Children's Rights

Children's Rights > Child Labor

Child Labor

The International Labour Organization (ILO) has estimated that 218 million children between the ages of five and seventeen work in developing countries. Of these, 122.3 million children work in the Asia-Pacific region, 49.3 million work in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 5.7 million work in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most working children in rural areas are found in agriculture; many children work as domestics; urban children work in trade and services, with fewer in manufacturing and construction.

Child labor ranges from four-year-olds tied to rug looms to keep them from running away, to seventeen-year-olds helping out on the family farm. In some cases, a child's work can be helpful to him or her and to the family; working and earning can be a positive experience in a child's growing up. This depends largely on the age of the child, the conditions in which the child works, and whether work prevents the child from going to school.

The Children's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch has focused its efforts on the worst forms of child labor, those prohibited by the ILO’s Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention.  Children who work long hours, often in dangerous and unhealthy conditions, are exposed to lasting physical and psychological harm. Working at rug looms, for example, has left children disabled with eye damage, lung disease, stunted growth, and a susceptibility to arthritis as they grow older. Children making silk thread in India dip their hands into boiling water that burns and blisters them, breath smoke and fumes from machinery, handle dead worms that cause infections, and guide twisting threads that cut their fingers. Children harvesting sugar cane in El Salvador use machetes to cut cane for up to nine hours a day in the hot sun; injuries to their hands and legs are common and medical care is often not available.

Denied an education and a normal childhood, some children are confined and beaten, reduced to slavery. Some are denied freedom of movement—the right to leave the workplace and go home to their families. Some are abducted and forced to work. The human rights abuses in these practices are clear and acute. We have found similar problems in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and the United States: children who work for too many hours and too many days, for too little, or sometimes no pay, subject often to physical abuse, exposed to dangerous pesticides, and made to work with too dangerous tools. Our objectives in tackling these aspects of the complex and troubling child labor issue include drawing attention to the plight of child workers, helping to end these appalling practices, and contributing to the debate on the rights dimension of the larger issue of children and work.


Of nearly 218 million children engaged in child labor around the world, the vast majority—69 percent, or some 150 million—are working in agriculture. Child agricultural workers frequently work for long hours in scorching heat, haul heavy loads of produce, are exposed to toxic pesticides, and suffer high rates of injury from sharp knives and other dangerous tools. Their work is grueling and harsh, violating their rights to health, education, and protection from work that is hazardous or exploitative.
According to the ILO's new report on child labor, the number of children working in agriculture is nearly ten times that of children involved in factory work such as garment manufacturing, carpet-weaving, or soccer-ball stitching. Yet despite their numbers and the difficult nature of their work, children working in agriculture have received little attention compared to child labor in manufacturing for export or children involved in commercial sexual exploitation.

In investigations in Egypt, Ecuador, India, and the United States, Human Rights Watch has found that the children working in agriculture are endangered and exploited on a daily basis. Human Rights Watch found that despite the vast differences among these four countries, many of the risks and abuses faced by child agricultural workers were strikingly similar.

In Egypt, Human Rights Watch examined the cotton industry, Egypt's major cash crop, where over one million children work each year to manually remove pests from cotton plants. In Ecuador, where nearly 600,000 children work in the rural sector, the organization investigated conditions for children working in banana fields and packing plants. In the United States, Human Rights Watch examined conditions for the estimated 300,000 children who work as hired laborers in large-scale commercial agriculture, planting, weeding, and picking apples, cotton, cantaloupe, lettuce, asparagus, watermelons, chilies, and other crops. In India, as part of a larger study on bonded child labor, Human Rights Watch looked at bonded child laborers working in agriculture. There are as many as 15 million bonded child laborers in India, most of whom are Dalits (so-called untouchables) or lower caste. More than half, and possibly as many as 87 percent of these bonded child laborers work in agriculture, tending crops, herding cattle, and performing other tasks for their "masters."

