The State of Child Labour in 2021

There’s no doubt that 2020 was a year in which the global community faced unprecedented challenges. So as we transition into 2021 – which was declared the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour – and draw closer to the UN’s ambitious goal (target 8.7) of ending child labour in all its forms by 2025, now is a critical time to reflect on the current state of child labour, as well as the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Defining child labour

While child labour may seem a straightforward concept, defining child labour can be a challenging task. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines child labour as work that:

“is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.” (ILO)

The ILO notes not all work done by children is necessarily child labour targeted for elimination. ‘Light Work’, work that does not affect a child’s health, personal development or interfere with their schooling, is permitted to be carried out by children aged 12 years or older. (ILO)

Additionally, activities like helping parents around the home with chores or earning pocket money outside school hours, can be beneficial to a child’s development and help prepare them to be productive members of society during their adult life. 

What differentiates child labour is that it is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development.

The very worst forms of child labour can involve enslavement; separation from their families; exposure to serious hazards and illnesses; and children being left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities – often at a very early age. 

How many children are in child labour?

According to the current research, taken from the ILO’s 2016 report Global Estimates of Child Labour, there are 152 million children aged 5-17 years in child labour, with boys making up 58% and girls, 42%.

Of that number, 73 million are in hazardous work. This encompasses work that “exposes to children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse; work in a dangerous or unhealthy environment and work under particularly difficult conditions, such as work for long hours or during the night or work where the child is unreasonably confined to the premises of the employer.” (ILO)

According to the ILO’s 2017 report, around 19 million of those children in hazardous work are aged only 5-11 years old.

Where is child labour most prevalent?

Child labour is most prevalent in low-income countries, with around 19% of children in low-income countries working in child labour. However, it is by no means an exclusively low-income country problem. 9% of children in lower-middle-income countries, 7% of children in upper-middle-income countries, and 1% of children in upper-income countries are also in child labour. 

Expressed in absolute terms, 84 million children in child labour – accounting for over half of all those in child labour – actually live in middle-income countries, with additional 2 million living in high-income countries. 

The agricultural sector accounts for the largest share of child labour, with 71% of all those in child labour – 108 million children – carrying out work in areas such as subsistence and commercial farming and livestock herding. By its very nature, this type of work tends to be hazardous and requires children to work in dangerous circumstances and conditions. 

The number of children working in the services and industry sectors is around 26 million and 18 million, respectively. However, these sectors are likely to become more relevant in some regions in the future in the face of forces such as climate change displacing families from their farms and into cities.

How has Covid-19 impacted child labour?

While the full impact and length of the Coronavirus pandemic, and how people from different communities around the world will be affected, still remains uncertain, some of the fallout is already clear. 

The COVID-19 outbreak has increased economic insecurity, profoundly disrupted supply chains and halted manufacturing, all of which have significant implications for child labour. 

As economies contract and workers face redundancies or pay cuts, families dealing with financial hardship might be forced to send their children to work just to make ends meet. Similarly, economic uncertainty may make some companies only willing to pay child workers, as they are cheaper labour than adults.

Furthermore, experience from similar crisis situations, such as the 2014 Ebola epidemic, has shown that these factors can play a particularly strong role in exacerbating the risk to children being forced into work.

Going forward…

A complex and nuanced issue, child labour is the combined product of various factors, including low household income and economic deprivation, lack of access to education, lack of work opportunities for adults and adolescents, migration, and emergencies.

It is not only a cause, but also a consequence of both social and financial inequalities, which in turn have been aggravated by the current pandemic. 

In the year ahead, the International Labour Organisation is due to release a new report updating these Global Estimates on child labour, and in light of the COVID-19 crisis, more up to date and comprehensive data  on the prevalence of child labour around the globe is urgently needed.