. The sectors most frequently excluded are those where the highest numbers of working children are found, such as small-scale agriculture, domestic service, and small-scale manufacturing. For example, in Kenya, the minimum work age of 16 years applies only to industrial undertakings. Likewise, in India and Pakistan, the minimum work age of 14 applies only to certain specified occupations and processes. In Nepal, the minimum work age of 14 does not apply to certain enterprises, such as plantations and brick kilns. Exceptions are also made in some countries for apprenticeships or educational work. In Brazil, for example, children under 14 are prohibited from working, except as apprentices. Employers sometimes use such exceptions to exploit children as a source of cheap and compliant labor.

All 16 countries studied have a minimum age for hazardous work, varying by country from 12 to 21 years. Some countries have a single minimum age for hazardous work, while others specify several such ages, depending on the type of work.

Despite the enactment of minimum work age laws, inadequate enforcement of such laws remains a widespread problem. Labor inspectorates are often understaffed and lack resources for transportation and other vital expenses. Training is often nonexistent or, if present, of poor quality. In many cases, the low pay of inspectors makes them easy targets for corruption. When inspectors do attempt to enforce child labor laws, they may face public indifference, hostility from powerful economic interest groups, or parental reluctance to cooperate. In addition, inadequate fines and penalties for child labor law violations often undermine their overall effectiveness.

A number of countries have recently made or are considering changes to their child labor laws, including increasing the minimum age for employment, adopting uniform child labor regulations, and/or expanding coverage of child labor laws to additional sectors or occupations. Thailand, for example, recently enacted a law raising the minimum age for employment from 13 to 15 years. Bangladesh has drafted a new labor code, currently awaiting approval by its parliament, that would impose a uniform minimum age of 14 years for all forms of work. A proposed constitutional amendment in Brazil would prohibit children from working before the age of 14, without exceptions. The Philippines, South Africa, and India are contemplating legislative proposals that would broaden the coverage of child labor laws and provide additional protection against the exploitation of children.

Several countries, including Kenya, the Philippines, Mexico, Tanzania, and Turkey, are taking steps to increase the number of labor inspectors, improve training, and/or introduce new enforcement strategies. A few countries, including Brazil and Turkey, are focusing their enforcement efforts on sectors where child labor is considered to be particularly exploitative and hazardous.

While such efforts are commendable, the fact that large numbers of children are still working, many under exploitative or hazardous conditions, indicates that additional efforts are urgently needed. To be effective, child labor laws should be made comprehensive in scope and coverage, and enforcement should be improved.

E.     Availability of Primary Education

Universal primary education is widely recognized as one of the most effective instruments for combating child labor. It is believed that no country can successfully eliminate child labor without enacting and implementing compulsory education legislation. Schooling removes children from the work force and provides them with fundamental life skills, such as literacy, numeracy, and critical reasoning. Quality education, particularly at the primary level, not only improves the lives of children and their families, but contributes to the future economic growth and development of a country. Despite the benefits of education, about 20 percent--or 145 million--of the world's children six to 11 years old (85 million girls and 60 million boys) are out of school. In most cases, these children are working.

Chapter IV describes education initiatives aimed at increasing primary school enrollment, retention, and completion rates by overcoming impediments to educational attainment. It focuses on educational efforts by governments--that, after all, have the principal responsibility for educating children. While some governmental initiatives have targeted all school-age children, others have focused on certain marginalized groups, including working children. Chapter IV also discusses government strategies to increase children's access to primary education through provision of free or subsidized schooling, school meal programs, free transportation, flexible school hours, flexible locations, and economic incentives.

Compulsory education and child labor laws should not only reinforce but complement each other. Compulsory education laws and policies can reinforce child labor laws by keeping children in school and away from the work place. Child labor laws, in turn, can be a useful tool for retaining children in school, helping governments achieve their universal basic education objectives.

As shown in Table IV-1, 12 of the 16 countries studied for this report have national laws making primary education compulsory (Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, South Africa, Tanzania, Thailand, and Turkey). The number of required years of schooling varies by country, from five (Bangladesh) to 11 years (Peru). Several countries, including Egypt, South Africa, and Turkey, have also recently passed laws extending their years of compulsory education.

