Is the ILO definition of child labour a misnomer?


By Kofi Anokye Owusu-Darko (Dr)

The ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) defines “child labour” as:

“work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that:

  • is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or
  • interferes with their schooling by: depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work”.

The above definition seems to stem from the fact that a child has no legal capacity hence assumes that all work given to a child is abusive since the child cannot decide what is wrong or right.  On the other hand, was it an issue that children engaged in work in particular parts of the world were being abused hence to stop it, the term “Child Labour” was defined around the abuse instead of the activity of a child proving labour hence the whole idea of a child proving labour was made illegal?


Labour, regardless of the provider, adult or child, should never be subjected to abuse, exploitation, or coercion, especially when it involves children. According to World Vision (2022), child labour is concentrated in the world’s poorest countries with about 40.7% engaged in exploitative work and that Sub-Saharan Africa has more children in child labour than the rest of the world. Is the concern about the child working or is it about the child being abused through unfavourable labour practices?

In the Third-World environment and viewed within the larger economic development matrix, should children not like birds fly like their mothers do? Should they not produce carpentry like their fathers or fish like them or farm like them, by honing in on these skills on the job? Ours is a dual economy, largely subsistent, in fact, 80 percent subsistent and the survival and sustenance of the units of society and families require all hands on deck. Work is school and school is work, this feeds into the economic development maxim, ‘nurse the baby, feed the child and free the adult (Chris King, 2024).

Historically, farming has been the main stay of the Sub-Saharan Africa and the more children one had, the more farm hands the family had to expand their farm. Children were part of family wealth creation. To the family, as said by Chris King (2024), work was school and school was work and not an abuse. To them they were giving their children the best start in life to inherent their farms. They might not have known how to read and write English to call them literate with today’s lens but they were not numerically incompetent or wisdom deficient.

Fast forward, of course times have changed. Now farming has been mechanised or technologically enabled and the need to have a lot of farm hands involving children has outlived its purpose. There is the need to allow children to be schooled differently or appropriately in line with the modern construct of education to be more productive. In any case what is schooling and who defines it? Is it some abstract physics, chemistry, biology or an appropriate science related to for example agriculture such as crop and animal science, soil science and agribusiness with hands-on practice at the farm.

Should we be concerned about the abuse of the child providing labour in any part of the world and in any field of work? or focusing on defining Child Labour that seems to be targeting particular parts of the world especially Sub-Saharan Africa? Of course, once that definition is given in a non-Sub-Saharan African lens, majority of Child Labour as defined by ILO will immediately be in Sub-Saharan Africa as reported by World Vision. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Interestingly, certain states in the USA, at least 10, between 2021 and 2023 passed laws rolling back the stringent child labour protections. These include an extension of working hours, lifting restrictions on hazardous work and lowering age for alcohol service. All these have had to be done out of necessity, post-COVID-19, through lobbying by business groups for various reasons including the fact that children are to be paid lower wages and businesses want cheaper labour. Necessity is now lowering the standards of exploitative child work as defined by the ILO term Child Labour in certain parts of the world. Is the world being selective? In whose lens is exploitative work now being practically defined?


A child is legal construct as follows:

  • UN Convention on the Rights of a Child

Under Article 1, a child means “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier”.

  • 1992 Constitution of Ghana

Under Article 28(5), a child means “a person below the age of eighteen years”



Combining the definition of a child and labour, a derived definition for “child labour” would and should logically be:

“A person below the age of eighteen years who applies economic effort, skilled or unskilled, mental or physical, to the production of wealth and which receives reward for the effort.”

Based on this definition above, there is no inherent legal or moral wrongdoing in a child contributing economic effort to generate wealth for compensation or reward. Therefore, child labour cannot be deemed inherently unethical unless it involves exploitation or abuse.


The focus should be on the abuse and exploitation of the child hence there is the need to replace the ILO’s term of “Child Labour” with “Abuse of Child Labour”, to define “Abuse of Child Labour”, instead as:

work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development”.

This includes work that poses mental, physical, social, or moral risks to children and hinders their education by preventing school attendance, forcing premature withdrawal from school, or imposing excessively demanding workloads alongside schooling or not appropriately being rewarded for their economic effort.”

This acknowledges the various forms of abuse and exploitation of labour, such as the failure to appropriately compensate children for their economic contributions and efforts,  among others as already stipulated by the ILO in their conception of their definition of Child Labour.


There is a labour bill in the offing in Ghana with sections on Child Labour. Section 107, prohibits child labour, properly so defined in economics, and defines Child Labour as work that exposes the child to physical or moral hazards: or constitutes a threat to the health, education or development of the child” (emphasis mine).

Northwest daughter of Kim Kardashian, Stormy Webster daughter of Kylie Jenner, Blue Ivy Carter daughter of Beyonce and JZ, all children, are millionaires in their own right from providing labour in the environment their parents are familiar with and know best. Depending on the lens one wants to use to judge, that could be Child Labour by ILO definition. Are they being made to combine school with engaging in excessive long work? Is exposure to celebrity status at such early age mentally harmful? Who determines that?

We need to position “Child Labour” as a “child providing economic effort for a reward or compensation” and instead legislate the “Abuse of Child Labour” as illegal by setting the conditions for which a child can provide labour to protect the child from abuse or exploitation. As Chris King, a lawyer and an economist, put it, there are more questions on the concept of “Child Labour” than answers and that it is clear that the conflation and polemics of the words “Child” and “Labour” and its nuances will continue unabated. I cannot agree more.


   The author, holds an LLB, LLM and is a Licensed Management Consultant as well as an Organization Development and ADR Practitioner. (Visit; (Contact: [email protected])

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