COVID-19 may push millions more children into child labour – ILO and UNICEF

UNICEF/UNI335716/ 12-year-old Miajul sorts through hazardous plastic waste in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in order to support his family during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Millions more children 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.

That’s the message from children’s charity UNICEF and the International Labour Organization (ILO), who say that the gains made in reducing child labour since 2000 could soon start to reverse.

In a joint report, COVID-19 and child labour: A time of crisis, a time to act, the organisations say children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions. More of them may be forced into the worst forms of labour, which causes significant harm to their health and safety.

Guy Ryder, Director-General of the ILO, said: “As the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes, without support, many could resort to child labour. 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.”

‘Every available means to survive’

According to the brief, COVID-19 could result in a rise in poverty and therefore to an increase in child labour as households use every available means to survive. Some studies show that a one percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 per cent increase in child labour in certain countries.

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, said: “In times of crisis, child labour becomes a coping mechanism for many families. 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.”

UNICEF and ILO believe that vulnerable population groups – for instance those working in the informal economy and migrant workers – will suffer most from economic downturn, increased informality and unemployment, the general fall in living standards, health shocks and insufficient social protection systems, among other pressures.

‘Gender inequalities may grow’

Evidence is gradually mounting that child labour is rising as schools close during the pandemic. Temporary school closures are currently affecting more than a billion learners in over 100 countries. Even when classes restart, some parents may no longer be able to afford to send their children to school.

As a result, more children could be forced into exploitative and hazardous jobs. Gender inequalities may grow more acute, with girls particularly vulnerable to exploitation in agriculture and domestic work, the brief says.

The brief proposes a number of measures to counter the threat of increased child labour, including more comprehensive social protection, easier access to credit for poor households, the promotion of decent work for adults, measures to get children back into school, including the elimination of school fees, and more resources for labour inspections and law enforcement.

ILO and UNICEF are developing a simulation model to look at the impact of COVID-19 on child labour globally. New global estimates on child labour will be released in 2021.

Author: Simon Weedy

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