For compulsory education laws to be effective, education must be made a viable choice for children and their families. Significant impediments remain, however, with regard to universal access to primary education. One of these obstacles is inadequate educational infrastructure and services. Schools may not be available, or they may be of poor quality. When schools do exist, long distances, poor roads, and lack of transportation can make them inaccessible. Teachers may be underpaid or lack the necessary training or qualifications, and in some cases, may not even show up for classes. Poor families may feel that their children's schooling does not provide them with useful skills or make a difference to their future.

In the 16 countries studied for this report, significant numbers of children are not going to school. Table IV-2, which provides data on educational attainment by country for the most recent available year (1990 to 1997), shows that less than 70 percent of children are enrolled in or attending primary school in five of the countries studied (Guatemala, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Tanzania). In seven of the countries, less than 70 percent of children enrolled in primary school reach the fifth grade (Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal, Nicaragua, Pakistan, and South Africa).

Government spending on education varies widely among the 16 countries studied. Table IV-3 presents data on education spending by country for the most recent available year (1990 to 1997). Public expenditures on education as a percentage of GNP ranged from 1.7 percent (Guatemala) to 7.9 percent (South Africa). Education spending as a percentage of total government expenditures ranged from under 10 percent (Bangladesh and Pakistan) to over 20 percent (Mexico and South Africa), and primary school spending as a percentage of total public education expenditures ranged from 18 percent (Peru) to over 65 percent (Egypt and Nicaragua). By comparison, according to the World Bank's 1998 World Development Indicators, the average percentage of GNP spent on public education in 1995 was 4.6 percent in low and middle income countries, and 5.5 percent in high income countries.

Access to education is often not equitable. Children in rural areas and those belonging to marginalized groups are frequently more affected by a lack of adequate educational infrastructure. Rural children are also more likely to work. Indeed, work can constitute a major impediment to children's attendance and successful completion of primary school. Working children have low enrollment and high absentee and dropout rates. These rates may be attributable to fatigue from long hours of labor, work related injuries and illnesses, and/or work schedules that are incompatible with school hours.

Some of the countries studied have developed initiatives to make schools more accessible and improve the quality of primary education, especially in remote or rural areas. These include: the Livro Didático and TV Escola programs in Brazil to invest in primary school books and provide long-distance training to teachers in remote areas; the Multigrade Program in the Philippines that aims to increase the number of elementary and high schools in local communities; a program implemented by the Turkish Ministry of Labor to open new primary schools throughout the country and hire new teachers; and a program implemented by the Ministry of Education in Egypt to build one-classroom schools at an accelerated pace in rural communities.

A variety of programs falling under the "nonformal education" rubric provide alternative educational opportunities for working children. These initiatives provide flexible school hours to accommodate the schedules of working children, alternative school locations for migrant child laborers, curriculum diversification, back-to-school programs, vocational training, multigrade learning, and apprenticeship programs.

Some of the countries examined for this report are experimenting with strategies to help ease children's transition from work to school and allow working children and adolescents to attend school and complete their primary education. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, the state with the highest number of working children in India, a pilot back-to-school program has enrolled tens of thousands of children into the formal school system. In some countries, school schedules have been made more flexible in order to allow working children the opportunity to study. In Mexico, for example, the Secretariat of Social Development's National Agricultural Day Laborers Program (PRONJAG) recently developed a program to provide increased access to basic education to the children of migrant farmworkers, many of whom work with their parents in the fields. In Guatemala, new programs aim to make school more accessible to rural children who work in the fields, including migrant children who attend different schools during the same school year.

The Nicaraguan Ministry of Education's Extra Age (Extra Edad) program serves children and adolescents who are unable to complete their primary school education on the normal age and grade track. Classes are taught in modules to permit maximum attendance during off-work hours and eliminate the social stigma associated with older students attending classes with younger children. Similarly, a Child Labor Project conducted by the Philippine Department of Education, Culture and Sports' Bureau of Nonformal Education (BNFE) aims to reduce the number of dropouts and improve achievement in elementary schools by providing tutoring for out-of-school youth so that they are able to obtain their primary/secondary school equivalency.

In Peru, a number of schools have three shifts--morning, noon, and night--to allow working children to combine work with school. A flexible curriculum developed by the Ministry of Education allows teachers to give more attention and extra time to children who fall behind or miss classes because of work. Finally, a regional office of the Philippine Department of Education, Culture, and Sports has developed a school-based work-study program in Lapu-Lapu City directed at elementary school age children who cut stone or make firecrackers.

