Over 115 million of the world's children and young teenagers, or more than 7 percent of the total, are engaged in dangerous and life-threatening jobs, the International Labour Organization (ILO) said on Friday.
In a linked statement, a U.N. investigator said child labour was in great demand by employers because it was cheap "and because children are naturally more docile, easier to discipline than adults, and too frightened to complain."
The statement and the report were issued to mark United Nations World Day against Child Labour which falls on June 12.
The ILO, which defines children as anyone up to the age of 18, said the total number of young people in hazardous jobs was well over half of those known to be working — the overwhelming majority in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Extreme poverty drives practically all of them to take up both physically and psychologically dangerous jobs, sometimes where the effects from toxic substances they had to work with only emerge in later life, according to the ILO report.
Many as young as five were employed in such work although the numbers of small children involved has declined in recent years under pressure from campaign groups and public opinion.
But the total number of young people aged 15-17 engaged in such work had risen sharply, it said.
Campaigning over the last decade has reduced the number of girls involved and now 60 percent of the total under the age of 18 — before which ILO conventions say no one should be employed in hazardous jobs — are boys.
The report said the largest numbers were in Asia, where over 48 million children and young people — or some 5.6 per cent of the total in the region — were earning their living in jobs fraught with danger.
In sub-Saharan Africa, the totals were nearly 39 million, but this accounted for more than 15 per cent of the overall population in the age category. In Latin America the total was 9.5 million, or 6.7 per cent.
"Hazardous work is commonly found in agriculture, fishing, forestry, livestock-herding and aquaculture, in addition to subsistence and commercial farming." the ILO said. Many children worked long hours, increasing the risk of injury.
The U.N. investigator into modern forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, said "unscrupulous employers" took advantage of smaller children in often illegal artisanal gold mining.
Boys were were sent down through narrow and makeshift tunnels, at a high risk of fatal accidents, while both boys and girls had to handle toxic mercury to extract gold, exposing them to irreversible damage to their health, Shahinian, an Armenian lawyer, said in a statement.
They were also exploited in the flower, banana and palm oil production industries, and in cities in loading and unloading heavy goods or collecting waste in garbage fields where they were also exposed to physical and sexual violence, she said.