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states, "Every child shall have . . . the right to such measures of protection as are required by his status as a minor, on the part of his family, society and the State." The Convention on the Rights of the Child provides that children-all persons under eighteen "unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier"-have a right "to be protected from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development." All states parties to the Convention—every government in the world except for the United States and Somalia—are required to "undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in this Convention."

Domestic Work

Millions of women and girls around the world turn to domestic work as one of the few options available to them in order to provide for themselves and their families.  Instead of guaranteeing their ability to work with dignity and freedom from violence, governments have systematically denied them key labor protections extended to other workers. Domestic workers, who often make extraordinary sacrifices to support their families, are among the most exploited and abused workers in the world.

Abuses against domestic workers, typically taking place in private homes and hidden from the public eye, have garnered increased attention in recent years. The long list of abuses committed by employers and labor agents includes physical, psychological, and sexual abuse; forced confinement in the workplace; non-payment of wages; and excessively long working hours with no rest days. In the worst situations, women and girls are trapped in situations of forced labor or have been trafficked into forced domestic work in conditions akin to slavery.

Increased awareness has unfortunately not been matched by concerted government action. Hong Kong is one of the few places where the government guarantees equal protection under its labor laws. The norm is for governments to exclude domestic workers from these laws altogether, or to provide weaker, poorly enforced regulations that leave employers enjoying virtual impunity to exact excruciatingly long hours of work for grossly inadequate wages.

Since 2001, Human Rights Watch has conducted research on abuses against domestic workers originating from or working in El Salvador, Guatemala, Guinea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Togo, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

Our extensive research reveals an alarming prevalence of abuses against domestic workers. While we interviewed workers in each country who were happy with their jobs, many more described deplorable working conditions and egregious violations of their rights that are strikingly similar across countries. Despite increasing attention and some positive steps, governments’ responses have thus far been inadequate.  Please see Human Rights Watch’s domestic workers campaign page and report.

Bonded Child Labor

Bonded labor takes place when a family receives an advance payment (sometimes as little as U.S. $15) to hand a child-boy or girl-over to an employer. In most cases the child cannot work off the debt, nor can the family raise enough money to buy the child back. The workplace is often structured so that "expenses" and/or "interest" are deducted from a child's earnings in such amounts that it is almost impossible for a child to repay the debt. In some cases, the labor is generational-that is, a child's grandfather or great-grandfather was promised to an employer many years earlier, with the understanding that each generation would provide the employer with a new worker-often with no pay at all.

Bonded labor is outlawed by the 1956 U.N. Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery. See also International Legal Standards on Forced and Bonded Labor.
Millions of children work as bonded child laborers in countries around the world; the full extent of the problem has yet to be shown. Millions work in India alone, as documented in the Human Rights Watch 2003 report, Small Change: Bonded Child Labor in India's Silk Industry, and 1996 report, The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor in India.

On the advocacy front, we have met with children's and human rights groups, as well as representatives from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the International Labor Organization (ILO), the World Bank, and other organizations, to try to develop a holistic strategy to prevent children from losing their childhood, education, and opportunities by being entrapped in bonded labor. We have also worked to provide to children's organizations and international advocacy groups objective on-the-spot reporting to support efforts to effect change.

Forced or Compulsory Recruitment of Children for Use in Armed Conflict

The use of children as soldiers is an abusive practice that is an extremely hazardous form of work.  Human Rights Watch has published over a dozen reports on the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, a practice the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention includes among the worst forms of child labor, documenting such abuses in Angola, Burma, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sudan, and Uganda.  For more information on this form of hazardous child labor, see our child soldiers page.

Trafficking in Children

Child trafficking includes the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of a child for the purposes of sexual or labor exploitation, forced labor, or slavery. Trafficking in children is a human rights tragedy estimated to involve over a million children worldwide. In Togo, for example, hundreds of children are trafficked annually—sent from, received in, or transited through the country. They are recruited on false promises of education, professional training and paid employment; transported within and across national borders under sometimes life-threatening conditions; ordered into hazardous, exploitative labor; subjected to physical and mental abuse by their employers; and, if they escape or are released, denied the protections necessary to reintegrate them into society.