In addition to making schools available and improving their quality, some governments have implemented economic incentive programs to encourage families to send their children to school rather than to work. While economic incentive policies and programs have been used for over 20 years to increase school attendance and, more recently, to address child labor issues, it remains unclear whether or not such programs are effective.

One of the most common incentives policies is providing free meals to school children. A number of countries (such as Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, and South Africa) are providing free meals (breakfast and/or lunch) to attract and retain students, reduce the costs associated with school, and ensure that children get the nutrition essential for learning. In some countries (including Bangladesh and Brazil), food is distributed directly to needy families who send their children to school.

Some countries eliminate, reduce, or subsidize school fees by providing school vouchers to families in poor and marginalized communities, while others provide cash stipends to compensate poor families for income lost by sending children to school instead of to work. For instance, to offset school fees and indirect costs of schooling, the Egyptian Ministry of Education's Mubarak Program for Social Cooperation (established in February 1996) is providing school grants through the Ministry of Social Affairs to school children whose families earn less than 100 Egyptian pounds (US$ 29.41) per month.

The School Scholarship (Bolsa Escola) program in Brazil, established as a pilot program in the Federal District in 1995, provides a minimum monthly salary to needy families that keep all their children between the ages of seven to 14 enrolled in and attending primary school. As an additional incentive to continue education and prevent failure and dropout, Brazil's Federal District Government is also implementing the School Savings Program (Poupança Escola), which deposits a monthly salary in the savings account of each child enrolled in the Bolsa Escola program for each grade that is successfully completed, from first to eleventh grade. In Mexico, the PROGRESA program provides economic incentives to poor families that keep their children in school.

While the impact of these policies and programs can only be assessed by future increases in the number of children attending and completing school, they provide an important indication of the level of government commitment to the provision of universal primary education in the 16 countries studied for this report.

F.     Targeted Initiatives to Combat Child Labor

Chapter V presents some examples of targeted efforts implemented or advanced by governments in the 16 countries to address the exploitation of working children. While there is a broad range of programs and policies that could positively affect poverty and other factors that lead to child labor, Chapter V only describes initiatives that directly aim to eliminate child labor and provide alternatives for them and their families.

Targeted child labor initiatives usually facilitate and complement government efforts to strengthen child labor laws and enforcement and to improve access to primary education. Such initiatives also illustrate a government's commitment to eradicating exploitative child labor. In many cases, these efforts are being undertaken by governments, in partnership with nongovernmental actors. Other projects are being supported or facilitated by government entities, either through direct funding or through government participation in international initiatives such as the ILO's International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC). All the countries studied, with the exception of Mexico, are currently participating in IPEC, the world's largest and most effective program to eliminate child labor. A government's participation in IPEC can be seen as an important step towards acknowledging the existence of child labor and taking an active stance towards eliminating it.

Chapter V presents several initiatives targeting specific child labor populations in agriculture, manufacturing, mining and quarrying, or the services sector, including children working as domestic servants, prostitutes, and in various street occupations. In agriculture, the initiatives described include programs to combat child labor in Tanzania's tea estates and tobacco farms, Brazil's sisal plantations, and Mexico's fruit and vegetable farms, as well as initiatives in Nepal and Turkey that target forced or bonded child labor in rural areas. Other programs described include initiatives in the garment and soccer ball industries of Bangladesh and Pakistan, where industry groups, international organizations, and NGOs are working together to remove and rehabilitate child laborers. Similar programs are underway to eliminate child labor in Nepal's carpet industry and Brazil's shoe industry. In Peru, a project is being implemented to reduce child labor in the brick making and stone quarrying industries. Finally, several efforts in Brazil, Kenya, Nepal, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Thailand, and Turkey targeting child domestic workers, child commercial sex workers, trafficked children, and children living and working on urban streets are also described.

In some countries, multi-sectoral initiatives are being implemented to combat child labor through the rescue, removal, and rehabilitation of children from exploitative work. These multi-sectoral programs often involve a broad coalition of governmental and nongovernmental actors and community groups. In Brazil, the Ministry of Welfare and Social Assistance's Eradication of Child Labor Program aims to stop children in rural areas from working and assure that they attend school on a regular basis. The Government of India has provided funding to NGOs to implement National Child Labor Projects, which have resulted in the establishment of nonformal schools and the release of thousands of children from hazardous work. One NGO that has received funding from the Government of India is the MV Foundation, which can be credited for enrolling and retaining close to 80,000 children in school. In the Philippines, the Kamalayan Development Foundation conducts rescue operations with the collaboration of the government to remove child workers from exploitative work.

