Child labour: facts and how to help

Updated Jun 09, 2023
Child labour is a term used to describe work that deprives children of their childhood, endangers their health and well-being, and hinders their personal development. Canadians might categorize child labour as something that happens in the dark corners of far-off places, but the reality is, child labour remains a rampant issue today, both at home and abroad.
At the beginning of 2020, 1 in 10 children aged 5 and over were engaged in child labour worldwide. This is equivalent to 160 million children – 69 million of whom were girls and 97 million boys. As of 2022, an estimated 79 million of these children are engaged in dirty, dangerous and degrading work.

Africa tops the list of regions with the highest prevalence of child labour, accounting for 72 million of all child labourers globally. Since 2012, Sub-Saharan Africa has seen the largest increase in the number of children involved in child labour - the region has more child labourers than in the rest of the world combined. Asia and the Pacific ranks second-highest with 62 million child workers. The two regions account for nearly nine out of 10 children involved in child labour worldwide.

The numbers are alarming despite significant progress in reducing child labour in the last twenty years. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising poverty was predicted to push  an estimated 9 million additional children into child labour by the end of 2022. 

And while child labour may be illegal in Canada, that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own child labour problem.

Keep reading for more child labour facts and how you can help.
  1. What is child labour?
  2. What are the causes of child labour?
  3. What are the effects of child labour?
  4. Is there a problem with child labour in Canada today?
  5. What is Canada doing to stop child labour?
  6. You mentioned supply chains – what are those?
  7. How can I stop child labour?
  8. Quick read: child labour facts

1. What is child labour?

Child labour is defined as the use of children in industry or business, especially when illegal or considered inhumane.

The work that these children do is often harmful to their health, interferes with their education, or inhibits their physical mental, spiritual, moral or social development.
As recently as 2021, 4.3 million children were working in forced labour, which includes children in situations of debt bondage, slavery and commercial sexual exploitation.
A child’s age, the type of work and the hours of work performed are determining factors in whether a particular form of work can be classified as child labour.

Generally, unsafe child labour practices are defined in part by the number of working hours for a specific child’s age. Unsafe child labour includes:
  • any of the worst forms of child labour: including excessively long hours, night work, work with heavy machinery or work that takes place underground or underwater.
  • any labour performed by a child under the age of 12
  • more than 14 hours of work, per week, by a child aged 12-14
  • more than 43 hours of work, per week, by a child aged 15-17
In its most extreme forms, child labour causes children – at very young ages – to be separated from their families, exposed to hazardous work, left to fend for themselves or enslaved.

A girl sitting on the floor next to a sleeping child, operating a heavy-duty machine.
Pinky, age 10, was forced to drop out of school and start working at a factory due to lockdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. At work, she has to handle machines that are too big for her fingers, a condition considered unsafe, especially for children. World Vision Bangladesh

2. What are the causes of child labour?

  • Poverty 
    • Like so many other issues in the world, the root cause of child labour is poverty. Unemployment and the need to survive often lead families to make desperate decisions. Lack of education can also impact children – since their parents may not understand or see the short and long-term value of their child receiving an education instead of working.
  • Crisis
    • Natural disasters or the death of one of both parents can force children into hazardous work to help their family survive day-to-day.
  • Chronic emergencies
    • Things like repeat drought or famine can leave families in dire circumstances where working to survive is one of the few options.
  • Conflict
    • War or government corruption can turn the lives of children upside down, forcing them to abandon schooling and regular routines to earn a living.
  • Demand
    • The demand for low prices and cheap obedient labour can trap children in hazardous work. 

3. What are the effects of child labour?

There are many ways that child labour can affect children, and these can vary depending on which industry the child is working in. Generally, child labourers can suffer from long-term health problems due to malnutrition, exposure to chemicals, abuse, injuries, exhaustion and psychological harm.
  • In agriculture, children may be exposed to toxic pesticides or fertilizers. They work with dangerous blades and tools and carry heavy loads. 
  • In mining, children may use poisonous chemicals, face the risk of mine collapse, and sometimes work with explosives. 
  • In construction, children may carry heavy loads, work at heights without safety equipment, and risk injury from dangerous machinery. 
  • In manufacturing, children may use toxic solvents, perform repetitive tasks in painful positions, and risk injury from sharp tools. 
  • In domestic work, children risk abuse, work long hours, and often live in isolation from their families and friends. 
It is also true that children who work often don’t get a proper education. Long, strenuous work days can leave kids exhausted and unable to attend classes or do their homework. For parents who are struggling to keep their families afloat, sending kids to school is a luxury they cannot afford.

