Child labour in the UK: 4 key trends you need to know


By Elizabeth Arif-Fear, Campaigner (CCAT)

Across the globe, 12th June marks UN World Day against Child Labour. This year, the UN has critically named 2021 as International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.

And for good reason.

A grotesque abuses of the rights of children, child labour must be eliminated.

But how much do we know about this increasingly common issue?

Well, statistics from the International Labour Organization (ILO) state that around 152 million children are engaged in child labour – with 73 million in hazardous work.

In the world’s most economically deprived countries, 1 in 4 children are being exploited through child labour – predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Working in agriculture, various industries and public services, almost half are aged 5 to 11 years old.

But what about here in the UK?

Sadly, little information is available. However, the problem is ongoing, with government reports released in 2020 and 2019 on modern slavery in the UK revealing some key trends.

Child labour in the UK: Abuse of children’s rights

Children are at increasing risk of being exploited here in the UK.

Modern slavery is sadly increasing here in the UK.

The latest annual figures released by the Home Office (2020) reveal that police recorded 7,779 modern slavery crimes in the UK in 2019. This was an increase of a staggering 59% from the previous year.

As many as 10,627 potential victims were referred to the UK’s National Referral Mechanism (NRM) in 2019 – again with an increase of 52% (from 6,986 cases) compared to 2018.

Looking at the data more closely, a large proportion of these were children.

A staggering 43% of referrals (4,550 cases) concerned the potential exploitation of children.

And it’s not an anomaly. These figures are similar to previous data, going back to 2018.

So, what does the data tell us?

Well here’s four key trends highlighting the increasing problem of child labour in the UK – something we all need to be aware of. *

*Please note: For this blog and in keeping with NRM practices, forced labour in this blog refers also to forced criminality, as a sub-category – not a separate form of modern slavery.

Figures are based on data from the latest annual government reports released in 2020 and 2019.


1.   Children are mostly exploited for forced labour

Cannabis harvesting is one of several criminal activities forced upon victims of child labour.

When it comes to modern slavery in the UK, children are being exploited predominantly for forced labour (constituting 63% of referrals) – including forced criminal activity.

This is opposed to other forms of modern slavery, such as sexual exploitation (20% of referrals).

So, what forms does this forced labour take?

Well, there’s very little information available, due to the criminal nature of the practice.

However, several practices that we do know of include:

  • Cannabis harvesting
  • Child begging
  • Drug selling – including the practice of “county lines” where children are forced to travel to neighbouring counties to deliver drugs

Children forced to engage in these practices risk their emotional and physical wellbeing, whilst their education is neglected for the benefit of others.

This has to stop.

2.   You’re more likely to be forced into criminality in the UK as a child

Forced criminality predominantly affects children – those aged 17 and under.

According to the number of cases reported to the National Referral Mechanism (NRM), when it comes to forced criminality (child labour) as a form of modern slavery: children are more likely to be affected than adults.

Back in 2018, 47% of labour exploitation referrals (1,868 cases) related to forced criminality. Out of this number, a staggering 71% involved children (1,333 cases).

Looking more closely at referrals with the UK’s Independent Child Trafficking Guardian (ICTG) service, 38% of referrals referred specifically to forced criminality (in addition to a separate 18% specially listed as forced labour).

Within their referral data, just over half (54%) of affected children were aged 16 to 17 years old.

This makes teenagers increasingly vulnerable. That’s why roles such as ICTGs for England and Wales – launched in 2015 under the Modern Slavery Act following a trial in 2014 – are so important.

This scheme introduced Independent Child Trafficking Guardians (formerly “advocates”) to support victims of modern slavery, focussing on relationship building, safety and social care.

Working in partnership with the children’s charity Barnardo’s to provide specialist services, a test run of the scheme was launched in Croydon in 2019 – right where CCAT is based.

Here in Croydon and all across the UK, children are becoming increasingly at risk.

We need to ensure that child protection reporting mechanisms are firmly in place in schools, youth clubs and community centres to facilitate the reporting of this heinous crime.

