World child labor numbers edged up last year after 20-year decline

The number of children in the global workforce rose in 2020 for the first time in two decades, putting a generation “at risk,” according to a report issued Thursday.

The number of children put to work climbed to 160 million globally, an increase of 8.4 million over four years and a reversal of the previous downward trend. Of the 160 million, a reported 63 million girls and 97 million boys were working, accounting for almost 10% of children worldwide.

About half of these children were involved in work that posed a risk to their health and safety such as farm work and mining, says the report by UNICEF and the International Labor Organization.

“The new estimates are a wake-up call. We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk,” ILO Director-General Guy Ryder told U.N. News.

The ILO survey reported a significant rise of kids ages 5 to 11 working, making up more than half of the global child labor force. The number of these kids in hazardous work has climbed to 79 million, an increase of 6.5 million since 2016.

Adding more risk to the employment picture, officials say that the COVID-19 pandemic poses special problems for children — who are overwhelmingly still unvaccinated as older people are targeted — in the workforce. The global economic shutdown sparked by the pandemic also increased financial pressures on families to seek income from all members of the family.

“The pandemic has clearly heightened the risk of child labor, above all through a sharp rise in poverty that may increase families’ reliance on child labor, and through school closures that deny families the logical alternative to sending children to work,” the researchers wrote in their report.

An estimated 8.9 million more kids could be working by the end of 2022 due to rising poverty stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the report says. But researchers warn that without critical social services, this number could reach up to 46 million. 

“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 in a statement “Now, well into a second year of global lockdowns, school closures, economic disruptions, and shrinking national budgets, families are forced to make heartbreaking choices.”

Child labor occurred more frequently in rural areas, researchers found. Nearly 123 million children in rural areas work compared to just over 37 million children in urban areas. The rate of child labor in rural areas, at almost 14%, is nearly triple the rate of about 5% in urban areas.

The new report gathered data from 100 household surveys, which covered two-thirds of the world’s population of children aged 5 to 17 years.

The agriculture sector accounts for the majority of kids in child labor at 70%. Services such as domestic work and work in commerce and transport made up 20%. Meanwhile, industry work such as construction and mining made up 10% of child labor, the report found.

A large proportion of working kids were out of school, nearly 28% of five to 11-year-olds and 35% of children aged 12 to 14.

Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest number of children in child labor, with almost 87 million children aged five to 17, more than the rest of the world combined. Four out of every five children in sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture, where they could be exposed to chemicals like pesticides, dangerous machinery and extreme temperatures.

By contrast, Europe and North America have the lowest number of adolescents involved in child labor with under 4 million youth.

Although there were about 13.4 million fewer children working in Asia and 2.3 million fewer in Latin America, there were 20.1 million more in Africa, 2.8 million more in Europe and Central Asia and 1.2 million more in the Arab states last year, said Thomas Wissing, ILO head of advocacy and partnerships.

Between 2000 and 2016, child labor declined by 94 million, according to the report.

Mr. Wissing noted critical measures that address poverty, inequality and lack of access to public services such as education are needed to reduce child labor.

“This goes specifically for child labor in agriculture, so focusing attention, efforts and resources on improving employment opportunities, decent work, access to quality education and social protection is key to making progress,” he said.

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