Home Equality & Justice Child labor rises to 160 million – first increase in two decades

Child labor rises to 160 million – first increase in two decades

The ILO-UNICEF report points to a significant rise in the number of children aged 5 to 11 years in child labor

The number of children in child labor has risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years – with millions more at risk due to the impacts of COVID-19, according to a new report by the International Labor Organization and UNICEF.

The report titled “Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward” warns that progress to end child labor has stalled for the first time in 20 years, reversing the previous downward trend that saw child labor fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016.

The report was released ahead of World Day Against Child Labor on June 12. It is the first-ever joint ILO-UNICEF report on child labor estimates and forms part of a broader inter-agency effort to measure and monitor progress toward target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.



The report points to a significant rise in the number of children aged 5 to 11 years in child labor, who now account for just over half of the total global figure.

The number of children aged 5 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 Guy Ryder, ILO director-general.

“Inclusive social protection allows families to keep their children in school even in the face of economic hardship,” he said, adding that increased investment in rural development and decent work in agriculture is “essential.”

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“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 labor,” Ryder said.

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 labor 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.

A child carries a gold pan and a bucket on his way to a river in this photo taken in 2015. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

The report warns that globally, nine million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labor 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 labor may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, while many more may be forced into the worst forms of child labor due to job and income losses among vulnerable families.

“We are losing ground in the fight against child labor, 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,” she said.

The UN agency official called on governments and international development banks “to prioritize investments in programs that can get children out of the workforce and back into school, and in social protection programs that can help families avoid making this choice in the first place.”

A child selling kitchen items made of wood in the street in Kolkata, India on April 14, 2016. (Photo by Saurav022/shutterstock.com)

Other key findings in the report include:

  • The agriculture sector accounts for 70 percent of children in child labor (112 million) followed by 20 percent in services (31.4 million) and 10 percent in industry (16.5 million)
  • Nearly 28 percent of children aged 5 to 11 years and 35 percent of children aged 12 to 14 years in child labor are out of school.
  • Child labor 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 labor narrows
  • The prevalence of child labor in rural areas (14 percent) is close to three times higher than in urban areas (5 percent).

Children in child labor are at risk of physical and mental harm. Child labor 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 labor, 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 labor.
  • Investment in child protection systems, agricultural development, rural public services, infrastructure and livelihoods.

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