DCI – ILO Convention 138 2

Defence for Children International

ILO Convention 138


Who are these children? A child is a relative concept that varies

considerably depending on the culture and time. The United Nations Convention on

the Rights of the Child defines the child as a person who is under eighteen

years of age. Intentional labour conventions make a distinction between two

categories of persons up to the age of eighteen: one category concerns children

strictly speaking which ends at around fifteen years of age (give or take a

year) whereas the second category, young persons, would cover from the end of

this period to the age of eighteen.

The principle established by international instruments is clear: work of

persons who have not reached the cut-off age of fifteen (14 or 16 depending on

the case) is not allowed. However these same instruments generally authorise

exceptions at age 13

(12 or 14 depending on the case) for light work. The convention allows

for the establishment of different minimum ages according to the country (level

of development) and according to the type of work in question (“normal”

work / light work / hazardous work etc.) although it favours the setting of a

single minimum age.

What type of work does this refer to? International instruments do not

consider occasional work by adolescents, that is, working several hours a week

to earn pocket money, nor the work carried out by children who help their

parents out in agriculture, handicrafts, in the store or at home. These

instruments are aimed at work carried out by children that life treats as adults

before their time, those that have the same working day as adults in conditions

that are harmful to their health and physical and moral development, that are

deprived of any serious educational or training opportunities which would offer

them a better future. This is the type of work that indeed must be abolished, as

it was done for industrial activities in certain countries at the end of the

previous century.

How many children work in what type of jobs? The numbers quoted must be

considered with caution. These are estimates for which there are seldom details

on the elements that led to their calculation. A survey using questionnaires was

undertaken by the ILO in 1992-1993 *, on the basis of which out of 91 countries

or territories and 213 questioned, some 78,500,000 children under 15 were

estimated to be working in 1990. Several of the survey’s conclusions shed light

on the child labour phenomenon:

a) almost all working children are in developing countries

(more than 99%);

b) on average, out of five working children, there are three

boys for every two girls. The ratio of working boys is higher in Africa and in

the Americas, whereas it is higher in Asia, Europe and Oceania for girls;

c) 75% of the boys and 80% of the girls work in agriculture or

related activities;

d) data show that children aged 5 work;

e) the lower the age of working children, the higher the

proportion of working girls;

f ) a relatively higher number of girls work in unpaid family

activities, including housework.

Standard Setting Activity

of the ILO