By Bimbola Oyesola
As the International Labour Organization (ILO) marked World Day Against Child Labour on Saturday, it has been raised the alarm that the number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide.
The ILO and UNICEF further warned that nine million additional children are at risk as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the two global bodies, this is an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years.
ILO and UNICEF, in a new report, Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward, warned 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,” stated Guy Ryder, ILO director-general.
He noted that inclusive social protection allows families to keep their children in school even in the face of economic hardship.
He said, “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.”
The report noted that, 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.
It added that 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.
The ILO and UNICEF said 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 Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director.
She added that, “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.
Other key findings in the report include the fact that 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.
The report explained that 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 (5 per cent).
Children in child labour are at risk of physical and mental harm. It 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.