Several of the targeted child labor projects described not only remove children from exploitative work situations, but also provide supportive services such as educational opportunities for the children and income generation alternatives for their families. Often such multi-faceted and comprehensive programs are the most effective in eliminating and preventing the exploitation of children.

G.     Conclusion

Child labor is a complex problem that requires comprehensive, multi-faceted solutions. This report describes the magnitude and nature of the child labor problem in the 16 countries studied and presents several of the innovative approaches being undertaken to address the problem. Today, numerous international organizations, governments in developing and industrialized countries, and nongovernmental actors are developing and implementing strategies and initiatives to eliminate child labor.

Accurately identifying the extent of child labor within a country is an essential step towards the development of effective strategies for eliminating and preventing the problem. Some of the efforts being undertaken by individual countries to improve the accuracy of child labor data include:

  • conducting specialized national child labor surveys with the assistance of the ILO;
  • using standard definitions and methodology for collecting and reporting child labor data, based on those developed by the ILO's SIMPOC program and tested in several countries; and
  • institutionalizing the regular collection of child labor data by integrating a child labor component into periodic labor force surveys.

This report discusses two of the most basic and traditional governmental approaches to preventing the premature entry of children into the workforce: the enactment and enforcement of child labor legislation and the provision of universal primary education. While all of the countries studied have laws that regulate the employment of children, such laws may be limited by their narrow scope, lack of clarity, and loopholes. Furthermore, ineffective enforcement of child labor laws remains a widespread problem. Some countries faced with considerable numbers of child laborers are now taking steps to address shortcomings in their legislation and enforcement. Possible efforts in this area include:

  • consolidating child labor laws and regulations in order to eliminate inconsistencies and confusion;
  • increasing the legal age of employment to conform with international standards;
  • increasing civil and criminal penalties for violators of child labor laws;
  • improving training of labor inspectors, providing additional resources for investigations, and creating specialized inspection units that deal with child labor issues;
  • developing partnerships with industry, labor groups, and NGOs to assist in identifying and preventing the exploitation of children; and
  • increasing public awareness about child labor by informing the public about applicable child labor laws and penalties.

A lack of educational infrastructure and services has significantly limited children's access to quality, primary education. A number of countries are currently implementing policies and programs to improve compliance with and enforcement of compulsory education laws. Some countries also have projects aimed at increasing enrollment, attendance, and completion of primary school. Steps that countries can take to accomplish the provision of universal primary education include:


  • passing legislation making primary education compulsory for all children;
  • increasing educational expenditures at the primary level to increase school accessibility and the quality of instruction (for example, enabling construction of new schools, improving existing infrastructure, and authorizing increases in teacher salaries and training);
  • alleviating the costs associated with education that can prevent poor families from sending their children to school by providing transportation, subsidizing the costs of school meals, uniforms, supplies, and books, and eliminating school fees; and
  • eliminating inconsistencies between child labor and compulsory education laws.

This report also discusses targeted projects, implemented or advanced by governments, that focus on removing children from exploitative work and providing them with educational opportunities. As with efforts to combat child labor through law and enforcement and through the provision of universal primary education, targeted child labor projects provide a useful indication of a government's commitment to the elimination of this problem. Key elements of targeted child labor projects include:

  • targeting child labor in sectors or occupations that are hazardous and harmful to a child's development;
  • removing children from exploitative work and providing them with alternatives, such as education or vocational training;
  • providing income-generating opportunities for families of former child laborers;
  • establishing partnerships among governmental and nongovernmental actors and international organizations such as the ILO and UNICEF and drawing on participants' respective expertise and resources; and
  • raising awareness among vulnerable groups of children's rights and the dangers of premature entry into the workforce.

The information presented in this report can serve as a framework for further study and evaluation of the progress being made toward eliminating child labor in the countries studied. Ultimately, the best way to determine such progress is by documenting a reduction in the overall number of children working and an increase in the percentage of children attending and completing primary school.

This report was produced by the staff of the International Child Labor Program and is published by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs.