by Manjit Singh

Lloyd Law College - 2nd Year


It is oft quoted that the children of today are the future of tomorrow. Even so an extant problem known as ‘Child Labour’ continues to cast eclipse over the aforesaid future. Child Labour is, put in a simple manner, the employment of a person who is yet to attain majority. The age of majority differs from country to country and it typically falls within the interval of 14-18 years. As per the article 1 of ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (hereinafter- the Convention of 1989) the age of majority is 18 years. And the nature of employment- exploitative and abusive. It usually refers to work that is harmful to the physical, mental or moral wellbeing of a child. An activity that puts in jeopardy their childhood, health, and safety. The worst form of these activities includes exploitative factory work, forced labour like debt bondage and serfdom, all forms of slavery, the sale and trafficking of children, and the dragging of children in deep quag of prostitution and pornography. Assurance of individual dignity is a first blush guarantee in any liberal democratic nation-State, which thereby facilitates an individual with the liberty of choosing the trajectory of his/her life. Right to life is nothing but a legal translation of this assurance. A societal arrangement where a child, instead of studying in a school or playing in a playground, works in a factory or farm is very well against the dignity of a child. It strikes at the very kernel of every other right that a child possesses- the right to life- in the absence of which all other guarantees are otios.

There are varied causes of Child Labour, of which the significant ones can be culled out fairly easily. Poverty is, perhaps, the most important of all the leading causes of child labour, especially in developing countries. The children orphaned at a young age are pushed into the dark corners of poverty, as seen in war situations, which later leaves them with no other option but for earning their livelihood through labour works because there might be no other way to curb their economic insecurities. In a low-income family, the parents do not have enough wherewithal to afford higher education for their children and are, thus, unable to send them to good quality schools. Absence of a proper educational policy for these sections of society further triggers this ailment. This works like a loop as illiteracy further provides a push to the issue of child labour. Most of such families often see their kids as a ‘per capita source’ and thus often direct them into labour works at a very early age. Illiteracy and Ignorance of such families are, thus, yet another important cause. Debts are yet another well-known cause of child labour. The poor people often resort to debts to meet their financial exigencies. These debts often translate into child labour in case of non-redemption. The debtors are contrived to work for money lenders, which results in further dragging of next generation until the debt is fully redeemed.

Child Labour has a consequence that is hard to imagine. Just because children do not have the opportunity to study and attend classes, they are denied the chance to develop their skills for the future. It keeps them in a position of economic disadvantages, and the cycle of poverty and child labour is passed on to the future generation. Child Labour has an effect that reaches far beyond the individuals, family or community. It is a national impact that affects the growth and prosperity of the country as a whole. Child labour affects the country across different parameters. It forces children to work in hazardous and traumatic condition with poor hygiene, as against their will, that affects their productivity in future, endangers their dignity and thereby negatively affects nations long term health.


The practice of child labour predates the Industrial Revolution. It is, however, the Industrial Revolution era that converted it into a serious and colossal ailment. Child Labour was a common practice throughout the Industrial Revolution. It was a demand, not a supply, that increased the use of Child Labour during the Industrial Revolution. Children from low-income families were targeted for exploitative factory and mine jobs because they would firstly, work for a minuscule amount of wage; secondly, were less likely to strike than an adult, and thirdly, were a cheap source of labour that allowed industries to stay competitive. Managers and overseas saw other advantages in hiring children. They pointed out that children were ideal factory workers because they were submissive, likely and easy to be deterred through punishment and very unlikely to form unions.

Low wages were very intriguing factor. In many cases, children were not paid at all but worked for their room and board. They earned 10 to 20 per cent of what an adult would have made for the same. It was a common practice throughout much of the industrial revolution. Estimates show that over 50% of the worker in some British factories in the early 1800s were under the age of 14. In the United States, there were over 750000 children, under the age of 15, who were employed as labours in 1870. They performed all sorts of jobs, including working on machines in factories, selling newspapers on streets corners, breaking up coals at the coal mines, and chimney sweeps. In these places,, children were preferred to adults because they were small and could easily fit between machines and small spaces.


In the United States, the actual effort to regulate and end child labour began in the early 1900s. Many were against it because they liked the cheaper work. Some families also needed the money their kids brought home. However, starting in 1908, the newly formed National Children Labour 1904 hired a photographer to investigate and report the industries employing children. A photographer named Lewis Wickes Hine. He emphasized the potential power of photography as a tool for social reform. He travelled extensively, gathering information, interviewing children and clicking images of children working across the country. He visited coal mines where adolescent "breaker boys" worked underground for hours spreading impurities from coal, tobacco pickers, cranberry pickers and young messengers and newsboys in cities all over the country. Many of the photos captured and narrated various situations like the dictatorial supervisors of the children commanding them while they worked. He documented the comings and going of its workers, whose shifts often lasted into the night, who told him about their wages and their conditions.

