Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 393, 16 June 2021

Child labour: 160 million children, one in ten, are engaged in labour, says the new ILO-UNICEF repor
Apoorva Sudhakar

In the news
On 12 June, countries observed World Day Against Child Labour marking the 2021 International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. 

On 10 June, a new report titled "Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward" published by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) says progress towards ending child labour has come to a standstill for the first time since 2000. The UNICEF Executive Director said: "We are losing ground in the fight against child labour, and the last year has not made that fight any easier." Similarly, the ILO Director-General said: "The new estimates are a wake-up call. We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk."

The global estimates have been released every four years since 2000 with data pertaining to children aged between 5 to 17. The latest report reveals that in the beginning of 2020, "160 million children – 63 million girls and 97 million boys" were engaged in child labour; 86 million fewer than when the first global estimates were released in 2000. However, it says the COVID-19 pandemic is hindering progress and estimates that by the end of 2022, 8.9 million more children will be in child labour.

Issues at large
First, the persistent problem of child labour. The prevalence of child labour can be traced back to centuries; developed countries of the modern-day employed children as young as ten, as could be seen during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. However, with the passage of time, development, and the introduction of several conventions, child labour became concentrated in the developing countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa. In the late 20th century, the ILO framed two Conventions on child labour; ILO Convention 138 on Minimum Age was adopted in 1973, and Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour was adopted in 1999. Developed countries have made significant progress in implementing these Conventions; however, developing countries have not. For example, the latest estimates highlight that child labour in sub-Saharan Africa has been rising since 2012 against Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean where child labour has fallen. It says that the number of children in sub-Saharan Africa is greater than in the world combined.

Second, major highlights of the report. It says that roughly one in 10 children globally is in child labour. The absolute number of children in child labour, and specifically in hazardous work, increased by eight million and 6.5 million respectively. Further, it states that 16.8 million more children were in child labour in the 5 to 11 age group in the latest estimates against the 2016 estimates. Of the total 160 million, 112 million children are in agriculture, three-quarters of them from the 5 to 11 age group.

Third, major recommendations. The report calls for extended social protection of children and the need to "address the heightened risk of child labour in growing crises, conflicts and disasters." It also highlights the necessity of "addressing gender norms and discrimination that increase child labour risks." Further, to address the impact of the pandemic, it calls for "sound policy choices and resources allocation decisions."

In perspective
First, the grave reality in the report implies that the end of child labour is not possible in the near future. Second, the fact that the ILO, which was established in 1919, took nearly nine decades to frame a Convention on children in hazardous work, reflects that child labour was never an important issue for policymakers. Further, developed countries having lower levels of child labour is not praiseworthy; manufacturing units, supply chains - like the mining industry or textile industry - are enablers of child labour. 

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