Addressing the scourge of child labour

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Wednesday, 16 June 2021

The global progress in addressing the malaise of child labour has stumbled for the first time in two decades in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic is likely to push millions more children into this trap unless mitigation measures are taken on an urgent basis. This has been the alarming finding of the report, 'Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Way Forward', published jointly by the ILO and UNICEF on the occasion of 'United Nations International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour' last week. Initiated in 2000 and undertaken every four years, the calculations extrapolate data from household surveys covering two-thirds of the global child population aged between 5 and 17 years.

The new findings also constitute a reality check on whether the global commitment to end child labour by 2025 would actually materialise, or rather extend into a distant future. The latest estimates indicate that child labour accounted for almost 10 per cent of all children worldwide at the start of 2020, the figure being a staggering 160 million. Newer analysis in the wake of the pandemic suggests an addition of 8.9 million to the number by 2022 because of rising poverty across the globe. 

Although the percentage of children engaged in child labour remained unchanged during 2016-20, their absolute figure rose by over 8 million during the period, including about 6.5 million children involved in hazardous work. Although there was a downward trend in the Asia-Pacific and Latin America-Caribbean regions, the Sub-Saharan Africa has witnessed increases in both number and percentage of children since 2012. Significantly, while child labour in the age groups of 12-14 and 15-17 years declined in both percentage and absolute terms during 2016-20, those belonging to 5-11 years displayed an upward trend.  

Other significant findings of the 2020 global estimates include: child labour among boys (11.2 per cent) is higher than that of girls (7.8 per cent); its prevalence in rural areas (13.9 per cent) is about three times higher than in urban spaces (4.7 per cent); about 70 per cent of all child labour takes place in the agriculture sector; around 72 per cent of all child labour and 83 per cent among children of 5-11 age-group occur within families, which are often hazardous; over a quarter of children in the 5-11 age-group and a third of 12-14 years group engaged in child labour remain out of school.

However, the predicted additional rise to be caused by the pandemic is by no means a foregone conclusion, as the actual impact will ultimately depend on the policy responses adopted. Two scenarios visualised by ILO demonstrate the positive impact of social protection coverage on child labour in the short term. But if this coverage is allowed to fall, then a significant additional increase is likely to occur by the end of 2022. On the other hand, an expansion of social protection coverage would more than offset the adverse impact of the pandemic. The pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated the risks, especially due to a sharp rise in poverty that increased the families' reliance on child labour, as well as through school closures that deny them any logical alternative to engaging children at work. Therefore, expanded income support measures for vulnerable families through benefits and other means will be crucial for reducing these risks. Similarly, back-to-school campaigns, stepped-up remedial learning for getting children back in the classroom, and helping them make up for lost learning when situations permit will also be critical.

The policy-makers should not lose sight of the broader policy imperatives for reducing child labour during the severe and recovery phases of the pandemic. These include: extending social protection for children and families for mitigating poverty and economic uncertainty that cause child labour; ensuring free and quality schooling for children at least up to the minimum age for employment through providing viable alternative to child labour and opportunities for a better future; guaranteeing birth registration for all children, so that they can enjoy their rights through possession of a legal identity.

Besides, decent work that provides fair income to young and adults, especially those working in the informal economy, should be promoted for enabling families to avoid poverty-driven child labour. Greater support needs to be extended for improving the livelihoods in family farms and enterprises that rely on the labour of children. Laws and regulations should be put in place supported by enforcement mechanisms and child protection systems. Moreover, gender norms and discriminations that exacerbate child labour risks, especially for girls, in domestic work and unpaid household chores should be properly addressed.

In the global and local contexts, the heightened risks of child labour in growing cities, conflicts or disasters should be tackled adequately alongside redressing the risks in global supply chains. Child labour concerns should be incorporated in all phases of humanitarian actions including post-crisis reconstruction and recovery efforts, and special attention should be paid to the informal micro and small enterprises operating in the lower tiers of supply chains. Actions across all these policy areas and perspectives are even more urgent at a time when governments are struggling with limited fiscal space in the wake of the pandemic. For expanding the fiscal space, there is no other alternative but to adopt creative and innovative resource mobilisation strategies. On the other hand, debt relief should be extended by lenders and debt of heavily indebted countries should be restructured, so that social sector spending is not constrained by enhanced debt service payments.

The need for international cooperation and partnership for overcoming global challenges has been proved once again by the Covid-19 pandemic. Similar to other crucial development priorities of the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development, ending child labour would require holistic cooperation at the global level. Adoption and implementation of appropriate policies at local and global levels for ending child labour in conformity with international commitments and goals have therefore become very urgent. Policy-makers should keep in mind that there is no time to lose for keeping our promise of a world free from the curse of child labour.

Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.

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