12 June is the World Day Against Child Labour: our leaders must wake up to the threat that COVID-19 poses to millions of children who could be forced out of school and into work by this global crisis.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, an estimated 152 million children were in child labour, 72 million of whom were in work classed as ‘hazardous’ - work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals, or could even lead to their death. Almost half of all child labour victims are aged between 5 to 11 years.
The current global health crisis and its economic consequences are expected to push even more children into child labour in the coming years, and could make working conditions even more dangerous. As we’ve seen with previous global crises, the impact of COVID-19 will not be felt equally: the world’s most marginalised children are set to pay the highest price, at the expense of their freedom, safety and education.
Estimates suggest that 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as result of the crisis this year, and individuals and families who have lost their jobs or used all their savings during this extended period of isolation may resort to sending their children to work simply to keep food on the table. Girls in particular are at higher risk of being forced into early marriage or domestic servitude to ease financial pressures or caring responsibilities within their families. At the height of the pandemic, school closures and country-wide lockdowns led to 1.3 billion children being out of school across the world. Without access to quality education - a powerful tool in fighting child labour - this disruption further exposes the world’s most vulernable children to exploitation.
But a sharp rise in the rate of child labour isn’t an inevitablity. As the virus rampaged across borders, world leaders pledged an unprecedented amount of money - trillions of dollars - in response. No worldwide crisis has even seen this scale of action, yet the vast majority of these funds have gone to corporations - and the poorest children and their families are being forgotten. If the world’s poorest children receive their fair share of these funds, disaster could be averted.
World leaders have already committed to ending child labour by 2025, but failing to ensure the world’s most vulnerable children and their families are given this fair share of services and resources during COVID-19 would mean we will not only miss this deadline, but progress would almost certainly go backwards. There were worrying warning signs before the pandemic hit, with a new report claiming that rates of child labour in the cocoa industry in West Africa are now higher than in 2010, and the new economic hardships triggered by COVID-19 are likely to drive this number higher.
If governments used these funds to invest in targeted, child-sensitive social protection measures, for example financial assistance for unemployed parents or nutritional interventions like free school meals, the main cause of child labour - extreme poverty - could be eliminated. These social welfare programmes can be transformative in reducing child labour rates and increasing school attendance. The Bolsa Familia programme launched in Brazil in 2003 currently provides over 13 million poor Brazilian families with a basic income, with conditions including children must go to school. Millions of children have been brought out of poverty due to this and similar schemes around the world; global recognition of their importance could end poverty for good.
2021 has been declared the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, yet at the halfway point of 2020 we risk being further from reaching this goal than ever before. In light of COVID-19, world leaders must scale up their action to end child labour, or face a global child rights disaster. 100 Million youth activists across the world have been tirelessly campaigning to end child labour, from advocating for child labour-free supply chains in Germany and leading marches across communities in Nigeria, to mass online an community awareness campaigns in Peru. It’s time our leaders demonstrated the same levels of determination, and act with urgency.
Join the Justice for Every Child campaign and demand that leaders act now to prevent a child rights disaster happening as a result of COVID-19!