There Are 160 Million Child Laborers Globally, Report Finds

October 6, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

At the end of September, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) released its 20th annual “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor” report, which analyzed the state of child labor in 131 countries and territories between January and December 2020. The report concluded that globally, 233 million children working, out of which 160 million are classified as “child labor” and 79 million were involved in hazardous child labor.

The report covers situations like children below the respective minimum age working, as well as hazardous unpaid household service; slavery or similar practices; the sale or trafficking of children; children trapped in circumstances of debt bondage and serfdom; forced or compulsory labor; recruiting children for armed conflict or prostitution; coercing them into illicit activities like drug trafficking; and involving them in any way in the creation of child sexual abuse material.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor’s “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor” report

Child labor rights in the U.S. are governed by the the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938. These set requirements such as a minimum age below which children cannot work (usually 14 years old for most forms of employment), the number of days and hours that they can work, and the types of tasks they can perform. Many states also have mandatory school attendance laws, and the network of caretakers, mentors, teachers, and other adults in a child’s life usually serve as an informal monitoring mechanism to make sure that children are being allowed to grow up and go to school as is appropriate.

Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, there were 4.7 million teens aged 16–19 in the U.S. workforce. That fiscal year, the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) recorded child labor violations in more than 850 investigations. Further, in those investigations where child labor was found, 3,395 minors were found to be working in violation of the FLSA, with 633 minors in 266 cases were found to be working in hazardous occupations.

There has been a number of reports recently about child labor violations across the country. Last week, for instance, the DOL fined three different ice rinks in New Hampshire nearly $43,000 after they were found to be in violation of the FLSA, employing minors under the age of 14 and/or allowing them to work more than the maximum hours allowed.

Per the WHD, the most common FLA violations it found were 14- and 15-year-olds working more than the set hour limit in non-agricultural industries, and the failure of employers to comply with the rules governing hazardous occupations in the cases of 16- and 17-year-olds. In addition, the DOL levied over $3.5 million in civil penalties for child labor in 2020.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which is responsible for inspecting workplaces for violations and following up on complaints, had fewer employees in 2011 than in 1981, per one source, despite the fact that the number of workplaces pretty much doubled over the same period. In addition, the department’s budget also suffered last decade. OSHA is also responsible for tracking child labor violations.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor’s “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor” report

The researchers behind the DOL report analyzed, in particular, the effect of Covid-19 on children’s rights, as has been covered in the news and by various governmental agencies lately. The DOL report singles out one mitigating factor being the economic downturn due to a fall in consumer demand and a change in patterns as a result of lockdowns and social distancing protocols, as well as supply chain crunches.

As businesses were forced to lay off staff or suspend operations altogether, unemployment spiked, in turn lowering standards of living and spurring on poverty rates. A record number of children were also left without their primary caregivers due to the virus’ death toll, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the UN’s World Health Organization, and the World Bank in July.

Already, there were warning signs before the pandemic that were likely only exacerbated in 2020. For one, the  International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) highlighted that the number of children forced into labor worldwide increased for the first time in twenty years in 2019. They also added that if the correct remedial actions are not taken, there could be an additional 9 million children forced into labor by 2022, or 46 million more in the worst-case scenario.

The dual effect of the pandemic on child labor is that, on one hand, many children were made very well aware that their families were in a precarious financial situation, and were made to feel compelled to work. On the other hand, “unscrupulous employers” in the informal sectors of many countries likely took advantage of school closures and lax monitoring of children’s activities to entice children into unregulated and probably unsafe jobs.

The DOL report put forth an extensive set of policy recommendations for individual countries on how to successfully eliminate child labor practices. These include:

  • Criminally prohibiting the recruitment of children under age 18 by non-state armed groups
  • Legally establishing and enforcing the types of hazardous work prohibited for children under 18
  • Increasing the number of labor inspectors employed by the government
  • Making public the criminal law enforcement data around these cases
  • Spreading awareness to the general populace on activities taken to implement anti-child-labor policies
  • Crafting and implementing programs that address barriers to education

In addition to issuing the report, the DOL also launched the web-based Better Trade Tool, which combined the  List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor with international trade data. These databases are meant to  “raise public awareness about forced labor and child labor around the world and to promote efforts to combat them.” It also updated its “Sweat & Toil” and “Comply Chain” smartphone apps, which provide similar sort of information to suppliers and consumers alike.

2021 marks the United Nations’ “International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor,” making it a key priority for global administrations.

You can find the list of goods produced by child or forced labor, across the globe, here.