The number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years – with millions more at risk due to the impacts of Covid-19, said the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF in a new report on Saturday.
Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director for ILO Country Office for Bangladesh said Bangladesh must keep the fight against child labour at the top of the agenda so that progress made in recent years is not lost.
"We will continue to work closely with all our partners and focus on compulsory education, skill development, and social protection programmes – not only to address child labourers and vulnerable children, but also to provide decent working opportunities for parents and older siblings. It is high time to maximise the demographic dividend of the country and strengthen measures to produce a skilled, healthy, and productive labour force," said Poutiainen.
Children in child labour are at risk of physical and mental harm.
Child labour compromises children's education, restricting their rights and limiting their future opportunities, and leads to vicious inter-generational cycles of poverty and child labour.
Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh said with school closures in place since March 2020 and poverty levels rising amidst the pandemic, UNICEF is concerned that growing numbers of children are being pushed into child labour.
"Families are struggling to cope and using every available means to survive. We need to prioritize the needs of children and address the wider social issues that enable these harmful practices to continue."
Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward - released ahead of World Day Against Child Labour on 12th June – warns that progress to end child labour has stalled for the first time in 20 years, reversing the previous downward trend that saw child labour fall by 94 million between 2000 and 2016.
The report points to a significant rise in the number of children aged 5 to 11 years in child labour, who now account for just over half of the total global figure.
The number of children aged 5 to 17 years in hazardous work – defined as work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals – has risen by 6.5 million to 79 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.
"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. 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."
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.
Even in regions where there has been some headway since 2016, such as Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean, Covid-19 is endangering that progress.
The report warns that globally, nine million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the pandemic.
A simulation model shows this number could rise to 46 million if they don't have access to critical social protection coverage.
Additional economic shocks and school closures caused by Covid-19 mean that children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, while many more may be forced into the worst forms of child labour due to job and income losses among vulnerable families.
"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. 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."
Other key findings in the report include:
The agriculture sector accounts for 70 per cent of children in child labour (112 million) followed by 20 per cent in services (31.4 million) and 10 per cent in industry (16.5 million).
Nearly 28 per cent of children aged 5 to 11 years and 35 per cent of children aged 12 to 14 years in child labour are out of school.
Child labour is more prevalent among boys than girls at every age. When household chores performed for at least 21 hours per week are taken into account, the gender gap in child labour narrows.
The prevalence of child labour in rural areas (14 per cent) is close to three times higher than in urban areas (5 per cent).
To reverse the upward trend in child labour, the ILO and UNICEF called for adequate social protection for all, including universal child benefits.
They called for ncreased spending on quality education and getting all children back into school - including children who were out of school before Covid-19, promotion of decent work for adults, so families don't have to resort to children helping to generate family income and an end to harmful gender norms and discrimination that influence child labour.
Also investment in child protection systems, agricultural development, rural public services, infrastructure and livelihoods.
As part of the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour, the global partnership Alliance 8.7, of which UNICEF and ILO are partners, is encouraging member States, business, trade unions, civil society, and regional and international organizations to redouble their efforts in the global fight against child labour by making concrete action pledges.
During a week of action from 10 – 17 June, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder and UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore will join other high-level speakers and youth advocates at a high-level event during the International Labour Conference to discuss the release of the new global estimates and the roadmap ahead.