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Asia is home to some of the most economically dynamic countries in the world. At the same time, this region has the greatest concentration of the world’s poorest people. It also employs over 60 per cent of the world’s child labour, often in intolerable forms.

Squandered resources. Children are the wealth of nations. Too often, this priceless resource is squandered. At a time when they should be acquiring the skills, knowledge, values and sense of personal worth that produce good citizens, children are being exploited as mere commodities and cheap labour. They are robbed of their childhood – something the ILO considers a fundamental human right – and of their dignity. Their physical, intellectual and emotional health is threatened, sometimes permanently crippled, by substandard working conditions and long hours with little compensation.

An often invisible problem. Child labour tends to be invisible – illegal and unremarked by most of society. In part, the problem is perpetuated by a combination of public ignorance and apathy. One focus of ILO action is making the invisible visible, by throwing the light of public scrutiny on working children.

A phased approach. The ILO recognizes that child labour is a complex and often intractable problem. Deeply rooted in poverty, and even in some value systems, it is not going to disappear overnight. It can be eliminated only through step-by-step, long-term approaches within each country. Child labour is a pervasive problem, but Asia has been achieving visible reductions.



The International Labour Organization (ILO) was created in 1919 as part of the League of Nations; in 1946, it became the first specialized agency associated with the United Nations. The ILO brings together governments, and employers’ and workers’ organizations, of its 174 member States in common action to improve social protection and conditions of life and work throughout the world. The International Labour Office, with its Headquarters in Geneva, is the permanent Secretariat of the Organization.

The ILO has three priority areas of action: employment promotion and poverty alleviation; workers’ protection; and human rights and international labour standards. Under the active partnership policy, the ILO Offices in the region, together with the tripartite constituents, identify country objectives in the areas of ILO expertise and ensure continued dialogue at the national level. Three multi disciplinary advisory teams based in Bangkok, Manila and New Delhi, in cooperation with Headquarters technical departments, provide policy advice and technical support to ILO constituents.



It is difficult to define child labour. Terms such as "child", "adult" and "labour" resist universal definition because of cultural and societal differences from one country to another. International Labour Convention No. 138 comes closest to specifying the ILO’s concept of child labour.

The Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), applies to all sectors of economic activity. It encourages member States to set a minimum age that is not less than the completion age for compulsory schooling, or in any case not less than 15 years. For light work, it establishes a minimum age of 13 years, or 18 years for hazardous work. In developing countries, it allows for a lower minimum age – 14 years in general, 12 to 14 years for light work and, in special cases, 16 years for hazardous work. Most children, in whatever society they live, work in one way or another. Such work can be an essential part of the socialization process and a means of transmitting acquired skills from parent to child. Work of this kind is not without its problems, especially as regards the children’s health and safety, and their schooling. But this is not what is meant by child labour. Nor is it about teenagers, in both developing and industrialized countries, who work for a few hours to earn pocket money to buy the latest sports shoes or electronic gadgets. What the ILO is concerned with is labour detrimental to the child and in violation of international law and national legislation.















Worldwide. At least 120 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 work full time. The number is 250 million, or more than twice as many, if we include those for whom work is a secondary activity.

In Asia. More than 60 per cent of these children live in Asia. On average, one child in every five, or close to 20 per cent, is working. Although statistics seem to show that more boys than girls work, it is also true that surveys often underestimate the number of working girls.

In the Pacific. Lack of data on the nature and magnitude of the problem in the Pacific makes it difficult to assess the situation there. The limited information available to the ILO on the labour force participation rates of children in countries such as Papua New Guinea (19 per cent) and the Solomon Islands (29 per cent), however, suggests that there may also be cause for concern in this part of the region.


Economically active children in Asia between 10 and 14 years of age, 1995

(estimated percentages)
























Source: ILO: Economically Active Population: Estimates and Projections, 1950-2010 (Geneva, 4th ed., 1995).




Child Labour entails a denial of fundamental human rights, on the one hand, and immeasurable long-term costs to society, on the other. Before addressing related issues, it is important to understand why children work.

Poverty. Poverty remains the single most important factor pushing children into work and exploitative conditions at an early age. Efforts must be made, however, to change prevailing perceptions in developing countries that child labour is an unavoidable consequence of poverty.

Lack of educational opportunities. Substandard educational facilities, the direct and hidden costs of education, and the low quality of education offered all combine to perpetuate the problem.

Entrenched social and cultural practices. Equally important contributory factors are long-standing and change-resistant attitudes and practices that are too often accepted uncritically.

Economic development and structural change. While economic development has increased the material well-being of many people in Asia, related processes can worsen the plight of working children. Overall, however, ILO research raises serious doubts about the economic necessity of child labour in some of the most competitive industries.

"Irreplaceable skills" argument. A common justification among employers for hiring child labour is that adults cannot be found to perform the necessary tasks. But ILO studies and a workshop on hazardous work in a south Asian country have revealed that the "irreplaceable skills" argument is not always supported by the facts.