4. Is there a problem with child labour in Canada today?

Unfortunately, yes. Child labour laws in Canada were enacted at the beginning of the 20th century and outlawed the employment of children. But Canadians continue to be affected by child labour today.
Research published in 2016 and updated in 2021 found that over 1,200 companies operating in Canada are known to be importing goods at a high risk of being produced by a child or through forced labour. The majority of these companies are disclosing very little information, if any, on the policies, practices and processes they have in place to address these risks.

This means that the average Canadian is likely to be connected to child labour through the everyday products we buy and consume.

5. What is Canada doing to stop child labour?

In 2021, the government of Canada pledged to conduct a risk assessment of federal procurement supply chains. This aims to identify goods that may have been made or produced through child labour, forced labour or human trafficking.

Bill S-211, otherwise known as the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act, was passed on May 3, 2023 after receiving unanimous support in the Senate earlier in the year. This bill would require Canadian companies to check that none of their goods or components are produced in sweatshops employing children or people forced to work in dangerous conditions for meagre pay. They must also report on their efforts to prevent and mitigate the risks of child and forced labour in their operations, enabling Canadians to have confidence that their purchases are ethical.

Canada is a leader in promoting the respect and dignity of all people, regardless of where they live. But we’re not yet doing our part to call for greater transparency in global supply chains. With a growing number of jurisdictions taking legislative action, it’s time for Canada to uphold their commitment to introduce more legislation build on the meaningful progress generated by Bill S-211.
Read more about how Canadians have stepped up and spoken out against child labour.

6. You mentioned supply chains – what are those?

A supply chain is the system of organizations, people, activities, information and resources involved in moving a product or service from the supplier to the customer. Supply chains can include many touchpoints and be very difficult to follow. For example, a shoe might have its sole glued on in one factory, travel elsewhere to get laces, be packaged in a different facility and make a few additional stops before being shipped to Canada. A child labourer involved in any step of this lengthy process can connect the product, and the consumer, to child labour.

A teen girl wearing a headscarf sits on a chair outdoors, near a woman with two very young children.Suldana, a 15-year-old girl in Somalia, hikes to the nearby town of Doolow to wash dishes for long hours. She’s working to support her family, who faces major food insecurity due to severe drought. Photo: Gwayi Patrick

7. How can I stop child labour?

After everything you’ve read, you may be wondering how to stop child labour? As a Canadian consumer, you have more power to demand change than you think.
In 2021, Canada imported at least 98 “risky” products like electronics, garments, and textiles – an increase of nearly 30 per cent since 2016. These products have well-documented cases of worker exploitation and may contain high instances of child and/or forced labour in some countries. A scroll through our updated list of risky imports may surprise you at how many items you’ve recently purchased may be linked to child labour.

Now that you’re better equipped with information that can help you identify goods that may be linked to child labour, you can purchase goods that are ethically sourced, ethically made and ethically distributed. When consumers shop in a conscious way, companies are more likely to take notice and address their supply chain practices. These tips can help you become a more ethically conscious shopper.

8. Quick read: child labour facts

Here are some child labour facts to help you understand the issue:
  • It’s estimated that there are 160 million victims of child labour, worldwide.
  • 79 million child labour victims work in dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs.
  • Almost half of all child labourers are between ages 5 and 11.
  • Approximately 4.3 million children work in forced labour, including debt bondage, slavery and commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Over 1,200 companies operating in Canada are known to be importing goods at a high risk of being produced by a child or through forced labour.
  • Canada imports more than $43 billion worth of everyday products that may have been produced by child or forced labour annually as of 2020
  • 61 per cent of child labour victims are boys, however the number of girls is underreported because they’re often involved in “hidden” forms of work, such as domestic labour.
  • 71 per cent of child labour victims are in agriculture: fishing, forestry, livestock herding, commercial farming.
  • 17 per cent of child labour victims are in services: sex trafficking and tourism, domestic services, food services and housekeeping.
  • 12 per cent are in industry: sweatshops, factories, mining, brick making, stone quarries.
  • The number of children involved in child labour has declined by one third since 2000.
  • By 2025, UN member states—which includes Canada—are committed to ending all forms of forced labour, modern slavery and child labour.
For so many families, having their children work is an inevitable reality – one that could change if parents had reliable income-earning opportunities in their communities, and children had the stability and resources needed to attend school.

Updated by Melanie Ramos

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