Resilience, Peace and Security

Child labour has risen for the first time in 20 years. COVID-19 will make things worse

A child makes bricks at a brick-making factory in La Paz Centro town, about 62 km (39 miles) west of Managua August 20, 2013. Eficiencia Energetica en Ladrilleras Artesanales de America Latina (EELA), reported that Nicaraguan brick makers burn 47,869 metric tons of fire wood, which produces 65,874 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. The country has 467 brick makers located mostly on the west coast of Nicaragua according to local media. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas (NICARAGUA - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - GM1E98L0L7W01

160 million children across the world are currently child labourers. Image: REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

Zharina Arnaldo
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Social Justice

  • The number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million globally – that’s almost 1 in 10 children.
  • Another 9 million children are at risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a joint ILO and UNICEF report.
  • Progress against ending child labour has ground to a halt for the first time in 20 years.
  • Urgent changes in programmes and policies are needed to fight this crisis.

Almost 1 in every 10 children is a victim of child labour worldwide and another 9 million are at risk as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: these are the headline figures from a sobering new report.

Progress in the global fight against child labour has stalled for the first time in two decades, it finds, putting the international community’s goal of ending child labour by 2025 at risk.

The study from the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF, Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward, shows a sharp rise in children aged 5 to 11 years being forced to work over the past four years. More and more children are also being pushed into jobs that are extremely harmful to them.

These findings are described as an important reality check, and the report urges the world to act now on an unprecedented scale. It points to a series of actions that could help reverse the trend.

Child labour: the report’s key findings

This shows that 160 million children worldwide were in child labour at the start of 2020
Half of the children in child labour are performing hazardous work. Image: International Labour Organization

At the beginning of 2020, 160 million children worldwide – 63 million girls and 97 million boys – were in child labour. Nearly half of them – 79 million – are performing hazardous work, defined as “likely to harm their health, safety or morals”.

Between 2016-2020, the number of children in child labour rose by more than 8 million – reversing the downward trend since the year 2000. And 6.5 million children were recorded as participating in hazardous work over that four-year period, showing a significant decline in the global fight to end child labour.

A graph showing there has been an increase in child labour in sub-Saharan Africa
There are currently more children in child labour in Africa than the rest of the world combined. Image: International Labour Organization

Globally, there has been an increase in child labour in sub-Saharan Africa; right now, there are more children in child labour there than the rest of the world combined. In contrast, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean have seen a steady decline in child labour since 2008.

Have you read?
This chart shows that global progress against child labour has stalled since 2016
The number of children facing child labour increased again in 2020, following a steady decrease. Image: International Labour Organization

Some other key findings in the report are:

· Child labour is more common in boys than in girls at every age.

· Child labour is much more common in rural areas.

· Over 70% of child labour is in agriculture.

· More than 70% of all child labour happens within families.

Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic

A graph showing that the number of children in child labour could rise to 46 million if immediate action isn’t taken
The pandemic means that 9 million more children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022. Image: International Labour Organization

Nine million more children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the pandemic, according to the report. This number could rise to 46 million if immediate action isn’t taken.

The report says there is evidence that job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic are pushing families to turn to child labour for income. School closures also mean that children may be working longer hours or in worse conditions.

Tackling child labour

The ILO and UNICEF recommend five actions to put progress back on track. These are:

1. Increased social protection for all, including universal child benefits.

2. More free quality schooling to get children back into school.

3. More work for adults so that parents won’t have to rely on children to help increase a family’s income.

4. An end to harmful gender norms and discrimination that increase child labour.

5. Investment in structures and systems including child protection, agricultural development and public services in rural areas.

“We urge governments and international development banks to prioritize investments in programmes that can get children out of the workforce and back into school, and in social protection programmes that can help families avoid making this choice in the first place,” says Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.

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