Photos were first published in a progressive magazine in 1909 and it changes the public perception of child labour in the United States. As industrialization moved workers from farms and home workshops into factory work and urban work, it was ultimately pressuring states legislature to introduce law regulating work for those under 18 and sending kids back to school. The Fair Labour Standard Act 1938 was introduced, which set a national minimum wage for the first time. A minimum number of hours for a worker in interstate commerce and paced limitation on child labour under sixteen years of age was prohibited in manufacturing and mining.

By this time the international community had already joined hands to resolve this issue at international level. It was realized, at macro level, that childhood was a period of intensive care and assistance. Something that was amplified and reiterated, back to back, in the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924, in the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the General Assembly, 1959, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (specifically articles 23 and 24), in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (specifically article 10). The Convention of 1989, which came into effect on 2 September, 1990, also followed in the same footsteps and even went a step further by recognizing the rights of child for promotion of their development and best possible interest. These rights, non-discriminatory in nature, were grouped as:

  • Right to Survival- that would include withing its ambit right to food, shelter, good healthcare system, clean water etc.

  • Right to Protection- that ensure that they are safe and secure. The amount of children that have been killed and orphaned in the recent Israel-Palestine skirmishes is a testament to the importance of this right.

  • Right to Development- which would assured through better education.

  • Right to Participation- allowing them to have a say in decisions that affect them.

Child labour, indeed, is nothing but an impairment of all these rights.


With the initiation of the battle against child labour, various international and private organizations began playing an activist role in the eradication of this social pandemic. The primal aim of such organizations was to create a deep network to gather, disseminate and exchange information about child labour and provide space for a unified voice to end child labour and also to educate both public and private sectors on how to combat these issues. These organizations ensure that all children enjoy their rights, including free education, and that they should be protected from being forced into labour sheds for their development. It works to increase awareness about child labour and encourages countries to adopt and ratify conventions related to child labour. The organizations provide a stimulus to the movement to end child labour and trafficking by providing adequate and thoughtful solutions. The activities of such organizations include conducting campaigns and media event testifying, hosting conferences and forums, creating and distributing educational materials and research before the court on cases of child labour.

There are a gamut of private organizations playing a vitally active role in supporting the battle against child labour. For instance, the Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation (KSCF), founded by Nobel Laureate Mr. Kailash Satyarthi. The Foundation's mission is to end all forms of violence against children, including child labour, child trafficking and slavery. The Foundation engages children and youth in its various initiatives and works towards the most extensive collaboration between governments, businesses and communities. It took two decades before it became an international issue. None of the United Nations bodies had any international legal instrument for restraining children from being drawn into labour, prostitution, trafficking and other dangerous occupations. He initiated to look at Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh and realized that they all had analogous situations concerning contemporary slavery. This translated into a campaign in Europe and America and initiation of various programmes in Germany to fight against child labour. The ultimate achievement of these efforts was undoubtedly the International Labour Organisation convention 182 concerning the prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, which was unanimously adopted and ratified by 181 countries. Kailash Satyarthi’s foundation alone has been credited to liberate a humongous amount of children from bonded labour in India.

In international realm, the International Labour Organisation (hereinafter- ‘ILO’) finds a very important mention. The Treaty of Versailles established ILO in 1919. It became the first functional agency of the United Nations in 1946. ILO, further, received the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1969, for its efforts to improve peace amongst the classes. It has played an essential role in promoting labour and human rights. It had held a powerful position for ensuring labour rights. The term ‘child labour’ has been defined by the ILO, separately, as a work that deprives children of their childhood, potential, and dignity. It refers to work that is harmful to physical and mental development. It can include work that: is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children. According to a 2017 report by the International Labour Organisation, the number of child labours worldwide flatten from 2460 lakhs in 2000 to around 1520 in the year 2016. Out of 1520 lakhs child labourers, 730 lakhs or almost half the total are engaged in hazardous work; nearly one out of 10 children are involved in child labour as of 2017. According to the ILO report, almost 20% of children in Africa (720 lakhs 2016) are child labours making it the region with the highest rate; estimates suggest the figure for Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 2012 to 2016. Other hotspot regions for child labour are the Americans with 5.3% (80 lakh child labours) and Europe and Central Asia with 4% (60 lakh child labours).


Under Article 32 of the convention on the right of the child, International Labour Organisation convention no.182 talks about the prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of worst forms of child labour. It calls on to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate labour and modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of all forms of child labour by 2025.


