What is Child Labour?

Child labour is not to be confused by chores or children participating in work. Work that is not harmful to the wellbeing of a child is not classified as child labour. Activities such as earning pocket money during the school holidays or outside school hours, helping parents at home or assisting family businesses and is not impacting negatively on the child in any way is harmless and not child labour. If anything it is encouraged that children start to learn skills from working either through a part-time job (if a child is a teenager) or through simples chores at home that teach children important life skills and responsibilities.

However, there is a problem when a child is put in harms way through any laborious activities and this is when the ‘rights of a child’ articles protect children. Article 32 of the rights of a child act outlines protecting children from child labour.

The International Labour Organisation defines child labour as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that: is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.” The most severe forms of child labour according to the IPEC also include “being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age.”


The classification of ‘child labour’ as opposed to just ‘work’ is determined by the age of the child, the hours and type of work being done, what conditions the child is working and what the intentions from the child working are. These will slightly vary between different countries - as well as even different parts within a country.

To ensure that child labour is not taking part in various countries there are typically regulations set in place to prevent having to invoke article 32. These can include but are not limited to:

1) Provide for a minimum age or minimum ages for admission to employment

2) Provide for appropriate regulation of the hours and conditions of employment

3) Provide for appropriate penalties or other sanctions to ensure the effective enforcement of the present article.

Story - Alejandra

Twelve-year-old Alejandra is woken up at four in the morning by her father, Don José. She does not go to school, but goes to collect curiles, small molluscs in the mangrove swamps on the island of Espiritu Santo in Usulutan, El Salvador. In the rush to get to work, Alejandra does not take time to eat breakfast. It is more important to make sure she has the things she needs to make it through a workday that can mean spending up to 14 hours in the mud. These items include about a dozen cigars and at least four pills to keep her from falling asleep. A good part of the money that she earns goes to buy these things. In the mangrove swamp without shoes, Alejandra has to face bad weather, mosquito bites and cuts and scrapes from having to pull the curiles out from deep in the mud. The cigars help to repel the mosquitoes, but when she runs out of cigars Alejandra has to put up with the insects as she moves from branch to branch and from one area to another in search of shells. When she returns from work, her body is nearly always covered with bites. She earns very little. If she is lucky in one day Alejandra manages to collect two baskets of curiles (150 shells), worth little more than 12 colones, or $1.40. Alejandra, who has seven younger brothers and sisters, has no time to go to school or play with other children. Anyway, she prefers not to play with other children because they say she smells bad and exclude her from their games for being a curiles worker. Little by little Alejandra has lost her self-esteem. Like the other children who work collecting curiles, she feels separate from the rest of society. For Alejandra, life seems like a tunnel with no exit.