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Are children at risk in tight labour markets? UNICEF explains

Child at a school as child labour increases worldwide.

"Businesses play a critical part in addressing these challenges," UNICEF says. Image: Yannis H/Unsplash

Spencer Feingold
Digital Editor, Public Engagement, World Economic Forum
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  • There is substantial concern that COVID-19 and associated socioeconomic crises may have set back global progress on child labour.
  • Projections show that without mitigation measures, up to 8.9 million more children may have been pushed into child labour.
  • Companies and governments must collaborate to take a multifaceted approach to protect children from economic shocks, experts say.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its associated economic shocks have upended progress towards multiple economic and social development goals. There are fears that these include setbacks in the fight against child labour.

Even prior to the pandemic, the United Nations International Children's Fund (UNICEF) was raising concerns that progress to end child labour had stalled in previous decades. In a report published with the International Labour Organization, the agency estimated that 160 million children—nearly 1 in 10 worldwide—were engaged in child labour in 2020.

The data is not yet available to assess actual trends, UNICEF notes, but initial projections suggested that without measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, some 8.9 million more children would likely be engaged in child labour by the end of 2022.

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While experts note that specific statistics on the impact of COVID on child labour are limited, they maintain that child labour remains a pressing concern that must be addressed as the global economy emerges from the pandemic.

The exploitation of children’s labour has been a persistent rights violation in low- and middle-income countries. But now concerns have been raised in high-income countries such as the United States, where experts say tight labour markets are contributing to a waning of labour norms and regulations aimed at protecting children.

In the following question-and-answer, UNICEF provides insight into the topic and outlines how the public and private sectors can help reduce child labour.

How did COVID-19 and the economic crises impact child labour?

“There is substantial cause for concern that the pandemic may have set back progress towards the elimination of child labour and further aggravated the problem in regions where child labour has been more resistant to policy and programme measures.

“The main channels through which the pandemic and associated economic crises can influence child labour include a fall in living standards; deteriorating employment opportunities; rise in labour informality; reduction in remittances and migration; contraction of trade and foreign direct investment; temporary school closures; health shocks; and pressure on public budgets and international aid flows.”

Are you concerned about child labour as economies seek to regain lost growth?

“There is a risk of a rise in child labour as economies seek to regain lost growth after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Generally, economic growth is associated with a reduction in child labour. However, if economic growth is accompanied by labour shortages and tight labour markets, this could indeed represent a risk for child labour. This effect may be compounded by the impacts of school closures during the pandemic: children who were affected by lost learning or even dropped out during the pandemic may struggle to catch up with their education, leaving them at a disadvantage in the job market, and potentially leading to labour exploitation.”


How can governments protect children amid economic uncertainty?

“Multi-faceted approaches are needed to address child labour, particularly during times of economic uncertainty. Providing adequate social protection, improving access to child protection and education services as well as strengthening labour law enforcement are crucial interdependent components to mitigate against child labour.

“Adequate social protection is central to mitigating the socioeconomic vulnerability that underpins child labour. Social protection has the potential to improve a myriad of child and household well-being outcomes, including food security, school enrollment, access to basic needs and psychosocial well-being.

“In the absence of sufficient fallbacks to cope with economic shocks, children are more susceptible to child labour and can be imperilled from both immediate as well as long-term consequences when their health, nutrition and education is compromised.”

How can the private sector help reduce child labour?

Businesses can play a critical part in addressing these challenges. A holistic approach that involves a review of company policies and practices – particularly decent work, adequate wages, and responsible purchasing practices – is instrumental to addressing child labour. Furthermore, as child labour is more likely to occur in upstream supply chains, businesses must look beyond their own operations and consider the wider contexts in which they operate. Multistakeholder action and private sector leadership are critical to mainstream better business practices and effectively address child rights deprivations so that child labour becomes less of an option.

“There are diverse opportunities for action when it comes to the private sector’s role in addressing child labour. For example, responsible purchasing practices – including sufficient lead times and fair pricing – can help ensure suppliers do not run into cash flow and workforce challenges, which may lead to excessive overtime, unauthorized subcontracting to unsafe facilities with poor working conditions, and an increase in the use of temporary labour, making employment more precarious.

“Businesses can also address child labour by providing working parents with the time, services and resources to support their families, hedge against shocks and build resilience. Decent work for parents and young workers, living wages that cover family costs, quality health care and paid sick leave, paid parental leave, breastfeeding and nutrition support, child benefits and access to affordable, and quality childcare are essential to address the root causes of child labour.

“Moreover, businesses can contribute to addressing root causes of child labour by investing in strengthening social protection systems through supporting contributory and non-contributory schemes. Payment of taxes and government-mandated fees can support the roll-out of public goods and social services, including income replacement and security for vulnerable families, which in turn can reduce dependency on child labour.

“Finally, company-led interventions to address child labour should be delivered in collaboration with other companies and relevant authorities to strengthen public services available to communities impacted by their value chains.”

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