"Cheaper labour" rationale. The argument that child labour is cheaper is not always valid. Studies in a number of countries have shown that most of the unskilled work performed by children is also undertaken by adults working side by side with them. Child workers are indeed paid less than their adult counterparts, but the difference is negligible – certainly not high enough to support the "economic irreplaceability" argument. A high proportion of working children is paid piece rates rather than a regular daily or weekly wage.

If children are paid the same piece rates as adults, why are children still employed? Several employers admit that children make compliant, obedient and willing workers. Subcontracting firms are often unregistered and operate outside labour laws. Where the whole operation is illegal, and they are not subject to regular factory inspection, such firms may consider the risks of employing children as minimal.

Leaving aside arguments on humanitarian grounds, employers should see that, in the long term, combating child labour makes good economic and business sense. Emotionally, intellectually and physically impaired children stand little chance of becoming productive adults.



Certain forms of child labour, irrespective of the country’s level of development, are unacceptable. Intolerable forms – slavery, debt bondage, prostitution and work in hazardous occupations and industries – demand immediate action.

Domestic service. Children working as domestic servants – a category that may be growing with increasing income disparities and rural poverty – are often among the most vulnerable and exploited of all. Yet they are also the most difficult to protect.

Slavery. Worse still, many children in a number of countries around the region even now work in slavery or near slavery. Despite legislation and attempts to ban the practice, selling children outright or giving them away in debt bondage is all too common.

Hazardous occupations. Across Asia, children are found working in a wide variety of hazardous industries and occupations, including those where there is regular exposure to chemical and biological hazards. A recent ILO study in Bangladesh found that more than 40 types of economic activity conducted by children were hazardous. In south Asia, generally, children can still be found working in hazardous industries and occupations, such as brassware and glass factories, slate making and carpet weaving, where conditions of work are often medieval. In south-east Asia, children toil in extremely dangerous occupations such as underwater fishing, pearl-diving and scavenging. A nationwide survey on working children in the Philippines revealed that about 2.2 million, or 60 per cent of the total 3.7 million working children, were regularly exposed to chemical and biological hazards, and that about 30,000 children suffered serious work-related injury or illness.

Sexual exploitation. The commercial exploitation of children is on the rise, according to ILO studies. As part of this, children are increasingly being bought and sold across national borders by organized networks. Currently, an estimated 1 million children in Asia are victims of the sex trade. Contributing factors include the belief that HIV infection is less likely with young sex partners, and a laissez-faire attitude on the part of authorities in charge of national and international tourism.


What is IPEC?

Since 1990, ILO action against child labour has developed in scope and intensity, with technical cooperation featuring more prominently. In 1992, the creation of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) gave new impetus to the ILO’s offensive against child labour. The programme operates in three continents and in more than 20 countries, including Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand; preparatory activities are well under way in China and Mongolia. By strengthening the capability of individual countries to deal with the problem, while promoting a worldwide movement to combat child labour, IPEC aims at the phased elimination of child labour.

Getting results. Hundreds of action programmes have already been implemented in the region. Among their objectives are:

· Preventing child labour

· Withdrawing children from exploitative and hazardous work and providing them with alternatives

· Improving working conditions as a transitional measure towards the elimination of child labour 

Indicators of success.

  · Tens of thousands of working children have directly benefited from the programme.

· In every country where the programme is up and running, considerable progress has been made in changing perceptions and highlighting the problems related to intolerable forms of child labour.

· Very importantly, these concerns have been reflected in official government policies, programmes and budgets in participating countries.

· Considerable progress has also been made in legal reform and enforcement. In 1997, Nepal, Malaysia and the Philippines ratified the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138), and a number of other countries in the region, including China and Indonesia, are seriously considering ratification. 



By March 1997, the number of IPEC donors had increased to 14. Germany, whose initial contribution was instrumental in the creation of IPEC has again taken the lead with another substantial contribution for the 1996-2001 period. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United Kingdom have joined IPEC, while Belgium, France and the United States have pledged additional resources. The European Commission has also made a commitment to contribute.



Worldwide concern, local solutions. IPEC is promoting a worldwide movement to combat child labour. At the same time, it recognizes that it is more urgent to combat some forms of exploitation and abuse, while problems and constraints at the country level vary. The struggle must be rooted in each society’s own culture, institutions and aspirations.

Phased elimination. Although total abolition is the ultimate goal, any realistic programme must aim at phased elimination. First, the most hazardous and exploitative forms of child labour should be eradicated. With particular attention to working girls, who are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, the programme focuses on three priority target groups:

· Children working under forced labour conditions and in bondage

· Children in hazardous working conditions and occupations

· Very young working children (under 12 years of age) 



The ILO aims to promote universal concern while facilitating phased elimination at the local level. Simply by publicizing these issues, IPEC and its partners are helping to alleviate the situation. But much more has to be done.

Universal compulsory education. This remains the most effective response to child labour. Generally, the incidence of child labour is greatest and the level of exploitation highest where provisions for universal schooling are weakest.

Targeting those most at risk. Those who have so far benefited most from progress in the reduction child labour are not necessarily those most at risk. The people more likely, as a matter of survival, to resort to child labour are those excluded from "mainstream" society — ethnic minorities, indigenous or tribal groups and lower castes.

