14.06.2021 |

ILO: Child labour in agriculture remains a persistent problem

Many children work on farms (Photo: CC0)

Global progress against child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years. The number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide, with millions more at risk due to the impacts of COVID-19, according to new global estimates for 2020. This is reversing the previous downward trend that saw child labour fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016. The report, published by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF ahead of World Day Against Child Labour on 12th June, indicates that 63 million girls and 97 million boys were in child labour globally at the beginning of 2020, or 1 in 10 children worldwide, an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years. 79 million children – nearly half of all those in child labour – were in hazardous work that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development, and the number has risen by 6.5 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.

The global estimates mask large variations across regions and continued progress against child labour in Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean. In both regions, child labour trended downward over the last four years in percentage and absolute terms. 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. In absolute terms, there are now nearly 87 million children in child labour in sub-Saharan Africa, more than in the rest of the world combined. The report warns that globally, 9 million additional children could be pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additional economic shocks and school closures caused by pandemic mean that children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worse conditions, while many more may be forced into the worst forms of child labour when their families lose jobs and income. “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,” she added. “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.”

The report also provides statistics on the sectoral composition of child labour: Most child labour continues to occur in agriculture. 70% of all children in child labour, 112 million children in total, work in agriculture. “This is especially the case among younger children, for whom agriculture often serves as an entry point,” says the report. “Child labour takes place in family subsistence and smallholder farming, commercial plantations and other forms of commercial farming, agro-industrial complexes, capture fisheries, aquaculture, postharvest fish processing and forestry.” Services and industry account for smaller but still substantial shares of children in child labour. Around 31.4 million children work in services, which includes domestic work and work in commerce, transport and motor vehicle repair. Another 16.5 million children work in industry, e.g. in construction, mining and manufacturing.

Child labour is much more common in rural areas. There are 122.7 million rural children in child labour compared to 37.3 million urban children and the prevalence of child labour in rural areas (14%) is close to three times higher than in urban areas (4.7%). “It is necessary to promote “adequate rural livelihoods and resilience, including through supporting economic diversification, investing in basic services infrastructure, extending social protection and devising agricultural extension policies for crop diversification. Family farms and enterprises that depend on the (mostly unpaid) labour of their children need greater support to improve their livelihoods and end that dependence,” according to the report. “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,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. “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.” (ab)

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