Child Labor

Today, there are 168 million children around the world at work instead of school.

We can change this by ensuring that parents have better livelihoods.

More than half of these children are engaged in labor deemed “hazardous” – i.e. it is harmful to the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral or educational development.

We believe that the best way to eradicate child labor is to provide better livelihoods for parents that allow them to send their children to school rather than work. ILRF plays a leading role in combating child labor by documenting it, increasing consumer awareness, pressing companies with child labor in their supply chains to take action, and engaging governments on what they need to do to address the issue.

Children produce goods from tobacco to lipstick to electronics.

Many of these children work in hazardous conditions.  The world agrees this should stop, yet it persists.

There is international consensus that child labor is a violation of labor rights and human rights, and three widely-ratified international conventions – ILO Minimum Age Convention (No. 138), ILO Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (No. 182), and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child – lay the groundwork for international and legal laws that govern when and how children can work. These standards do not forbid all employment of people under the age of 18. Rather, they define what work constitutes “child labor,” generally, work that interferes with schooling, forces a child to leave school prematurely, or is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children.

Children work in many different sectors of the global economy, but the largest by far is agriculture, accounting for nearly 60% of all child laborers worldwide. Agricultural workers are of the lowest paid workers in many countries, and parents often cannot make enough money to support children unless those children also join them in the fields. Children are also trafficked onto large plantations to harvest crops such as cocoa, palm oil, tea and tobacco.

Manufacturing is another particular area of concern. About 14 million children produce goods in sweatshops, or in often more dangerous informal home-based or small-scale manufacturing operations. Clothing from many countries, including Bangladesh, China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam, have all been linked to child labor. Brick kilns are also sadly common, but dangerous places for children to work in places such as Afghanistan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Estimates have indicated about half of the workforce in Afghanistan’s brick kilns are younger than 18.

For more information on what goods around the world are produced with child labor, the U.S. Department of Labor compiles and annual list.


Our work to eradicate child labor is closely tied to our work advocating for freedom of association and promoting humane working conditions.

Child labor that violates international norms continues for a number of reasons, but research and experience show economic vulnerability is a primary cause. Parents are more likely to have to rely on income from their children when they don’t have access to living-wage jobs or unions that are able to negotiate on their behalf for higher wages and improved working conditions. That’s why the International Labor Rights Forum sees our work to eradicate child labor as closely tied to our work advocating for freedom of association and promoting humane working conditions.

ILRF has played a leading role in fighting to eradicate forced and child labor. For more than a decade, ILRF has chaired the international committee of the Child Labor Coalition, a U.S.-based advocacy group that works to eliminate exploitative child labor in the United States and around the world. In addition, ILRF acts on this issue on several important fronts:

  • Investigating the use of child labor in the production of imported goods from other countries and attempting to prevent their entry into the United States.
  • Increasing consumer awareness and action to hold companies accountable for using child labor.
  • Working within U.S. and international governance structures to enforce laws governing child labor.
  • Supporting grassroots partners around the world developing ways to curb child labor in their own countries.

More than 60 percent of child laborers work in the agriculture sector. Thus, ILRF focuses its efforts on these key sectors in which child labor has been well documented: cocoa in Western Africa, tea in India, tobacco in Malawi, rubber in Liberia, cotton in Uzbekistan, palm oil in Southeast Asia, and shrimp in Thailand.

ILRF campaigns to end child labor:



Much of the world’s cocoa comes from Western Africa, where children are often trafficked into cocoa growing communities to do dangerous jobs splitting cocoa pods with machetes and carrying heavy loads.



Tobacco is a labor-intensive crop with a history of worker rights abuses in most places it is grown. Malawi, which is dependent on tobacco for 70% of its foreign exports, has the highest incidence of child labor in Southern Africa largely because of children working on tobacco plantations.



Uzbekistan is one of the top-ten exporters of cotton in the world, but it is all harvested in one of the world’s most extensive systems of state-sponsored forced labor. Each year, millions of Uzbek citizens, including schoolchildren, are mobilized to harvest cotton for the state-run industry.


Palm Oil

Sales of palm oil, which appears in many consumer goods from snacks to soap, are booming. Indonesia and Malaysia, which together account for 80% of global palm oil experts, are profiting from the expanding market, but at the cost of forced labor, child labor and environmental destruction on palm oil plantations.

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