The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has adopted two fundamental conventions dedicated specifically to the topic of child labour. The ILO Convention No. 138 on the minimum age for the admission to employment and work sets standards for the minimum age to start working. The ILO Convention No. 182 on the worst forms of child labour was adopted to strengthen existing conventions on child labour and defines the circumstances under which worst forms of child labour exist and expresses the urgent need to abolish these worst forms of child labour. In addition, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation in article 32, and the right to an education in article 28. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) reiterate the necessity to ensure education in Goal 4 and prohibit and eliminate the worst forms of child labour in Goal 8.7. Goal 8.7 also formulates the aim to have ended child labour in all its forms by 2025.
In defining child labour, a distinction is made between work committed by children which does not affect their personal development, health or participation in school, and work that does. Examples of the prior type are activities such as helping parents out at home, helping out in a family business or earning pocket money. These types of work are not considered harmful, and should be encouraged rather than eliminated.
Child labour on the contrary comprises the latter type of work mentioned. The term “child labour” is often defined as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” The definition refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children, as well as work that interferes with their schooling, as the labour prevents school attendance, obliges premature school leave or requires the combination of school attendance with long and heavy work. Whether particular types of work and activities may be classified as child labour, depends on the child’s age, the type and hours of the work performed, the conditions under which the labour is performed and the objectives pursued by individual countries. Classification as child labour thus varies between countries and sectors.
Article 3 of the ILO Convention No. 182 sets particular forms of child labour apart as being the worst forms of child labour. These comprise the other end of the spectrum of forms of child labour, as contrasted to the light forms of work described above. These worst forms of child labour receive priority to be eliminated without delay. Work classifies as a worst form of child labour (1) when it takes the form of slavery or a practice similar to slavery, such as trafficking, forced labour and the recruitment of children in armed conflict, (2) when it takes the form of prostitution or use for pornography, (3) when it takes the form of using a child for illicit activities such as production and trafficking of drugs, and (4) when the work is hazardous. Work is classified as “hazardous work” when the labour jeopardises the physical, mental or moral well-being of a child due to the nature of the work or the conditions under which the work is committed.
The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work recognises child labour as one of the fundamental labour rights. Incorporating the principles of the ILO Declaration, child labour has also been included as one of the Ten Principles of the United Nations Global Compact, and is referred to in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The responsibility for companies to contribute to the elimination of child labour has too been included in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
In regional context, child labour has been prohibited under Directive 94/33/EC of 22 June 1994 on the protection of young people at work, and the European Social Charter aims to protect children in the working environment in article 7. The right to education is broadly recognised, such as in article 2 of the Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights and article 17 of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights.