ILO and its two Conventions on child labour

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What is the ILO?

Founded in 1919, the ILO became the first specialised agency of the UN in 1946. Its founding value is that labour peace is essential to prosperity.

The mission of ILO is to help women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Its main aims are to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and help with the handling of work-related issues.

The ILO is the only 'tripartite' (three party) United Nations agency, which means that it brings together representatives of governments, employers and workers to jointly shape policies and programmes

The central tenet of the ILO is that work is central to people's well-being. It doesn’t just provide income, but promotes social and economic advancement, strengthening individuals, their families and communities.


What does it have to do with child rights?

The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) was created in 1992 with the overall goal of eliminating child labour, which was to be achieved through strengthening the capacity of countries to deal with the problem, and promoting a worldwide movement to combat child labour. IPEC currently has operations in 88 countries, with an annual expenditure on technical cooperation projects that reached over US$74 million in 2006. It is the largest programme of its kind globally, and the biggest single operational programme of the ILO. The ILO has produced two conventions relating to child labour.

The ILO does not claim all work is bad for children, only work which interferes with their development, schooling and general well being.

While the goal of IPEC remains the prevention and elimination of all forms of child labour, the priority targets for immediate action are the worst forms of child labour, which are defined in the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999 (No. 182) as:

  • all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children,
  • debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;
  • the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;
  • the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties;
  • work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

Find the ILO Convention No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour 1999, here

In relation to the Convention, the ILO also produced Recommendation No 190, which you can read here

Find out which States have ratified the Convention here

The ILO also produced Convention No. 138 on the Minimum Age for Admission to Employment and Work. The idea behind the Convention is that setting the age at which children can legally be employed is a good start point for preventing child labour.

The main principles are:

  • The basic minimum age for work should be 15, with the possible exception of 14 for developing countries. This is the age at which compulsory schooling ends.
  • The minimum age for hazardous work should be 18.
  • Light work (not affecting health, education or development) can be done between the ages of 13 and 15 (possibly 12 and 14 in developing countries).

In relation to this Convention, the ILO also produced Recommendation no 146, which you can read here  

The ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (No. 189) was adopted in June 2011. The Convention extends labour protections to domestic workers. The document addresses the rights of domestic workers generally, but given the high numbers of children working in domestic service, the Convention includes a number of provisions that directly and indirectly seek to protect children.

Key provisions include a requirement for governments to set a minimum age for domestic work that is consistent with the Minimum Age Convention and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, and to ensure that this work does not interfere with their education. An accompanying recommendation also urges governments to strictly limit working hours for child domestic workers, and to prohibit domestic work that would harm their health, safety, or morals.

The implementation of the child labour conventions is not monitored through any one mechanism (as with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is monitored by the Committee on the Rights of the Child), but rather through the tripartite system as a whole.

The implementation of the child labour conventions is not monitored through any one mechanism (as with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is monitored by the Committee on the Rights of the Child), but rather through the tripartite system as a whole.

Further information

What else does the ILO do?

The ILO works on international standards-setting, technical cooperation to Member States, dissemination of best practices, training, communication and publications.

The ILO is the global body responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards. Working with its Member States, the ILO seeks to ensure that labour standards are respected in practice as well as principle

The ILO promotes the development of independent employers and workers organisations and provides relevant training and advisory services. Its technical assistance includes such fields as: Vocational training and vocational rehabilitation; Employment policy; Labour administration; Labour law and industrial relations; Working conditions; Management development; Cooperatives; Social security; Labour statistics; Occupational safety and health.

Read the ILO constitution here

How does it work?

Through the International Labour Conference, the Governing Body and the International Labour Office.

The Member States of the ILO meet at the International Labour Conference in June of each year, in Geneva. Two government delegates, an employer delegate and a worker delegate represent each Member State. Technical advisers assist the delegations, which are usually headed by Cabinet Ministers who take the floor on behalf of their governments.

The Conference establishes and adopts international labour standards and is a forum for discussion of key social and labour questions. It also adopts the Organization's budget and elects the Governing Body.

The Governing Body is the executive council of the ILO and meets three times a year in Geneva. It takes decisions on ILO policy and establishes the programme and the budget, which it then submits to the Conference for adoption. It also elects the Director-General.

The ILO Governing Body is composed of 28 government members, 14 employer members and 14 worker members. States of chief industrial importance hold ten of the government seats permanently. Government representatives are elected at the Conference every three years, taking into account geographical distribution. The employers and workers elect their own representatives respectively.

The International Labour Office is the permanent secretariat of the International Labour Organization. It is the focal point for ILO's overall activities, which it prepares under the scrutiny of the Governing Body and under the leadership of a Director-General, who is elected for a five-year renewable term.

The Office employs some 1,900 officials of over 110 nationalities at the Geneva headquarters and in 40 field offices around the world. In addition, some 600 experts undertake missions in all regions of the world under the programme of technical cooperation. The Office also contains a research and documentation centre and a printing facility, which issue many specialised studies, reports and periodicals.

Committee of Experts:

The Committee of Experts was set up in 1926 to monitor States' compliance with the growing number of ratified ILO Conventions. It is comprised of 20 eminent jurists who are appointed by the Governing Body for a three-year term. The Committee's main task is to provide an impartial and technical evaluation of the state of application of international labour standards. Upon review of the application of international labour standards the Committee issues either an observation or direct request. The observations found in the Committee's annual report contain, “comments on fundamental questions raised by the application of a particular convention by a state.” (ILO website)

Direct requests are issued in regards to more technical questions. These requests are not published in a report; rather, they are addressed directly to the concerned government. The Committee's annual report is comprised of three parts. The first part consists of the General report which includes comments about Member States' adherence to their general ILO obligations as stated in the organisations constitution secondly, is the Committee's observation on the application of particular international labour standards. The third part is comprised of a General Survey.


Representations Procedure:

Articles 24 and 25 of the ILO Constitution grant industrial association of employers or of workers the right to present to the ILO a representation against any Member State. These representations are usually launched in regards to a Member State's failure to, "secure in any respect the effective observance within its jurisdiction of any Convention to which it is a party." (ILO website)

Overview of the Complaints Procedure:

Articles 26 to 34 of the ILO constitution lay out the principles of the ILO's complaint procedure. A complaint may be filed against a Member State which has ratified a particular ILO convention. As is stated in the ILO's constitution such a complaint may be launched by a Member State which has ratified the same convention, a delegate to the International Labour Conference (which is usually comprised of governmentsworkers and employers delegates) or the ILO Governing Body. A full investigation is carried out by a Commission of Inquiry, upon receipt of a complaint. The investigation consists of fact finding and recommendations on measures to be taken by the Member State under investigation. When a Member State is accused of persistent and serious violations, as was Myanmar in 1996 for the use of forced labour, a Commission of Inquiry may be established by the Governing Body. This is the ILO's highest level investigative procedure, and has been used to date 11 times (ILO website).

Article 33 of the ILO Constitution mentions that if a state refuses or fails to fulfill the recommendations of a Commission of Inquiry the Governing Body can, "recommend to the Conference such action as it may deem wise and expedient to secure compliance therewith."  As the ILO mentions on its website, this was used for the first time by the organisation in 2000, in regards to Myanmar's use of forced Labour.

Can NGOs file complaints?

The ILO has a unique tripartite governing structure, which consists of government, employer, and worker representatives. This means that NGOs cannot lodge any complaints with the ILO because the only organisations representing workers that arerecognised by the ILO under this tripartite governing structure are trade unions. Attempts by NGOs to change this governing structure have been unsuccessful to date, as some scholars like Jean Grugel and Nicola Piper state that that trade unions are not in favour of the formal inclusion of NGOs. However, as Gruguel and Piper explain in their work this has not stopped some NGOs from establishing relationships with trade unions in an attempt to bring certain issues to the attention of the ILO. A coalition of Hong Kong-based NGOs filed a formal complaint with the ILO through its member-unions, the Indonesian Migrant Workers Unions (IMWU) and the Asian Domestic Workers Union (ADWU).*

*Jean Grugel & Nicola Piper "Critical Perspectives on Global Governance" (Routledge 2007) pg.85



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