The International Labor Organization (ILO) establishes and
supervises the application of international labor standards
including child labor standards. Its basic philosophy on child labor
was set in the early part of this century: "Under a certain age
children should not need to engage in an economic activity."
The term "child labor" generally refers to any economic activity
performed by a person under the age of 15. Not all work performed by
children is detrimental or exploitative. Child labor does not
usually refer to performing "light work" after school or legitimate
apprenticeship opportunities. Nor does it refer to young people
helping out in the family business or on the family farm. Rather,
the "child labor" of concern is generally employment that prevents
effective school attendance, and which is often performed under
conditions hazardous to the physical and mental health of the child.
International standards provide guidelines on the minimum age for
employment, allowing for exceptions based on the conditions of work.
ILO Convention 138 on the Minimum Age for Employment, adopted in
1973, states: "The minimum age. . . should not be less than the age
of compulsory schooling and, in any case, shall not be less than 15
years." Convention 138 allows countries whose economy and
educational facilities are insufficiently developed to initially
specify a minimum age of 14 years and reduce from 13 years to 12
years the minimum age for light work.
Convention 138 defines "light work" as work that is not likely to
harm the child's health or development, or prejudice his/her
attendance at school. Conven tion 138 also prohibits any child under
the age of 18 from undertaking dangerous work that is, work that is
likely to jeopardize the health, safety or morals of young persons.
Partly due to the focus on the child labor issue in the last few
years, there have been further discussions about more clearly
defining what constitutes "exploit ative" child labor that violates
the human rights of a child and for which a strong international
consensus exists for immediate abolition.
7 The ILO has begun the effort to adopt a new standard on the
abolition of the most "intolerable forms" of child labor by 1999.
In the meanwhile, the ILO's International Programme on the
Elimination of Child Labor (IPEC), established in 1992 to assist
countries in the phased elimination of child labor, refers to
certain categories of child labor as "intolerable": children working
under forced labor conditions and in bondage; children in hazardous
working conditions and occupations; and very young working children
(under 12 years of age).8
Whether child labor is defined by age or conditions of work, no
reliable information exists on the actual number of children working
throughout the world. Most available data and it is partial only
covers economic activity of children between the ages of 10 and 14.
The ILO estimates that there are at least 73 million economically
active children in this age group.9
The number of child workers under 10 is thought to be significant in
the millions.10 However,
according to the ILO, the probable total number of child workers
around the world today may be in the "hundreds of millions."11