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International Partnerships

Child labour is keeping millions of children out of school

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 ending child labour and to step up our collective efforts for impactful and sustainable actions.

We publish regular articles on different themes related to child labour throughout the year and you can find links to our previous articles below.

This month, we are turning our attention to education. September is a month when many of the world’s children are returning to school. However, this is not the case for a lot of children involved in child labour who are denied their chance to get an education.

Education is a fundamental human right and a major enabler to reduce inequalities and build peaceful, democratic and inclusive societies that are the core of EU values.

Girls in school in Nepal

Current situation and trends

Percentage of children aged 5 to 14 years in child labour not attending school, by region.

Percentage of children aged 5 to 14 years in child labour not attending school, by region. © ILO/UNICEF 2021

According to the latest Child Labour Global Estimates, published in June, 160 million children – 63 million girls and 97 million boys – were in child labour globally at the beginning of 2020, accounting for almost 1 in 10 children worldwide. 53 million of these children are not in school, amounting to 28% aged 5 to 11, and 35% aged 12 to 14. This is especially alarming given the largest share of those in child labour who are excluded from school are younger children, within the age range for compulsory education. As a result, the future job and life opportunities for all these children will be seriously impeded.

Even for those children in child labour who get to attend school, most struggle to balance the demands of education and their work. They generally do not attend school full time and lag behind their peers in grade progression and learning achievement, and are more likely to drop out prematurely. Hazardous child labour constitutes an even greater barrier to school attendance.

The situation is getting worse for many children, especially on account of the Covid-19 pandemic and other crises. This is despite a significant overall net decline in children out of primary school in recent years. The gap in education exclusion rates remain large, with sub-Saharan Africa being most affected.

What are the drivers

There is no single reason for why children find themselves in child labour and are not able to fully attend school. In many cases, the work demands so much time and energy that it becomes impossible for children to enter, persist and succeed at school. In other instances, children work because they lack access to quality, free schools. Additionally, decisions concerning children’s education can be influenced by family perceptions of its importance. Girls have the double burden of doing unpaid work — household chores and family care, which prevent many from attending school full time.

Covid-19 is a real cause for concern

In 2020, the pandemic increased the number of children in income-poor households by an estimated 142 million, which is a massive 24 % increase on the previous year. Their families have suffered job and income losses, seen cuts in remittances and experienced other shocks.

Families turn to child labour as a coping mechanism in times of crises. Moreover, school closures during lockdowns have added to the risks, especially for children in vulnerable situations, as they are even more likely to work when school is not an option. Pandemic-related school closures have affected over 90 % of the world’s students and remote learning failed to reach 463 million learners. When children leave school and enter paid employment, it is usually very difficult to resume their education. Without a robust response, the education emergency may easily spiral into a child labour emergency.

School girl in Indonesia.
School girl in Indonesia. © Lauren/EU
© Lauren/EU / © Lauren/EU

The TACKLE project is tackling child labour through education in African, Caribbean and the Pacific countries

The EU funded TACKLE project implemented by the ILO aimed to tackle child labour through education in 12 countries across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific countries The project helped prevent child labour and withdraw children from child labour by offering alternative education and training opportunities and promoting livelihoods.

In Madagascar, for instance, an agreement was made between a company and three NGOs to support the economic activities of parents of children in or at risk of child labour. The initiative boosted the agricultural productivity of the parents enabling them to pay for their children’s school fees.

In Zambia, community child labour committees were established and collaboration with a local bank helped support livelihoods. Many children in Zambia are forced into child labour at the expense of going to school as a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The community committees have helped raise awareness of the importance of education and a savings scheme was launched to help fund children’s education.

Read more stories and best practices from the TACKLE project.

The TACKLE project has helped children stay in school in Madagascar.
The TACKLE project has helped children stay in school in Madagascar. © ILO
© ILO / © ILO

What are the solutions

There are some well-known solutions for getting and keeping children in school and out of child labour, and many others, but their effective implementation is still limited:

