And according to a United Nations report published today, the problem is twice as big as was previously thought, with an estimated 250 million children being forced to work for their keep.
The rise in sexual exploitation for profit and risks of children working with chemicals and in dangerous industry require urgent action and a new international convention focusing on the worst abuses, the report claims.
The revised estimate of the scale of exploitation has been produced by the International Labour Office (ILO), the UN's agency for work issues, using new methods of assessing the problem.
The ILO is now demanding the concentration of resources to tackle the most hazardous types of child labour. Assefa Bequele, the report's author, said yesterday: "We're not saying that any child labour is tolerable, but for pragmatic reasons we suggest that we should focus on the most intolerable forms."
Although international pressure and governmental action has improved the lives of many, Mr Bequele said there was evidence that where children were still employed, it tended to be in more dangerous situations. Children as young as three were reported in factories producing matches and fireworks.
The report claims 120 million children under the age of 14 work full time and 130 million part time. The biggest problem was in Asia (153 million child workers), with 80 million in Africa, and 17.8 million in Latin America. However, Europe was not excluded, with a rise in sexual exploitation in eastern European countries and a much smaller problem with child labour in places like the UK.
The main problem areas are:
t Prostitution and trafficking of children - The ILO claims at least five international networks exist, including from Latin America to Europe and the Middle East and from South and South East Asia to northern Europe. Several African countries, including Kenya and Zimbabwe, are seeing a rise in the numbers involved.
t Agriculture - Children can be found mixing, loading and applying pesticides and fertilisers, some of which are highly toxic. Mortality among Sri Lankan children farm workers from pesticides poisoning is reportedly greater than from a combination of diseases including malaria, tetanus, diphtheria and polio.
t Ceramics and glass factory work - Common in Asia where children carry molten loads of glass. The temperature inside the factories ranges from 40 to 45C and the noise level from machinery can be as high as 100 decibels. Other hazards include exposure to silica dust and lead and toxic fumes;
t Deep-sea fishing - In many Asian countries, particularly Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, boys spend up to 12 hours in water banging on coral reefs to scare the fish into nets. Dozens are killed or injured each year from drowning or decompression illness.
Michelle Hansenne, the ILO's director-general, said child labour was one of the faces of poverty, and efforts over many years were required to eliminate it completely.
But she added: "There are some forms of child labour today which are intolerable by any standard. These deserve to be identified, exposed and eradicated without delay."
Mr Bequele said ILO's experience was that the problem should not be left to governments alone. Community, labour and human rights groups had helped force improvements.
"When the ILO started expanding its programme on child labour about 10 years ago, there wasn't a single government that was prepared to work with us. But as a result of pressure there has been increasing concern from governments to do something about it."Reuse content