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Child Labour Rises for First Time in 20 Years

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

Jonny Rogers breaks down a report revealing how child labour has increased across the world as a result of the pandemic.

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For all that has changed over the past two years, a rise in child labour might have passed you by. Although the number of minors involved in child labour has fallen by 94 million between 2000 and 2016, recent years have seen 8.4 million more children enter into employment.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), someone is defined as being in ‘child labour’ if they are aged between 5 and 17 and are either employed in designated hazardous industries (such as mining, quarrying and construction), or are working 43 or more hours per week in any industry. In addition, children between the ages of 5 and 11 engaged in any form of employment, or those between 12 and 14 currently working more than 14 hours per week, are also considered instances of child labour.

Child Labour and the Pandemic

According to the criteria listed above, it was estimated that as of the beginning of 2020, there were 160 million children – 63 million girls and 97 million boys – involved in child labour, which accounts for nearly 10% of all children in the world. Of this, 79 million were engaged in work which directly endangers their health, safety and moral development. Furthermore, if the definition of child labour were to incorporate household chores for more than 21 hours per week, this would account for many millions more.

Although child labour occurs across the globe, a large percentage is localised to sub-Saharan Africa, where there are presently more cases than the rest of the world combined. Throughout Africa, it has been estimated that more than one in five of all children are engaged in child labour.

School closures and economic instability have meant that children currently in employment are often working longer hours, while many others have had to start working as a result of familial job and income losses. According to the ILO report, an estimated 8.9 million additional children will be in child labour by the end of 2022 due to the far-reaching impact of Covid-19.

“The new estimates are a wake-up call. We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk.” – ILO Director-General Guy Ryder

If proposed austerity measures turn out to cause a slippage in social protection coverage, child labour might rise by 46.2 million by the end of 2022, according to one model. However, if these measures were to be effective in preventing child labour, we might see a reduction of 15.1 million in the same time-frame.

How Can Child Labour Be Overcome?

These alarming predictions reveal the importance of inclusive social protection, as well as increased investment in rural development and agriculture; the majority of all child labour occurs in the agricultural industry, and is almost three times higher in rural areas than urban ones.

Although child labour will, unfortunately, continue to pose a threat to the security and wellbeing of children for many decades, there are a few signs of hope. The Nigerian government, for example, has targeted an 80% eradication of child labour by 2025, including a school feeding programme to encourage children to return to education. There are also countless volunteers and charities working to provide education and employability skills to those most in need.

In Ghana and the Ivory Coast, agricultural workers are often paid under $1 a day, and in many situations the corporations are not currently held liable for working conditions – or, indeed, the child trafficking and forced labour – involved in their systems of production. However, Germany has recently welcomed new legislation to ensure that manufacturers of confectionery, ice-cream and snacks are committed to transparency in their sourcing; a decision which might inspire change across Europe by creating a legal system to enshrine mandatory legislation on child labour and environmental sustainability.

It is clear that effective action will not occur without strong international cooperation. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore has called on world leaders to prioritise responding to child labour:

“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.”


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