The guiding principle for the minimum age of employment in the CRC is article 32. Its paragraph 2(a) does not require the establishment of a single minimum age for admission to employment which is uniformly applicable without exception to all minors and to all kinds of employment. It simply requires States to "provide for a minimum age or minimum ages for admission to employment". This potentially vague approach in the CRC is however supplemented by more specific standards set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Reciprocal support and action is key in this area.
While the CRC itself does not prescribe a precise age, the Committee has consistently indicated and recommended that minimum ages should be set in the light of the provisions of other international instruments and in particular of ILO Minimum Age Convention N. 138. The analysis of States Parties' reports discloses that almost all governments do base their reporting on the ILO standards. Therefore the guiding principles and rules of interpretation of this review follow the same pattern.
An overview comparative table summarising the findings of this research is available here – for the detailed excerpts these figures are drawn from please consult our country database, under the heading 'National law and policies on minimum ages'. The methodology employed in this research is described in detail here.
The thrust of the ILO principles is that the general minimum age for admission to any employment should not be lower than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and, in any case, no less than 15; where the economy and educational facilities of a country are insufficiently developed, it may be initially reduced by one year to 14. There are various exceptions to this general rule. The main ones concern: (a) Light work, which is permissible on a set of conditions and for which the minimum age may be set at 12 or 13 years; (b) Hazardous work for which a higher minimum age is required (18); (c) other activities (Table 1).
A significant number of countries have established legislation that prohibits the employment of children below a certain age. In those cases where children are legally permitted to work, States often specify the conditions under which this can happen (in line with ILO standards): the work should not be harmful to the child's health or development, should not interfere with school instruction, should not take place during school hours and should not be for more than specifically prescribed hours of work. These achievements notwithstanding, a great deal of ambiguity, as well as inconsistency with compulsory education standards, remains in many States Parties' reports.
Many countries have not established a single minimum age for admission to any employment. Indications refer either to a basic minimum age limited to specified sectors or occupations, or to different minimum ages according to various economic activities. In some other cases the exceptions are broader than those falling under ILO standards. As such situations do not accord sufficient protection and have a detrimental impact on the accessibility and adaptability of education, they are recorded as “No minimum”. Difficulties relating to the definition of light work or referring to the conditions under which such work is permitted, as well as varying long lists of categories for limited application or particular exceptions, also constitute a major concern for a coherent interpretation of reports. In order to aim at the maximum consistency possible, only the generally determined minimum age is cited here.
The link between the minimum age for completion of compulsory education and the minimum age of employment
The goals of universal education and the elimination of child labour are inextricably linked. Free and compulsory education of good quality secured until the minimum age for entry to employment is a critical factor in the struggle against the economic exploitation of children, while child labour constitutes a fundamental obstacle to the development and implementation of compulsory education strategies. Minimum age labour laws and compulsory education laws are therefore interdependent: the enforcement of one contributes to the enforcement of the other. Equally, if only one of the two areas is well-legislated, it is necessary to ensure that this strength is not undermined by the weakness of the other. This is why it is crucial to establish a link between school and labour authorities, legislation and practice.
In law, the connection is clear: article 32 of the CRC requires States to protect the child from performing any work that is likely to interfere with his or her education. As mentioned above, ILO standards are even more explicit and state that the minimum age for employment should not be lower than the age for completion of compulsory education. In addition, the Guidelines for Periodic Reports reinforce the link by requesting States to indicate “how the minimum age for employment relates to the age of completion of compulsory schooling”.
As shown in figure 4 below, almost a third of the countries analysed in this research (58) have already aligned the two ages. However, discrepancies are still prevalent and a cause of great concern. In 17 cases the minimum age for the end of compulsory education is up to four years lower than the minimum age for employment, which sounds alarm bells at the risk of exploitation of those children ‘in limbo’, beyond the age of compulsory education but too young to be legally employed. Conversely, in another 23 cases, there is an overlap, with the age for the end of compulsory education higher than the minimum age for employment: a further indication that compulsory education standards may not be reflected in practice. Moreover, 20 states have no minimum ages for either area and a troubling 66 countries have a minimum age only for one of the two areas. In terms of geographical distribution, Africa is the region most affected by the lack of clear minimum ages and corresponding alignments. While Europe is the region with the highest number of countries where the two ages are the same, the need for harmonization is also present there. Clearly, the necessity to align these standards remains urgent and goes hand in hand with the need to focus more attention on secondary education, as the school-leaving age still tends to be too low in many countries when it is set below the minimum age for employment.
Future analysis should focus on the exceptions to the general minimum age, in order to expose where these may in fact signify a barrier to the realisation of the right to education and represent a danger for the protection of children from exploitation and abuse. Moreover, attention should also focus on the role of part-time or full-time employment and the negative impact that these practices could have on the development of the child and opportunities for making education accessible and adaptable.
 CRC Committee, General Guidelines regarding the form and contents of periodic reports to be submitted by Sates Parties under article 44, paragraph 1(b), of the Convention, UN document CRC/C/58, 1996, paragraph 24.