Child labour likely to increase due to COVID-19 pandemic

10 June 2021

There are 152 million child labourers in the world today. While the number of child labourers has been declining in recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to cause an unprecedented increase in child labour. To prevent this, concerted and decisive action is needed!

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unprecedented and extreme effects on the mental, physical and nutritional aspects of children. The world has experienced the longest duration of school closures, affecting both learning and access to school meals for children whose nutritional security has been impaired. According to UNICEF, more than 1.5 billion children around the world have had their schooling suspended due to restrictions. This closure of classes has forced children to work, in order to support their families in the face of poor economic conditions.

1 in 10 children work in the world

Child labour is an activity that deprives children of their childhood, their potential, their dignity, and impairs their growth and development. According to the International Labour Organisation, 152 million children, or 1 in 10 children worldwide, are workers. Of these, 64 million are girls and 88 million are boys. Even more seriously, almost half of these children are engaged in hazardous work and 6.3 million are forced into forced labour and human slavery.

Children are pushed into work for a variety of reasons, most often when families fall into extreme poverty, experience income insecurity, face disasters or are uprooted from their homes due to unemployment, human trafficking, conflict and extreme weather events.

A global phenomenon

The prevalence of child labour is not only found mainly in the agricultural sector where it often allows children to contribute as family labour, but it now exists in diversified sectors such as mining, factories, industries, tourism, or construction.

Child labour is a global phenomenon that exists in different forms and intensities in almost every part of the world. However, half of the world's child labourers, 72.1 million, are in Africa while 62.1 million are in Asia and the Pacific[1]. The good news is that over the past two decades, the total number of child labourers has been reduced by 100 million, but the bad news is that the COVID-19 pandemic that has spread around the world has taken a heavy toll on the lives and economic activities of poor and disadvantaged people. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the number of people suffering from acute hunger in more than 20 countries is expected to soar in the coming months.

Supporting and accompanying disadvantaged families

Aide et Action's study in India on the impact of COVID-19 on migrant children suggests a two-fold increase in the number of children who accompanied their working parents to brick kilns after the first wave of the pandemic. Traditional brick kiln industries often use child labour as part of their operation. To counter this, we have been working for a long time with the children living in the brick kilns to provide them with education, care and to enable the complete elimination of child labour. During the pandemic, Aide et Action helped thousands of migrant workers and their families to return safely to their home villages and reintegrated them into a government health and social welfare programme.

A real risk of aggravation 

The United Nations has declared 2021 the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. Goals 7 and 8 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) challenge the world to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery and, by 2025, child labour in all its forms. Yet the current condition threatens to unleash a wave of child labour. It will therefore be a Herculean task for policy-makers and planners to devise an effective strategy to contain child labour. The elimination of this scourge requires holistic and multiple approaches. Every governmental and non-governmental action for the elimination of child labour should be effectively reinforced by national policies on children's rights, stricter law enforcement, quality social protection, and strengthening the school ecosystem.

[1] Global estimates of child labour : findings and trends 2012-2016 / International Labour Office. Geneva: ILO, 2017

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