Over the passage of time, India has placed a range of laws and programmes to address the issue of child labour. The Employment of Children Act of 1938 was the first enactment, in this regards, that addressed the issue of child labour in the erstwhile India. The Act, a child of the twenty-third session of the International Labor Conference held in 1937, set the minimum age of employment in specific industries at 15. After Independence from the Raj, the Indians adopted the Constitution of India (hereinafter- the Constitution) on 26 November, 1950. The founding fathers of the Constitution made several arrangements under its Part III, which guarantees fundamental rights, to prevent exploitation of the children and their employment at specific workplaces. The Constitution, under article 24, provides that: "No child below the age of 14 years shall be employed to work in any mine or factory or engaged in any other hazardous employment." Article 23 of the Constitution further proscribes trafficking of any human being, begar and similar form of forced labour. The provision when construed widely, very well, includes a child within its ambit. On a similar note, constitutional arrangements have been made in regards to education of a child as well. Article 45 of the Constitution directs and envisions the State to make endeavours to secure free education for every child below the age of six.

Though this remains a non-justiciable and non-enforceable provision, the Constitution, under article 21-A, guarantees Right to Education as a fundamental right to every child between the age of six to fourteen. Right to Education was not enunciated as a fundamental right in the Constitution originally but was only converted, from a non-enforceable directive under Part IV, into a fundamental right by the 86th Amendment Act, 2002, which was, by large, the result of Supreme Court's ruling in Mohini Jain v. State of Andhra Pradesh. A number of legislative actions have as well been taken to control child labour in India, a major one being Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 (hereinafter- the Act of 1986) which is meant to prohibit the engagement of the child in specific employments and to regulate the condition of their work in certain other employments. The Act has recently been amended in 2016 which makes the employment of children below the age of 14 years in many commercial enterprises illegal.

Numerically talking, India is the home to largest number of child labourers in the world. In 1992, when India ratified the Convention of 1989, the reservation was made in Article 32. The Government of India articulated that it would progressively ban all forms of child labour. Nearly three decades after the Act of 1986 came into force, the figure in India is dismal. Understanding the issue of child labour through numbers this year, India is at 113 positions out of 176 countries on an index that evaluates countries on children's well-being. The census figures from the past four decades suggest that the development against the issue of child labour has been very inconsistent. In between 1981 to 1991, the number of child labourers went down from 136.4 lakhs to 112.9 lakhs. In the following decade, this figure spiked up again from 112.9 lakhs to 126.7 lakhs. Liberalization of the Indian economy was a major factor for the said increase. However, there was decrease, again, in the number of child labourers as it went down from 126.7 lakhs to 101.3 lakhs between 2001 to 2011. Put in a succinct manner, the number of child labourers (5-14 years) has fallen between 2001 to 2011. According to the National census of 2011, 3.9% of the whole child population are child labourers. This decline was more visible in rural areas while child labour has increased in urban areas. In 2001 there were 11.3 million child labourers in rural areas, which came down to 8.1 million child workers in 2011, while in urban areas, the number of child workers went up from 1.3 million in 2001 to 2011.

This change suggests the child labour is now visible as the work location has changed from factories to homes of urban dwellers. In India, children work starvation wages in textile factories, helping with carpets or doing bad breaking work in brick-making factories. They are also employed in making and selling tobacco products and are also used for cheap labour in extraction, gem polishing and carpet manufacturing etc. However, the aforesaid number and development is very likely to be adversely affected because of the number of ailments that the Indian economy suffered and is still suffering in the decade after. The issue of Covid-19 is sure to introduce a massive amount of damage to the overall child population and the aforesaid development against child labour in India. The number of child labourers has been projected to drop around the figure of 74 lakhs by 2025. However, the Covid-19 situation is likely to affect adversely


There is a need to look into the problem of child labour from a multidimensional aspect to understand and address the same in a society where the parents should guide to understand the value of education for the child. Without an education, children grow up without the skills they need to secure employment, making it more likely that they'll send their children to work someday. This cycle must end. Stopping creates a better world for children and adults and will open up a brighter future for such children. If they know with education, there are promises of better life better future, and I think convincing them would not be difficult because India has reached more than 95% gross enrolment, that is only because of the awareness the people have on the importance of education that how it could make life better. The operations are working well but need to speed this up in areas where the high burden of child labour is there. Suppose we did not give these children any support to catch up to get a vision of their excellent future. It has become a social norm in the country that is broadly accepted and tolerated by society. This exploitative and abusive practice will continue unless the organization adopts a zero-tolerance attitude towards it.


  1. US Bureau of Labour Statistics.

  2. Industrial revolution child labour-

  3. These photos ended child labour in the US [Video].

  4. Library of Congress [National Child Labour Committee Collection].

  5. Internation Labour Organization.

  6. In Dept Rajya Sabha TV.

  7. Vulnerable Groups and Human Rights.

  8. The CSR Journal [ World Day Against Child Labour ].

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