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Child labour in Malawi. Child labour in Malawi.  (AFP or licensors)

Covid-19 crisis could push more into child labour

June 12 is observed as United Nations World Day Against Child Labour. Taking place amid the economic and job turmoil of the Covid-19 crisis, it is feared that millions of vulnerable children could be forced into child labour.

By Robin Gomes

Today, throughout the world, around 218 million children work, of whom 152 million are in (forced into)child labour, including 73 million who work in hazardous conditions.  Of that 152 million, 64 million are girls and 88 million boys, which translates as almost one in ten of all children worldwide working as child labourers. 

Covid-19 and child labour

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, millions more risk being pushed into child labour as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, which could lead to the first rise in child labour after 20 years of progress.

According to a report by the two UN agencies entitled, “COVID-19 and child labour: A time of crisis, a time to act”, child labour decreased by 94 million since 2000, but that gain is now at risk.

“As the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes, without support, many could resort to child labour,” said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder. “Social protection is vital in times of crisis, as it provides assistance to those who are most vulnerable. Integrating child labour concerns across broader policies for education, social protection, justice, labour markets, and international human and labour rights makes a critical difference.”

“In times of crisis, child labour becomes a coping mechanism for many families,” warned UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. “As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce. As we re-imagine the world post-COVID, we need to make sure that children and their families have the tools they need to weather similar storms in the future. Quality education, social protection services and better economic opportunities can be game-changers.”

Pope Francis’ appeal

Many of the child labourers work full-time without the opportunity to go to school and have little or no time to play. Many do not receive proper nutrition or care and are denied the chance to be children.

Considering the crisis of Covid-19 pandemic, the World Day Against Child Labour 2020 is calling for the protection of children from child labour, now more than ever.

In this regard, Pope Francis has appealed to the international community to protect the numerous boys and girls who, deprived of their childhood, are forced into child labour.   Speaking during his weekly general audience on Wednesday, he expressed concern that the Covid-19 lockdown, which has pushed families into conditions of extreme poverty, could force many children into inappropriate jobs.

ILO and child labour

The UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) launched the World Day Against Child Labour in 2002 to focus attention on the global extent of child labour and the action and efforts needed to eliminate it. Each year on 12 June, the World Day brings together governments, employers and workers organizations, civil society, as well as millions of people from around the world to highlight the plight of child labourers and what can be done to help them.

ILO figures show that more than half of the world’s 152 million child labourers are exposed to the worst forms of child labour such as work in hazardous environments, slavery, or other forms of forced labour, illicit activities including drug trafficking and prostitution, as well as involvement in armed conflict.

No all work is bad

However, not all work should be classified as child labour that is to be eradicated.  Certain types of healthy work, in fact, contribute to children’s development and to the welfare of their families.  Activities such as helping their parents around the home, assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays, provide children with skills and experience, and help to prepare them to be productive members of society during their adult life.

Prevalence in Africa, Asia

Africa ranks highest among regions both in the percentage of children in child labour - one-fifth - and the absolute number of children in child labour - 72 million. Asia and the Pacific region ranks second highest in both these measures - 7% of all children and 62 million in absolute terms are in child labour in this region.

Africa and the Asia-Pacific regions together account for almost nine out of every ten children in child labour worldwide. The remaining child labour population is divided among the Americas (11 million), Europe and Central Asia (6 million), and the Arab States (1 million). In terms of incidence, 5% of children are in child labour in the Americas, 4% in Europe and Central Asia, and 3% in the Arab States.

UN aims to end child labour by 2025

This year’s World Day Against Child Labour is being observed as a virtual campaign, organized jointly by the Global March Against Child Labour and the International Partnership for Cooperation on Child Labour in Agriculture (IPCCLA).

In 2015, leaders of UN member states committed themselves to achieve the UN’s Agenda for Sustainable Development by the year 2030.  The agenda has set 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone and everywhere.  SDG # 8.7 calls for an end to child labour in all its forms by 2025, which is just 5 years away. 

For this reason, the UN General Assembly last year adopted a resolution declaring 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.  The resolution highlighted the member states’ commitments “to take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”


12 June 2020, 13:27