The UN Says The Number Of Children Forced Into Labor Increased Last Year For The First Time In Two Decades

June 11, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

In what was supposed to be the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, a joint report published by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has sounded an urgent alarm over the increased number of children forced into labor worldwide.

According to the report, roughly one in ten children globally — amounting to 160 million young individuals — were involved in child labor at the start of 2020, the first spike in this figure in 20 years. This marks the undoing of the progress that the ILO and UNICEF announced in 2019, which highlighted that between 2000 and 2016, 94 million children globally had been liberated from working, a 38% reduction over that 16-year-period. This also marks an increase of 8.4 million children employed in the workforce between 2016 and 2020.

Worryingly, the UN says that this statistic is at real risk of rising as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns, which severely impacted jobs, incomes, employment and economies, forcing many children to enter the workforce so as to provide for their families. The already precarious situation was likely also further exacerbated by widespread school closures.

UN researchers believe that the problem will worsen by 2022 if the tide is not checked immediately. Modeling suggests that another 9 million children could potentially be forced into labor as a result of the pandemic by next year. In the worst case scenario, this number could even rise up to 46 million.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) had noted the upward trend in child labor rates in May. According to them, in the midst of the pandemic, young people were being exploited, as many felt they had no choice but to work to help their families survive. Further, many children were rendered their family’s sole breadwinner due to their parents falling ill, being incapacitated, or dying. The children they interviewed reported long, debilitating work hours, low pay, wage theft, and instances of violence and harassment.

The HRW is clear, however, that this increase in child labor is not an “inevitable consequence” of the pandemic, and that it can actually be stopped.

The UN report highlighted some solutions that need to be implemented immediately to counter this trend. These include providing critical social services as a safety net, workarounds that would allow children to stay at school even in times of economic strife, greater investment in rural development, and the transition into safer, more decent agricultural work.

The HRW says that there is currently inadequate financial assistance being provided to families in need and that governments should give them cash allowances so that they can “maintain an adequate standard of living without resorting to child labor.”

When broken down, the statistics reported by the UN are even more concerning. While the 160 million figure includes children between the ages of 5 and 17, a full half of that are actually between just 5 and 11 years of age. 

Half the children forced into labor were involved in dangerous agriculture and mining work, risking their health, safety, growth, and development. Worldwide, 70% of the children engaged in labor were in the agricultural sector and 10.3% in industry, mining, construction, and manufacturing. This exposes them to pesticides, chemicals, extreme temperatures, and heavy equipment, among many other hazardous work conditions. The remaining 19.7% were engaged in services, such as domestic work and transportation.

There are a total of 3.8 million child laborers in North America and Europe, and the rates have been trending downward in Asia, the Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The situation remains unresolved, however, on the African continent, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, 86.6 million children are engaged in labor, more than the rest of the world combined. Around four out of every five children in the region are employed in the agriculture sector. These overall high numbers have been attributed largely to enduring poverty, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and regional conflicts.

Demographically, 63 million of the children were girls and 97 million were boys. Young girls were more likely to be engaged in service and domestic work. The gap between the number of boys and girls working was shown to widen with age, as boys between 15 and 17 years old were almost twice as likely to be working than girls in that same age range. Rural children were three times more likely to be working than their city-dwelling peers.

For 100 years now, the ILO has been working towards eradicating child labor, forced labor, modern slavery and human trafficking. UNICEF is engaged in protecting children, defending their rights, ensuring their survival and helping them fulfil their potential.