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

The International Labour Organization and UNICEF warn 9 million additional children at risk as a result of COVID-19 pandemic

10 June 2021
Portrait of Dalpesh Devada 15 – year – old works at the brick kiln.
UNICEF/UN0392589/Kolari
Portrait of Dalpesh Devada 15 – year – old works at the brick kiln.

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NEW YORK/GENEVA, 10 June 2021 – The number of children in child labour 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 Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF.

Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward – released ahead of World Day Against Child Labour on 12th June – warns 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 5 to 11 years in child labour, 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 ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “Inclusive social protection allows families to keep their children in school even in the face of economic hardship. 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.”

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.

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, 9 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.

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 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. We urge governments and international development banks to prioritize investments in programmes that can get children out of the workforce and back into school, and in social protection programmes that can help families avoid making this choice in the first place.”

Other key findings in the report include:               

  • 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 5 to 11 years and 35 per cent of children aged 12 to 14 years in child labour are out of school.
  • Child labour is more prevalent among boys than girls at every age. When household chores performed for at least 21 hours per 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. Child labour 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.
  • Increased spending on quality education 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 labour.
  • Investment in child protection systems, agricultural development, rural public services, infrastructure and livelihoods.

As part of the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, the global partnership Alliance 8.7, of which UNICEF and ILO are partners, is encouraging member States, business, trade unions, civil society, and regional and international organizations to redouble their efforts in the global fight against child labour by making concrete action pledges.

During a week of action from 10 – 17 June, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore will join other high-level speakers and youth advocates at a high-level event during the International Labour Conference to discuss the release of the new global estimates and the roadmap ahead. 

INDIA: Note to Editors

As per Census 2011, the total child population in India in the age group 5-14 years is 259.6 million with over 10 million (4% of total child population) being working, either as ’main worker’ or ‘marginal worker’. The Census data indicates decreased incidence of child labour in India by 2.6 million between 2001 and 2011. The data shows greater decline in rural than in urban areas. The increase in rural-to-urban migration is driving demand for child workers in urban areas.

However, (little evidence or data available as yet), it is expected that COVID-19 and subsequent economic distress will have increased the risk of child labour. The closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in India has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools and added to the risk of them slipping into child labour and unsafe migration.

Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative said, “The pandemic has clearly emerged as a child rights crisis, aggravating the risk of child labour as many more families are likely to have fallen into extreme poverty. Children in poor and disadvantaged households in India are now at a greater risk of negative coping mechanisms such as dropping out of school and being forced into labour, marriage, and even falling victim to trafficking. We are also seeing children lose parents and caregivers to the virus - leaving them destitute, without parental care. These children are at extremely vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation.”

“We must act fast to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children in India, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

UNICEF is appealing to all Governments, decision-makers, families, and individuals to do everything they can to promote and protect the rights of all children, ensuring Covid-19 does not bring further risk and harm to the most vulnerable."

The ILO and UNICEF in India are committed to support Government of India for joint action on elimination of child labour and achieving SDG 8.7.

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Notes to Editors

Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward is the first-ever joint ILO-UNICEF report on child labour estimates and forms part of a broader inter-agency effort to measure and monitor progress towards target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Estimates are based on the extrapolation of data from 106 surveys covering more than 70 per cent of the world population of children aged 5 to 17 years old.

Download report: https://data.unicef.org/resources/child-labour-2020-global-estimates-trends-and-the-road-forward/

For further information, please contact:

Alka Gupta, Communications Specialist, agupta@unicef.org/ 7303289173

Sonia Sarkar, Communication Officer, ssarkar@unicef.org /9810170289

Media contacts

Alka Gupta
Communication Specialist
UNICEF
Tel: +91-730 325 9183
Sonia Sarkar
Communication Officer (Media)
UNICEF
Tel: +91-981 01 70289

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About ILO

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