Both girls and boys are trafficked—in its study of trafficking in Togo, for instance, Human Rights Watch reported on the trafficking of girls into domestic and market work and the trafficking of boys into agricultural work.

Child trafficking is prohibited under international law as both a "practice similar to slavery" and one of the "worst forms of child labor.”  States have an urgent and immediate obligation to eradicate trafficking in children.

Dansi D., age sixteen, told Human Rights Watch she spent three days on a boat to Gabon, before working as a housemaid there for eighteen months. She said her journey began in the village of Nungbani in Togo, where she and seven other girls boarded a minibus with a woman who said they would be looking after small children in Gabon. The bus drove as far as Lomé, stopped there for five days and then made a one-day journey to Nigeria.

When she arrived in Nigeria, Dansi was abandoned by the woman who brought her and told to wait to be collected by a boat. "I stayed in Nigeria for five months," Dansi told Human Rights Watch. "It was a big house with not many people in it, and [the woman] told me just to wait. I ate gari [cassava dough] from the stock [she] had left. After five months, a man came and took me to a boat."  Dansi went on to describe the journey from Nigeria to Gabon. "On the boat, there were over a hundred children, Togolese and Nigerian, and there were some adults, but more children than adults," she said. "I talked to some of them, and all the girls were going to Gabon to work. It took three days on the boat to get to Gabon. They gave us gari and cassava and sometimes bread to eat."

Human Rights Watch Publications on Child Labor
Turning a Blind Eye: Hazardous Child Labor in El Salvador's Sugarcane Cultivation, 2004

Tainted Harvest: Child Labor and Obstacles to Organizing on Ecuador's Banana Plantations, 2002

Backgrounder: Child Labor in Agriculture, June 2002

Underage and Unprotected: Child Labor in Egypt's Cotton Fields, 2001

Fingers to the Bone: United States' Failure to Protect Child Farmworkers, 2000

Bonded Child Labor
Small Change: Bonded Child Labor in India's Silk Industry, 2003

The Small Hands of Slavery: Bonded Child Labor in India, 1996

Contemporary Forms of Slavery in Pakistan, 1995

Domestic Work

Inside the Home, Outside the Law: Abuse of Child Domestic Workers in Morocco, 2005

Always on Call:  Abuse and Exploitation of Child Domestic Workers in Indonesia, 2005

Backgrounder: Children Working as Domestics Face Abuse, 2004

No Rest: Abuses Against Child Domestic Workers in El Salvador, 2004

From the Household to the Factory: Sex Discrimination in the Guatemala Labor Force, 2002

Lasting Wounds: Consequences of Genocide and War on Rwanda's Children, 2003

Forced or Compulsory Recruitment of Children for Use in Armed Conflict
How to Fight, How to Kill: Child Soldiers in Liberia, 2004

"You'll Learn Not to Cry": Child Combatants in Colombia, 2003

Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda, 2003

Forgotten Fighters: Child Soldiers in Angola, 2003

Stolen Children: Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda, 2003

"My Gun Was as Tall as Me": Child Soldiers in Burma, 2002

Reluctant Recruits: Children and Adults Forcibly Recruited for Military Service in North Kivu, 2001

War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law, 1998

The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, 1997

Burma: Children's Rights and the Rule of Law, 1997

Children of Sudan: Slaves, Street Children, and Child Soldiers, 1995

Easy Prey: Child Soldiers in Liberia, 1994

The Lost Boys: Child Soldiers and Unaccompanied Boys in Southern Sudan, 1994
"In the Name of God": Repression Continues in Northern Sudan, 1994

Trafficking in Children
Borderline Slavery: Child Trafficking in Togo, 2003

Owed Justice: Thai Women Trafficked into Debt Bondage in Japan, 2000

Rape for Profit: Trafficking of Nepali Girls and Women to India's Brothels, 1995

A Modern Form of Slavery: Trafficking of Burmese Women and Girls into Brothels in Thailand,1993

Promises Broken: Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

More HRW Publications