Education International
Education International

Child labour report sets out agenda for change

published 28 January 2013 updated 4 February 2013

UN Special Envoy for Global Education Gordon Brown has released a study entitled ‘Child Labour & Educational Disadvantage – Breaking the Link, Building Opportunity’. This report identifies strategies for accelerated progress towards the 2015 international development goals, maps the scale of the child labour problem, explores its impact on education, and sets an agenda for reform.

“The idea that children should be forced into exploitative or dangerous employment or into activities that compromise their safety, their security and their dreams is one that most of us would view with horror,” writes Brown in the foreword to the study.

“Child labour is the new slavery of our age,” he states.

Children have a right to expect better

There are 215 million children aged five to 17 years old involved in child labour, Brown deplores. “Over half of these children are under the age of 15. Some 91 million are under 12. Bluntly stated, all of them have a right to expect something better of us. Wherever they live, children have a claim on our care – and the international community has a responsibility to protect their right to a childhood. Yet efforts to combat child labour are failing in the face of inertia, indifference and an indefensible willingness on the part of too many governments, international agencies, and aid donors to turn a blind eye.”

The report also points out that some 15 million children of around primary school age are working rather than attending school. That figure represents fully one-quarter of all out-of-school children. The international development target of achieving universal primary education by 2015 will not be achieved without a concerted global drive to eradicate child labour.

Agenda for change

The report sets out an ambitious but achievable agenda for change. The starting point is an international summit to agree a global road map for the elimination of child labour by 2020. That road map will have to be translated into credible national action plans setting out the policies, financial requirements and regulatory measures needed to deliver results, and it will have to be backed by additional multilateral financing. Many of the institutional mechanisms required for delivery are already in place. The Global Task Force on Child Labour and Education already brings together the major UN agencies, the World Bank and civil society groups with high-level political leadership.


At the heart of that agenda are five priorities:

·         Information on the scale, extent and pattern of child labour across countries

·         Enforcement of international human rights laws and national legislation outlawing child labour

·         Incentives and integrated poverty-reduction measures to empower poor households to choose education over employment

·         Accelerated national action plans in education, with governments identifying the policies, financing requirements, and priority areas for facilitating the transition from work to school

·         International action through a sharper focus on child labour in development assistance, increased aid for education, and early funding for credible national action plans

International efforts

The report also stresses that there are signs of hope. Across the developing world, civil society organisations are doing extraordinary work to enhance the rights of children. In India, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Childhood Movement) has freed thousands of children from bonded labour and campaigned to secure national legislation that will materially address past failures to act on national legislation. The Global March Against Child Labour, an international movement of NGOs, has done much to raise the profile of child labour as a concern. Yet the fact remains that child labour has gradually slipped down the international development agenda as a campaigning issue.

Role of education

Education has a critical role to play in changing this picture. In the western world, the demand for free and compulsory publicly funded education emerged as a consequence of the demand for more stringent factory legislation. Many factors contributed to the ultimate eradication of child labour, including technological change, rising incomes and – critically – political campaigns aimed at changing attitudes. At the start of the Twenty-First Century, there are compelling grounds for learning from this historical experience and putting education at the centre of national and international strategies for eradicating child labour.

EI: national responsibility for education

"Childhood is a period of life which should be devoted not to work, but to education and training,” stressed EI General Secretary Fred van Leeuwen. “Child labour often compromises children’s potential to become productive and useful adults, citizens in society.”

Education is an essential tool for eliminating child labour, van Leeuwen said, and EI believes that primary responsibility for ensuring the re-integration of former child labourers into the formal education system lies with national authorities. At the international level, EI participates in policy development with key partners such as the Global March Against Child Labour, the ITUC, ILO-IPEC, UNICEF and UNESCO.

“We promote quality teacher training and in-service development to enable teachers to meet the diverse and special needs of children, particularly the most disadvantaged, those at highest risk of becoming child labourers and those who have been child labourers,” added van Leeuwen.

He underlined that EI encourages school systems to become child labour monitors by helping to survey the extent of non-attendance at school and its relationship to the spread of child labour; and to use that information to work with parents and local communities so that they understand the value of education and the costs of child labour, and are encouraged to participate with the local early childhood services and schools in decisions about the education of their children.

To read the study entitled ‘Child Labour & Educational Disadvantage – Breaking the Link, Building Opportunity’ in its entirety, please click here.