  • aligning the minimum working age and the end of compulsory schooling
  • improving the overall quality of education, which increases the chances of students staying in school and succeeding
  • abolishing or reducing school costs, which may be unaffordable for some and include school-feeding facilities
  • register every child at birth, as a birth certificate with proof of legal identity and age is often required to access education
  • providing or increasing universal child benefits as part of countries’ social protection system (see below) and other policy instruments, which could potentially promote more equitable access to education
  • back-to-school campaigns and outreach in response to pandemic related school closures and to sensitise parents on the importance to invest in education
  • flexible school calendar and curricula to incentivise school attendance and cope with family farms needs for seasonal light work
  • facilitate school-to-work transition for children aged 15-17 years through vocational, education and training (VET) to provide them with knowledge, skills and competencies to access decent jobs when they reach working age
  • involving the formal and informal private sector operators and reduce the mismatch between skills and labour market requirements
  • empowering teachers’ unions to improve teachers’ working conditions and wages
  • improving school infrastructure, including safe roads, water and sanitation

Social protection can make a difference

Social protection by way of universal child benefits or cash transfers offer a powerful solution. Transfers provided on a regular basis to all families with children, are a simple and proven means of cushioning children and their families from poverty and improving access to education and other services. The payments can be used to incentivise school attendance and help offset schooling costs. Solutions may be required for families of informal workers, who may be excluded from social protection payments, making them doubly vulnerable.

The EU stands committed

The EU continuously works to address the root causes of child labour by tackling poverty, inequalities, increasing access to quality education and social protection, promoting due diligence for sustainable supply chains, and supporting partner governments, local actors and businesses, especially in the most affected countries. The complexity of the problem requires holistic approaches to address the root causes and systemic solutions need coordination with a variety of actors and strategic sectors.

The European Commission’s commitment aims at transforming education and promoting innovative learning solutions especially in Africa. Commissioner Urpilainen has called for at least 10% of external aid to target education to help increase the number of children in school and learning, and prevent children to fall into child labour.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, has committed to a zero-tolerance policy on child labour in new trade agreements in her political guidelines. In addition, the recently adopted EU Strategy on Child Rights 2021-2024 commits the EU to support free and easily accessible compulsory qualitative education, extend social welfare programmes and increase the capacity of labour inspection systems to monitor and enforce child labour in our partner countries.

Between 2013 and 2019 the EU has helped more than 70.6 million children access primary education and close to 24 million children to enrol in secondary education. The EU supports education in some 100 countries and through partnerships such as the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and Education Cannot Wait.


The CLEAR Cotton project: combating child labour with education in times of COVID-19

The CLEAR Cotton project, financed by the EU and implemented by the ILO and the FAO, is working to eliminate child labour and forced labour in the cotton, textile and garment value chains. The project is reintegrating children in child labour back to school, recognising the importance of education as the most effective way to combat child labour. Read the story of Inoussa who is no longer in child labour and been reintegrated into schooling as a result of the project. Read another story from the ILO on how CLEAR Cotton is implementing the Accelerated Schooling Strategy (Stratégie de scolarisation accélérée – passerelle - SSA/P) in Burkina Faso and Mali, to withdraw children from cotton fields and send them back to school, with specific solutions needed in light of the pandemic.

Student at one of the CLEAR Cotton project centres, Mali, February 2020.
Student at one of the CLEAR Cotton project centres, Mali, February 2020. ©ILO/B. Alawa
© ILO/B. Alawa / © ILO/B. Alawa

International targets

The international community has set SDG target 8.7 which calls on countries to end child labour in all its forms by 2025. Given the intrinsic link between child labour and education, reducing and eventually ending child labour contributes to progress on SDG 4 on quality education.

There are two fundamental ILO Conventions that directly address child labour: ILO Convention 138 on the minimum age for work and 182 on eliminating the worst forms of child labour. ILO Convention 182 was universally ratified by all ILO member states last year. This Convention calls on all countries to enhance international cooperation and/or assistance for social and economic development, poverty eradication and universal education (article 8).


Join us on our journey to end child labour

The EU will continue to explore new areas and innovative and effective approaches to eradicate child labour, in cooperation with existing initiatives and alliances. And to raise awareness of all actors on this unacceptable reality: everybody can play a role even if very little. The High Level Conference on Child Labour in Agriculture of November 2021 and the 2022 Global Conference on Child Labour will be instrumental in this regard: the EU is ready to actively participate and commit to further working with all actors towards an ambitious outcome to accelerate action to achieve target 8.7 by 2025.

We call on all actors to step-up their actions: governments, private sector, civil society, communities, education systems, trade unions and other stakeholders. If not, we risk losing another generation of children to child labour, who are missing out on education and other crucial opportunities in life.

Let’s end child labour together!

News and resources

Read our previous monthly articles exploring different themes on child labour for the International Year: