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Unprecedented child labour increase must be a “wake-up call”

As World Day Against Child Labour approaches, it has been revealed that the number of children being put to work worldwide has increased, the first time this has happened in two decades.

A newly published report, the combined efforts of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has estimated that 160 million children were in work at the start of 2020; representing an increase of around 8.4 million over 4 years.

The rise marks the cessation of the significant progress made to end child labour in the last 20 years which saw a fall of 94 million recorded between 2000 and 2016.

The estimates are largely the consequence of a substantial increase in the number of working children aged between 5 and 11, accounting for just over half of the global figure. Another troubling statistic highlighted by the report is the abrupt rise in 5 to 17 year olds who are undertaking hazardous work which is likely to damage their “health, safety or moral well-being”, with a 6.5 million increase recorded since 2016.

70% of child labour is in agricultural work with 20% working in services and 10% in industry. In rural areas, child labour rates stand at 14%, almost three times higher than the 5% recorded in urban areas.

Though it states regression began before the start of the pandemic, the report does not discount its destructive effects, stressing the impact it has had in aggravating extreme poverty and inadequate social protection measures. Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive-Director, said that “We are losing ground in the fight against child labour, and the last year has not made that fight any easier,” adding that:

“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”

An additional 9 million children are at risk of being pushed into labour by 2022 as a result of the pandemic, according to the report; a number which could potentially rise to 46 million if the provision of adequate social protection coverage is disregarded.

Guy Ryder, Director-General of the ILO called the new estimates “a wake-up call”, stating that:

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”

The ILO and UNICEF are now calling on governments to help reverse the upward trend by providing sufficient social protection and increasing investment in education, child protection systems and rural public services.

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