Symposium: A Policy Journey towards the Elimination of Child Labour in Sri Lanka

1 October 2020
Policy Innovation

Fowzul Insaf Nizam  | Specialist on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, International Labour Organization

When a country reduces its incidence of child labour to less than one per cent, its total elimination becomes one of the most challenging tasks that requires extraordinary effort and out-of-the-box thinking. After its success in combating child labour in the country, this is the challenge that Sri Lanka faces. In a collaborative effort that spanned over two decades, the International Labour Organization (ILO)—with financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL)—has been the primary technical support provider to Sri Lanka, and is currently working to support the country in running the last mile towards achieving Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Strong Social Welfare Measures – A Good Starting Point

The greater part of the credit for the significant reduction of child labour in Sri Lanka can be attributed to its strong welfare policies. The country which has provided free primary and secondary education for all its children also offers free health care to all citizens. Sri Lanka has enjoyed a relatively high adult literacy rate in the last two decades, and has reached a near universal primary enrolment rate. The number of out-of-school adolescents has decreased from 88,189 in 2010 to 18,401 in 2018.The emphasis given by the state and society on education has been a key contributor to keeping children in school.

Check out Sri Lanka’s data dashboard here

Despite these contributing factors, Sri Lanka does have a child labour problem. The 2008 National Child Activity Survey (NCAS)—funded by the USDOL—conducted with the ILO’s support estimated that there were 107,259 children in child labour, amounting to 2.5 per cent of its child population between the ages 5 to 17. Of those in child labour, 63,916—amounting to 1.5 per cent of the child population—were in hazardous forms of child labour. Although lower than many countries, this was not compatible with the strong welfare systems and social indicators of the country, which compelled stakeholders to increase their efforts to eliminate child labour.

Evidence-based policy responses

The 2008 NCAS thus triggered a range of policy and programmatic responses that were later proven to be quite effective. On the Government’s part, it further analysed the NCAS results and introduced a policy of convergence of efforts at the district level using a model to be later known as the Ratnapura Model. The overall responsibility for addressing child labour in the district was placed with the District Secretary, who managed over 20 district level officials representing various line ministries.

The ILO, in turn, successfully mobilized resources and continued its technical support, which led to the inclusion of Sri Lanka in the USDOL-funded CLEAR (Country Level Engagement and Assistance to Reduce Child Labour) project in 2013. The Project focused on four Intermediate Outcomes:

  1. Strengthening the legal and regulatory frameworks and aligning them with international standards;
  2. Improved enforcement of law and policies;
  3. Increased level of implementation of National Action Plans, and
  4. Improved implementation of national and local policies and social programmes aimed at reduction and prevention of child labour.

The project also included support to the government to conduct another NCAS in 2016.

Through vigorous implementation, leadership and commitment of the Government, and ownership and partnership of social partners (Employers’ Organizations and Workers’ Organizations) and stakeholders, the project was able to record a number of key achievements, including: the approval of a National Child Labour Policy; the rolling out of Child Labour Free Zones—known as the Ratnapura Model; and training of officials in all 25 districts of the country. The project also produced recommendations leading to the inclusion of child labour-related issues in Sri Lanka’s policies related to domestic work, updated the Hazardous Work List and conducted the National Child Activity Survey of 2016. Furthermore, Sri Lanka became one of the first countries to join the Alliance 8.7 when it was established in 2016, and volunteered to become a Pathfinder Country in 2017.

The results of the 2016 NCAS were encouraging but not surprising. They revealed that the prevalence of child labour decreased by more than half since the NCAS of 2008—i.e. reduced to just one per cent—with 43,714 children in child labour, of which 39,007 children, or 0.9 per cent of the child population, were in hazardous labour.

A prevalence rate of less than one per cent poses its own set of challenges. For instance, drilling into the statistics becomes difficult the further one goes into it, the numbers become less significant for analysis due to the low prevalence rate. Identification of those children is also a challenge as they are highly dispersed in different geographical locations. It is also difficult to identify a limited number of drivers that can be addressed through macro policy initiatives as the number of children affected by one single factor becomes numerically insignificant to attract a policy change.  Measurement also becomes a challenge as the low prevalence rate makes an expensive national survey unviable. The COVID-19 pandemic has further compounded these challenges by shifting national priorities and constraining social protection systems.

With these limitations in mind, ILO is taking a number of targeted initiatives to identify and further narrow gaps in the system with a view to not only reduce the existing caseload but also ensure that new children are not pushed into the labour market. ILO, with the support of USDOL, initiated yet another project in 2019 which commenced implementation early this year. The project attempts to undertake very specific interventions that can address the unique challenges posed by the situation, and includes strengthening stakeholder coordination through the activation of Alliance 8.7 mechanisms, introducing a school-to-work transition module to minimize the possibility that children leaving school fall into child labour, as well as a targeted awareness programme. It also includes strengthening the country’s child labour monitoring system.

Innovative Use of Child Labour Monitoring (CLM)

With last mile efforts being taken to eliminate child labour, there is a need for objective criteria to measure their effectiveness and ensure that the goal of elimination is achieved. When large-scale national surveys become less viable, the innovative use of a robust CLM mechanism can be explored as a proxy. This is not automatic though. Firstly, the participation of a wide range of stakeholders in the system is necessary as merely counting those cases reported to the Department of Labour will not be sufficient to give an idea of child labour prevalence in the country. Secondly, it requires that society see child labour as something completely unacceptable, as social tolerance towards child labour can affect reporting by the public. Thirdly, a high degree of public awareness is crucial. Without such awareness, cases of child labour can go unreported, or lead to false reports of child labour that can clutter the system and drain out time, energy and resources of institutions and officials responsible for the issue. And finally the mechanism, including the institutions and officials that form part of it, must win the trust of the public.


There is no single magic solution to eliminate child labour in a country. Success comes with the presence of a number of factors including a solid social policy regime, political will, the right social norms and attitudes and, importantly, consistent and continuous support of the international community—all of which has converged in the case of in Sri Lanka.  Even with such effort, eradicating the last one per cent of child labour is one of the most complicated parts of the journey. It is only through constant analysis, reflection and innovation that the total elimination of child labour can be achieved.

This article has been prepared by Fowzul Insaf Nizam as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 “Path to 2025: Lessons from Efforts to Combat Child Labour” symposium. Read all the responses below:

Symposium: The Path to 2025: Lessons from Efforts to Combat Child Labour

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