Awareness-raising campaigns. Public education and awareness-raising campaigns must penetrate beyond policy-makers and the urban middle class to the rural poor and small-scale employers who are at the core of the problem.

Economic development. This in itself should reduce child labour. Richer countries can spend more on education and social welfare services.

But child labour will not disappear overnight, nor is it possible to eradicate it simply through increased industrialization. Despite economic progress and some bold initiatives on the policy and legislative fronts, child labour remains a grave problem. Child labour issues — especially in the fields of education and poverty alleviation — should be more systematically integrated into social and economic development policies, programmes and budgets.



Children and their families. This is the first line of defence. The ILO and its partners aim to empower children and their families by fostering greater awareness of the issues, as well as better organization and increased participation in measures to address the problem.

Government agencies. In all countries participating in IPEC, programmes benefit from the participation of ministries of labour. Fruitful cooperation has also begun with other ministries, especially ministries of education, ministries and departments dealing with youth, the family, the media, health and social welfare, and central coordinating units such as national planning commissions and Prime Ministers’ offices.

Employers’ organizations. The cooperation of employers is essential in the struggle against child labour. Action plans implemented by individual employers or by employers’ organizations have succeeded in preventing child labour, withdrawing children from hazardous work and improving children’s working conditions.

Workers’ organizations. As active IPEC partners, workers’ organizations play an important role in raising awareness among their members and child workers, in waging media campaigns and in monitoring working conditions. In some countries, they have managed to have child labour issues included in collective agreements.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A variety of NGOs are major ILO partners in combating child labour. Because of their knowledge of and proximity to working children, their families and their communities, NGOs often provide appropriate channels for developing concrete measures addressing the needs of these groups. They can also be especially effective in promoting grass-roots participation in planning and implementing action programmes.

Other groups. The media, the judiciary, health institutions, universities and parliamentarians are among the other social partners which have joined the ILO in the fight against child labour.



IPEC is applying a phased, multi-sectoral strategy aimed at strengthening the capacity of its partner organizations.

Situation analyses. An essential early step is to determine the nature and magnitude of child labour problems in a given country.

Motivation and facilitation. It is important to encourage alliances of the ILO constituents — governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations — and other concerned partners at the country level, including NGOs, universities, health institutions, the judiciary, parliamentarians and the media. Such alliances can encourage governments to commit themselves to cooperation through formal Memoranda of Understanding with IPEC.

Institutional mechanisms. National Steering Committees, consisting of the concerned ministries, workers’ and employers’ organizations, and NGOs, establish national "ownership" of the programme and provide an effective means of advising on related policy implementation.

Educating the public. IPEC also promotes awareness of child labour issues nationwide, both in the general community and in the workplace.

The regional dimension. During the initial years of IPEC presence in the region, activities focused largely on the development of national responses to child labour. In more recent years, it has become clear that a number of related issues transcend national boundaries, requiring action at the regional or subregional level. Since 1994, IPEC has organized regional training courses, notably on the collection of child labour statistics and the training of labour inspectors, followed by activities at the national level. Another important initiative was the formation of a subregional training resource pool for south-east Asia on the design, management and evaluation of child labour action programmes. Over the years, IPEC has also stepped up its inter-country efforts to improve awareness of and promote action against an extremely pernicious aspect of child labour, namely, trafficking in children for the purpose of forced labour or commercial sexual exploitation.

Direct action. IPEC supports direct action with child workers and children at risk. This demonstrates the feasibility of preventing children from entering the workforce prematurely, on the one hand, and of withdrawing them from hazardous and exploitative work, on the other. Successful projects, as part of this, are being expanded so that they can more effectively serve as models for other similar actions, and find their place within the regular programmes and budgets of the tripartite partners. It is essential that child labour issues are integrated, from the outset, into social and economic development policies, plan and budgets.



The Philippines joined IPEC in 1994, but ILO involvement in child labour there dates back to pioneering work done with children in dump-site scavenging on Smokey Mountain in 1987, and with children in muro-ami fishing in Cebu in 1989. One major breakthrough was a 1995 survey mapping the situation of working children across the country.



High economic growth, industrialization and urbanization, and rising education levels in Asia — combined with strong policy, legislative and enforcement action — offer promising conditions for the reduction of child labour. But it will not disappear quickly.

Universal compulsory education remains the most effective means of reducing and then eliminating child labour. Generally speaking, child labour and the level of exploitation are highest where provision for compulsory schooling is weakest.

Effective policies aimed at the gradual elimination of child labour must be adapted to the socioeconomic situation of each country; not all countries in the region can eliminate all forms of child labour immediately. But whatever a country’s circumstances, certain forms of child labour are unacceptable. A focus — through policies, legislation and programmes — on intolerable forms of child labour, such as slavery, debt bondage, prostitution and work in hazardous occupations and industries, is therefore imperative.

Asian countries should be able to bring about a relatively quick end to abusive forms of child labour. Joint efforts by governments, employers and their representatives, and trade unions have already made headway. But there is no room for complacency — recent concerted and vigorous action must be sustained.


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