The United Nations says there has been an increase in the incidence of child labour for the first time in two decades and that the coronavirus pandemic could push millions more youngsters toward the same fate.
In a joint report released on Thursday, the International Labour Organisation and the UN children’s agency UNICEF said the number of children involved in the global labour force stood at 160 million at the start of 2020 – an increase of 8.4 million in four years.
The rise, which began before the Covid pandemic hit, marks a dramatic reversal of a downward trend that had seen child labour numbers shrink by 94 million between year 2000 and 2016, according to the authors of the report.
Nearly one child in every 10 worldwide is stuck in child labour, with sub-Saharan Africa the worst affected.
And the pandemic risks worsening the situation significantly, the agencies said.
They warn that, unless urgent action is taken to prevent more families plunging below the poverty line, nearly 50 million more children could be forced into child labour within two years.
“We are losing ground in the fight to end child labour,” UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore told reporters, stressing that “the Covid-19 crisis is making a bad situation even worse”.
“Now, well into a second year of global lockdowns, school closures, economic disruptions, and shrinking national budgets, families are forced to make heart-breaking choices.”
Statistics suggest that the number of child workers could potentially be more than five times higher, according to UNICEF’s Claudia Cappa, who co-authored the report.
“If social protection coverage slips from the current levels … as a result of austerity measures and other factors, the number of children falling into child labour can go up (by an additional) 46 million” by the end of next year, Cappa said.
The report, which is published every four years, showed that children aged between five and 11 accounted for over half of the global figure.
Boys were significantly more likely to be involved in child labour, accounting for 97 of the 160 million children toiling at the start of 2020.
But girls were often burdened with more than 21 hours of household chores per week.
Particularly worrying is the significant increase seen in the number of children between the ages of five and 17 who are doing so-called hazardous work, which is deemed to affect a child’s development, education or health.
Tasks can include working in dangerous industries, like mining or with heavy machinery, and working for more than 43 hours a week, so that schooling is next to impossible.
79 million children were considered to be doing such hazardous work at the start of 2020, an increase of 6.5 million from four years earlier, the report showed.
The study revealed that most child labour is concentrated in the agriculture sector, which accounts for 70 percent of the global total, or 112 million children.
The greatest increase in child labour was seen in sub-Saharan Africa, where population growth, recurrent crises, extreme poverty and inadequate social protection have pushed an additional 16.6 million children into child labour since 2016, the report found.
Nearly a quarter of children aged five to 17 years old in sub-Saharan Africa are already in child labour, compared to 2.3 percent in Europe and North America.
The UN agencies warned that additional economic shocks and school closures caused by the Covid crisis mean that children already in child labour may be obliged to work longer hours and under worsening conditions.
“The new estimates are a wake-up call,” ILO chief Guy Ryder said in a statement.
“We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk,” he said, stressing that “we are at a pivotal moment and much depends on how we respond.”
“This is a time for renewed commitment and energy to turn the corner and break the cycle of poverty and child labour.”
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