3.   Most victims of child exploitation don’t come from overseas

Children of British nationality are at higher risk of being exploited for forced labour.

Modern slavery most commonly affects adults from overseas. Whilst this used to most commonly involve sexual exploitation with Albanian nationals, the Home Office’s 2020 report revealed that the highest represented nation is now India.

However, when it comes to children, the information is in stark contrast.

Based on data from the National Referral Mechanism, most children who forced into modern slavery are from the UK (45%), followed by Vietnam.

Likewise, data from ICTG referrals showed that over the two years of their reporting (released in 2019), 43% of children were British, with significant Somali (15%), Vietnamese (15%) and Sudanese (11%) minorities.

Other nationalities included: Albanian, Iraqi, Romanian, Iranian, Afghani, Eritrean and Ethiopian. For non-British nationals, a large number were from outside the EEA (41%).

Looking at the data more closely, both the ICTS and the NRM show that British children were being predominantly being referred due to services due to exploitation for criminal activity, followed by sexual exploitation, as opposed to other forms of slave labour/modern slavery.

For children involved in criminal exploitation cases referred via the ICTG service, British nationals made up the highest proportion, representing just under 70% of referrals. Romanian children made up the third-highest percentage.

For forced labour outside of forced criminality, the ICTG service found that this was most common among Vietnamese and Sudanese children. UK nationals however represented the highest cases of domestic servitude (around 20% of referrals), followed by Albanian children.

Looking at the whole picture, this is therefore in stark contrast to the high number of adults from countries from predominantly India and secondly, Vietnam.

It critically shows just how important child protection and monitoring systems are here in the UK to further prevent the exploitation of children.

4.   Boys are at higher risk of child labour than girls

Boys are more likely to be exploited for forced labour (including forced criminality) than girls

 We’ve seen how children are incredibly vulnerable to being exploited for forced labour, placing them at risk because of their age.

But what about gender? Are there any differences in how boys and girls are represented?

Well, yes – quite stark differences.

Of the 3,128 cases referred to the NRM in 2019 for child exploitation, 2,248 (72%) were male and 880 (28%) were female.

What’s more, data from the ICTG service, shows that 64% of children referred to the service were male.

Based on their referrals, 79% of cases of child labour (including criminal exploitation) involved boys, whilst females were more likely to be sexually exploited (with girls accounting for 66% of cases of sexual exploitation).

Only 5% of males were referred for cases of sexual exploitation, compared to 17% of females for child labour.

We can therefore clearly see that such high rates of forced labour are greatly affecting boys, whilst sexual exploitation remains a high risk for girls.

Take action: How you can help

Your phone call referral could help free a child from an abusive life of slavery.

Sadly, we’ve seen how child labour is such a devastatingly common problem in the UK.

Children are being exploited for money, forced to commit crimes and are so sorely denied the right to a healthy, safe and secure childhood.

That’s why we all must take action to stop this gross violation of children’s rights.

Here’s how you can play your part:

  • Spot the signs: Visit our resources on modern slavery here to be aware of the risks and signs of abuse
  • Find out more: Read more on the issue of child labour and take action as part of this year’s campaign. Do also check out the ILO’s range of actions/resources
  • Report: If you’re worried about the safety of a child in your area, please report any suspicious behaviour to the Modern Slavery Helplineon 08000 121 700. In an emergency, please call 999 You can also contact your local children’s service (social services) or the police on 101 if you’re concerned about the welfare of a child
  • Contact: Barnardo’s offer advice and support for frontline professionals and carers as part of their ICTG service, running in Croydon and other areas of England and Wales. If you suspect anything, you can make a referral online. Help is also available via their support line (24/7) on 0800 043 4303
  • Campaign: Share this blog on social media and within your networks to raise critical awareness. Why not also join our volunteer campaign team and get more involved? If you’re interested or would like to know more, get in touch at:

Raising awareness and spotting the signs are the first critical steps. A subsequent referral could make all the difference to a child in need/at risk.

These children deserve so much better. Please help them.

Take action today.

Research Tender

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