Hesperian Health Guides

Protect children and end child labor

National governments set the minimum age when a young person can begin regular paid work. This is often the same age when children finish the years of schooling required by law, and is usually between 12 and 15 years old, depending on the type of work. Wealthy industrialized countries usually require more years of school, and young people may start regular work when they are 17 or 18 years old. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations (UN) established a general minimum age of 15.

Wgthas black-un.png The UN and ILO on children and work Wgthas black-ilo.png
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child says a child is any person under 18 years old and that children should be protected by their governments.
  • Children have a right to an education.
  • Children have the right to rest and leisure, and to play.
  • Children cannot do work that may be dangerous, work that interferes with the child’s education, or work that is harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral, or social development.
  • Governments must set a minimum age for beginning regular work, regulate the hours and conditions of work, and promote the physical and psychological recovery and social integration of child laborers.

The ILO Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) and Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (No. 182) say:

  • Children may do light work beginning at 12 to 13 years old, but it may not interfere with school, rest, play, or be harmful to their health.
  • Minimum age to work is 15 years.
  • Minimum age for dangerous work is 18 years.
  • The worst forms of child labor should be banned.

The ILO Medical Examination of Young Persons Convention (No. 77) says:

  • Medical examinations should be given to children and young persons before they begin work and each year while they are working.

The roles of the UN, ILO, and other international organizations that promote workers’ rights are explained in Appendix A.

Focus on the root causes

To eliminate the root causes of child labor, we need an economy that works against poverty and supports education for every child.

  • Organize to create better conditions and pay for all workers. This reduces the number of children forced to work to help support their families.
  • Provide education and job training for adults to increase their ability to earn better wages.
  • Enforce laws to ensure that workers get the pay and benefits they are due, such as a minimum wage, overtime pay, social security, health care, and maternity benefits.
Child workers’ associations
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Prasert is a young boy from Khon Khaen province in northeast Thailand.

When I had been working a few years in a factory in Bangkok, a friend told me about the Child Workers Club. The Club helps child workers get organized so we know our rights. It also campaigns with employers to give child workers educational opportunities to prepare for a better future.

I started going to Club meetings, and the staff of the Club encouraged me to become a full-time, paid organizer for the Club. I visit child workers in their places of work to find out about conditions. Then we talk about child workers’ rights and I encourage them to come to the Club’s activities to learn more. I write for the newsletter and sometimes help with events.

In the factory, I worked the whole day without thinking about anything else, just finishing the assigned work. Here I have to think a lot. Organizing is far more difficult than anything else I have done. Sometimes I’ve been so worried that I’ve wanted to quit, but staff here have encouraged me to continue and I have gotten pretty good at this work!

Education for all children

Education needs to be available nearby, relevant to the child’s needs and interests, good quality, and free (or at least affordable). If workers pressure an employer to fire child laborers, the children are often forced into other, even worse jobs to earn a living. For the child to have a real alternative to working, the family’s poverty must be lessened, and there must be a school the child can attend. Your organization can:

  • help child laborers find and get into free schools, sometimes offering vocational training, and make sure these school also offer free, nutritious food.
  • provide economic support to the family, to replace the income the child earned.
  • give orphan child workers food and shelter, so they can attend school and vocational training instead of work.
  • reconnect children with their families if they are separated.
Money-for-school program helps prevent child labor

To help stop child labor, the government of Brasilia, a state in Brazil, launched a grant project to support poor families. Most children who work do so because their families depend on the money they make working. The program, called Bolsa Escola (school grant), pays poor families a monthly stipend for each child in the family (from 5 to 17 years of age) who goes to school regularly. This money replaces the children’s contribution to the family income and it allows their families to afford basic needs.

The Bolsa Escola has been successful at giving children the opportunity to go to school instead of work: school attendance has doubled in some communities and children miss fewer days of school. Bolsa Escola is now a national program. It was integrated into Bolsa Familia (family grant), a program that also offers money to families for vaccinating their children. The program has also spread to other countries in Latin America and Africa.

The government should ensure children’s rights

Pressure the government to do its job:

  • Enforce child rights granted in international conventions and national, state, and local laws.
  • Set legal limits on schoolchildren’s work: Laws protecting child workers usually limit the number of hours and time of day a child can work. This is to keep work from conflicting with school time, studying, playing, and resting. The limits usually forbid children from doing work that is harmful such as using power tools, working near dangerous machines, using chemicals, working in hot areas, and carrying heavy things.
  • Create school permits for children’s jobs: In some countries, an employer must get a permit from the school for each child they hire. The permit shows the child is attending school and that the employer knows the limits on children working.
  • Create orphan programs: Local youth centers can be established to care for orphaned or homeless children who are forced to work to support themselves.
  • Fund income support for families: Create community-based programs, such as basic income grants, childcare, common kitchens and meals, adult literacy, education, and job training to help families keep children in school and adults earning a living.
Unions take action in Brazil

The United Workers’ Confederation (CUT) organized a national campaign to stop child labor in Brazil. First they partnered with research centers and universities to study child labor and people’s ideas about child labor in each area. People felt it was better for children to work in urban areas than in rural ones. They said, "At least they are working and not just living on the streets."

Then they tried to build support in communities for the struggle to end child labor. They used radio and TV programs, newspapers, booklets, posters, videos, and a photograph exhibit to raise awareness about the conditions of child workers.

They also encouraged employers to talk about child labor with the unions. The unions stopped children from working in the most dangerous jobs, and helped provide assistance to them and their families. The campaign also built support for better education, income supports, and recreational programs, all of which are a step toward preventing child labor in the future.

This page was updated:06 Mar 2018