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International Partnerships

Child labour has a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of children

This year is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour which calls on all of us to raise awareness of the importance of the eradication of child labour, and to share best practices.

We are publishing an article every month on different themes related to child labour. You can read our first article for the launch of the year in January here, February’s article announcing the Year’s song competition here and March’s article on how the empowerment of women can result in the reduction of child labour can be read here. This month, we are turning our attention to the impact of child labour on health, to coincide with World Health Day (7 April) and World Day for Safety and Health at Work (28 April).

Every child deserves a peaceful and secure childhood and the chance to go to school. This is still being denied to 152 million girls and boys around the world who are engaged in child labour, many of whom are suffering the worst forms of child labour.

Girl carrying goods in Nepal.
FAO/Franco Mattioli / FAO/Franco Mattioli

Child labour has a serious impact on the health and well-being of children

From the most recent Global Estimates of Child Labour of 2017, there are 73 million children involved in hazardous work, that directly endangers their health and safety. Hazardous work can cause death, serious illness or injury, permanent disability or psychological damage, as a direct consequence of poor safety and health standards, exploitation or abuse.

Children can work in dangerous conditions in all sectors, including agriculture, mining, construction, manufacturing, the service industry, retail and domestic service. However, agriculture is where the highest incidence of child labourers are found (71%) and it is a sector particularly prone to dangerous conditions, especially for children. For example, hazardous work in cotton production is among the worst forms of child labour, as children are exposed to harmful pesticides (as indicated by ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which was universally ratified in 2020). See the example below of how the EU is helping protect children from these dangers under the Clear Cotton project, implemented by the ILO and FAO.

The ILO estimates that some 22,000 children are killed at work every year. However, due to the fact that much of child labour is hidden, it is difficult to obtain accurate data on how children are being affected. For instance, the numbers of those injured or made ill because of their work are not known.

This is even more reason to stamp out the practice of child labour altogether. Children are some of the most vulnerable members of society and those involved in child labour face significantly increased vulnerability, given their situation. Children working in difficult and hazardous conditions, suffer higher levels of illness and injury. They are more at risk than adults to workplace hazards because of their age and level of development. As a consequence of hazardous work, a number of serious diseases appear only in adulthood and are often more devastating and are more likely to cause permanent harm.

Children involved in hazardous work may work at night, over long hours, be exposed to physical, psychological, or sexual abuse, and have to work in dangerous situations, such as underground, underwater, at dangerous heights, heat, cold or in isolated and confined spaces. Some children have to operate unsafe machinery, equipment, and tools, or be required to lift heavy loads and be exposed to hazardous substances, agents, or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations that can cause serious damage to their health.

There is also a gender dimension to hazardous work or worst forms of child labour. For instance, girls are more likely to perform heavy domestic work and be subject to sexual abuse and exploitation, while boys are more likely to be involved in dangerous work in agriculture, operating heavy machinery, or spraying pesticides or handling dangerous chemicals.



The long term impacts on health

Children involved in child labour are more likely to experience worse health outcomes also later in life. The impact of hazardous work can cause profound and long-lasting health problems, that may only become evident in adulthood. This makes them difficult to measure or even prove. Cancer, infertility and chronic backpain are just some of the possible long-term negative health outcomes. The consequences are worsened by poverty and the lack of efficient health and social security schemes.

There is also the potential impact of child labour on individuals mental health. However, like other aspects of health and child labour, the magnitude of the issue is hard to measure and is therefore less known.

Child Labourer in a sugarcane plantation, Philippines.
EU/Eiler / EU/Eiler

Finding solutions

First and foremost, child labour should be stamped out, especially in its worst forms. The international community, including the European Union, has committed to the eradication of child labour.

The Sustainable Development Goals sets the target of ending child labour in all its forms by 2025 (SDG target 8.7). However, this is increasingly looking less likely. This is why we need renewed commitments and efforts by all, especially by governments where there is high prevalence of child labour, the private sector involved in supply chains that involve child labour, civil society and other stakeholders. The solutions are known, it is the commitment and resources that need reinvigorating.

In terms of health, there needs to be trained and sufficiently resourced health and safety or child protection officers to respond to the health and safety impacts on child labour. While the elimination of child labour is the ultimate goal, in the interim, when child labour is still prevalent, we must do our utmost to prevent injury, harm or even the death of children involved in child labour.

When children are freed from the burden of child labour, they are able to fully realise their right to healthy development!

CLEAR Cotton project protecting children from pesticides in Pakistan

In implementing the EU funded CLEAR Cotton project in Pakistan, the ILO and FAO is working with cotton growing communities to build capacities around Occupational Safety and Health (OSH). The project is helping protect children from harmful pesticides in Southern Punjab. Training tools have been developed to raise awareness about harmful pesticides used in the growing of cotton. They include a booklet and adapted visual guide called “Protect Children from Pesticides!” for the Pakistani context and translated into Urdu. The guide shows how children are exposed to pesticides, what the health risks are, why children are particularly vulnerable, and what can be done to reduce those risks (see image above).


What else is happening for the International Year

The International Year has called all stakeholders to action and have invited pledges of specific action to be carried out this year. Stakeholders can submit their Action Pledges by 15 May, find out more here.


Additional resources