THE NUMBER of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million in the last four years.
These are the findings in a new report: Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward released by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF (the United Nations children’s agency) on World Day Against Child Labour – June 12th.
As part of this, the Arab Trade Union Confederation (ATUC) and Education International (EI) also issued a statement concerning the Arab region.
‘Today, June 12, 2021, we commemorate International Day against Child Labour in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis represents an unprecedented challenge to public health, education systems and the world of work. Unfortunately, children are the first to suffer.
‘The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating and has exacerbated inequity, unemployment and poverty in most Arab countries.
‘Covid-19 has led to widespread education disruption with school and other education institutions’ closures that impacts more than 90% of learners globally.
‘The crisis has exposed the vulnerabilities of education systems and amplified social, gender, learning and digital inequalities, adding to the existing social, political humanitarian and economic challenges in the Arab region.
Increased dropout rates
‘The crisis has pushed millions of vulnerable children into child labour. According to ILO statistics already, there an estimated 152 million children in child labour. These children are now at even greater risk of facing circumstances that are even more difficult.
‘Thousands of families were forced to employ their children in the informal economy due to the economic hardships that families have been exposed to during the lockdowns and the paradigm shift of working conditions.
‘Governments in the Arab region have failed to monitor the consequences on vulnerable groups and protect children.
‘Distance learning when made available was not accessible to many families who had no internet connections or no online equipment.
‘The pandemic will also roll back progress that has been made to achieve gender equality in education. It has been reported that there will be a sharp increase in the number of girls who will not be able return to school after the pandemic, mostly due to teenage marriages and early pregnancies.
‘The phenomenon of clandestine immigration of children and minors, especially in the countries of the Maghreb, is a serious alarm that threatens the erosion of the social fabric of the region and the draining of its human resources.
‘While access to education provides increased opportunities for integration, distance learning puts additional obstacles to the right to education.
‘More than half of the 22 Arab countries are affected by conflicts or inflows of refugees and internally displaced persons.
‘As is the case across the globe, conflict has hit women and children disproportionately hard in the region. In consequence, child labour has emerged as the most critical child protection issue in the region requiring urgent attention and action.
‘Therefore, we as Global Union federations – ATUC and EI – call on its member organisations in the Arab region to take action and on government to:
- Eradicate child labour and get child labourers out of work into schools through social dialogue with workers’ organisations;
- Align national legislation with international legal standards and ensure the effective enforcement of the age of compulsory education and child labour national laws and regulations;
- Intensify at work sites inspections and ensure respect for legislation related to the protection of children;
- Invest in public education facilities, and train, support and empower teachers;
- Protect children from economic and social vulnerability by improving the socio-economic circumstances of families where adults suffer from poverty and unemployment;
- Ensure access to basic services including education and online programmes;
- Protect children from the impact of armed conflict and call on armed conflict parties to respect the provisions of international humanitarian law that criminalise targeting schools or use for military operations;
- Providing the necessary social and psychological support for unaccompanied migrant children.’
Meanwhile, the ILO and UNICEF report warns that progress to end child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years, reversing the previous downward trend that saw child labour fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016.
The report points to a significant rise in the number of children aged five to 11 years in child labour, who now account for just over half of the total global figure. The number of children aged five to 17 years in hazardous work – defined as work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals – has risen by 6.5 million to 79 million since 2016.
‘The new estimates are a wake-up call. We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk,’ said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder.
‘Inclusive social protection allows families to keep their children in school even in the face of economic hardship.
‘Increased investment in rural development and decent work in agriculture is essential.
‘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.’
In sub-Saharan Africa, population growth, recurrent crises, extreme poverty, and inadequate social protection measures have led to an additional 16.6 million children in child labour over the past four years.
Even in regions where there has been some headway since 2016, such as Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, Covid-19 is endangering that progress.
The report warns that globally, nine million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the pandemic.
A simulation model shows this number could rise to 46 million if they don’t have access to critical social protection coverage.
Additional economic shocks and school closures caused by Covid-19 mean that children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, while many more may be forced into the worst forms of child labour due to job and income losses among vulnerable families.
‘We are losing ground in the fight against child labour, and the last year has not made that fight any easier,’ said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.
‘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.
‘We urge governments and international development banks to prioritise 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.’
Other key findings in the report include:
- The agriculture sector accounts for 70 per cent of children in child labour (112 million) followed by 20 per cent in services (31.4 million) and 10 per cent in industry (16.5 million);
- Nearly 28 per cent of children aged five to 11 years and 35 per cent of children aged 12 to 14 years in child labour are out of school;
- Child labour is more prevalent among boys than girls at every age. When household chores performed for 21 hours or more each week are taken into account, the gender gap in child labour narrows;
- The prevalence of child labour in rural areas (14 per cent) is close to three times higher than in urban areas (five per cent).
Children in child labour are at risk of physical and mental harm. Child labour compromises children’s education, restricting their rights and limiting their future opportunities, and leads to vicious inter-generational cycles of poverty and child labour.
To reverse the upward trend in child labour, the ILO and UNICEF are calling for:
- Adequate social protection for all, including universal child benefits;
- Increased spending on free and good-quality schooling and getting all children back into school – including children who were out of school before Covid-19;
- Promotion of decent work for adults, so families don’t have to resort to children helping to generate family income;
- An end to harmful gender norms and discrimination that influence child labour;
- Investment in child protection systems, agricultural development, rural public services, infrastructure and livelihoods.
As part of the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, the Global Partnership Alliance 8.7, of which UNICEF and ILO are partners, is encouraging member states, business, trade unions, civil society, and regional and international organisations to redouble their efforts in the global fight against child labour by making concrete action pledges.
This timely and well-meaning appeal misses the point that child labour is endemic to capitalism.
Its eradication will only come with the world working class taking power through world revolution and advancing to socialism and the world socialist republic.