Following COVID-19, we are likely to see millions more children pushed into child labour after 20 years of progress, linked to the increase in poverty, growth of the informal sector, decline in international remittances, lack of access to credit and schools, shift in foreign direct investment to industries prone to hiring children and COVID-19-related deaths and illnesses (ILO and UNICEF)

Week of 15 June 2020

Following COVID-19, we are likely to see millions more children pushed into child labour after 20 years of progress, linked to the increase in poverty, growth of the informal sector, decline in international remittances, lack of access to credit and schools, shift in foreign direct investment to industries prone to hiring children and COVID-19-related deaths and illnesses (ILO and UNICEF)

The International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF published COVID-19 and child labour: A time of crisis, a time to act which describes how recent gains (a decrease in child labour by 94 million since 2000) are now at risk. First, the report reminds us that “[c]hild labour is the combined product of many factors, such as poverty, social norms condoning it, lack of decent work opportunities for adults and adolescents, migration, and emergencies. It is not only a cause, but also a consequence of social inequities reinforced by discrimination.” The report then describes why we will see an increase in child labour following COVID-19:

  • Falling living standards: “With poverty comes child labour as households use every available means to survive.” The study points to an example from Côte d’Ivoire where a drop in cocoa prices in the 1990 economic crisis led to a 10 per cent fall in income and an over 5 percentage point increase in child labour. 
  • Deteriorating employment: We will likely see more children being forced into exploitative and hazardous jobs. “Compared to adults, children are more likely to accept work for less pay and in vulnerable conditions.” The study points to how the Indonesian financial crisis led to a growth in hours per worker and the number of workers in rural areas, in particular in household-based activities where children tend to be the most available labour.
  • Rising informality: We will likely see “growth in informal employment as those laid off from formal work seek any alternative source of income.” The study points to the prevalence of child labour in the informal economy, and in particular when production grows inside homes. Recent studies demonstrating this from Malawi, the Philippines and Zambia also revealed a growth in health and safety hazards for children. Further, “[g]irls are particularly vulnerable to exploitation in agriculture, informal labour and domestic work, and face greater risks of sexual and gender-based violence.”
  • Declining remittances and migration: The study highlights that international remittances have been shown to reduce child labour in poor countries, and that families experiencing a decline in remittances coming in were more likely to have children in child labour.
  • A looming credit crisis: “Functioning credit markets buffer shocks by allowing households to borrow against future income.” The study points to examples from Tanzania and Bangladesh where access to credit allowed households to avoid resorting to child labour following economic losses. Conversely, when “formal and informal credit options are unavailable, households can turn to more desperate ways to access credit, such as bonded labour” and child labour.
  • Contracting trade and foreign direct investment: “If foreign direct investment is drawn into industries prone to hiring children, it will amplify the increase in child labour.” In particular, it is likely that “demand for agricultural goods and lower-quality products will rise, both of which are associated with less-skilled labour.”
  • Shutting down schools: “Evidence about child labour rising as schools close during the global shutdown is gradually mounting” with the study giving examples from Malawi. 
  • Compounding shocks to health: The deaths from COVID-19 is “trailed by growing numbers of children left without one or both parents as well as other caregivers such as grandparents. Children deprived of family care are particularly vulnerable to child labour, trafficking and other forms of exploitation.” Further, where workers fall ill, “child labour then becomes a survival strategy.”

The report concludes by urging governments to make the right socioeconomic and child protection policy choices which will safeguard families and their children during the immediate crisis. Measures to counter the threat of increased child labour include more comprehensive social protection, easier access to credit for poor households, the promotion of decent work for adults, measures to get children back into school, including the elimination of school fees, and more resources for labour inspections and law enforcement.

“In times of crisis, child labour becomes a coping mechanism for many families. As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce. As we re-imagine the world post-COVID, we need to make sure that children and their families have the tools they need to weather similar storms in the future. Quality education, social protection services and better economic opportunities can be game changers.”