Gains in battle against child labor washed away by pandemic
In September 2015, world leaders met in New York under the aegis of the UN and set up the Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG), identifying 17 broad and common objectives to achieve by the year 2030. These addressed a wide range of developmental challenges haunting humanity such as poverty, illiteracy, inequality and access to health, housing, clean water and air, as well as establishing several parameters to ensure the world adopted sustainability as its key mantra.
One of the key targets was the elimination of child labor in all its forms by 2025. It looked like an achievable target, especially in view of the significant progress made since the turn of the century in the reduction of child labor in Asia and Latin America, two of the three biggest areas where this problem had been rampant. From 2000 to 2016, the number of children in work had fallen dramatically by more than 94 million.
This achievement was on the back of sustained and healthy rates of economic growth and relative political stability in these two regions, for both economic progress and political stability are key conditions for ending child labor.
The only problem area remained in Africa where in the absence of either, child labor flourished, including the most inhumane form — the use of thousands of children as soldiers in the dozens of chronic conflicts on the continent.
Thus, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2016 there remained about 152 million children still in work globally with as many as 73 million of them performing hazardous work that placed their health, safety or moral development at risk. Africa was in the worst place with 20 percent of children still involved in child labor.
ILO noted that 50 percent of child labor incidents occur in lower-middle and upper-middle income countries and that the problem was more prevalent in areas facing conflict and disasters. However, attaining the goal of elimination of child labor by 2025 had looked achievable.
And then the pandemic happened. Though there is no clear data on the 2016-2019 period, it would be safe to assume that the downward march of child labor had continued, albeit at a varying pace across the world as the economy in parts of Latin America and Asia, notably India and Pakistan, faced a challenging situation.
The pandemic has been nothing short of a catastrophe for child labor. With almost all countries experiencing the worst economic performances in more than half a century and GDP falling anywhere between 5 percent to 12 percent across the world, children seem to be paying a disproportionate price for the pandemic.
Children have had to deal with more than a year of school closures. Online classes have been disastrous in developing countries since many families and children lack access to the internet or a device for them to use for most of the day. With schools closed and family income under severe distress due to job losses that reached several hundred million last year, there has been a sharp rise in the number of children in employment again.
According to a report earlier in the week by UNICEF and ILO, at least 8.4 million more children were forced to work again last year, making it the first global rise in several years.
Unlike in the past when most children at work were older, the pandemic has seen a significant rise in the number of children aged 5 to 11 years in child labor, who now account for just over half of the total global figure.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Unlike in the past when most children at work were older, the pandemic has seen a significant rise in the number of children aged 5 to 11 years in child labor, who now account for just over half of the total global figure. Also, the number of children aged 5 to 17 years in hazardous work has risen to 79 million.
The UN bodies go on to say that cases could rise five times higher should the economic situation worsen further than at the time of the survey. They project the number to increase by as many as 46 million more children, annulling the gains made by several decades of work by governments and civil society organizations across the world.
Catastrophic as it looks, that estimate may turn out to be conservative when the dust settles on the pandemic. Many countries in the developing world, from Southeast Asia to Latin America, have been struggling with a second wave of the pandemic that has proven to be much more severe and deadly than even the first one last year. It is too early for data to emerge from the worst-hit countries and those where data collection is delayed due to the pandemic and/or conflicts.
Indeed, there has also been a rise in conflict, both armed and social, in many countries in Africa and Latin America as well as nations such as Myanmar and Thailand. This, too, will have an impact on child labor cases.
Children in sub-Saharan Africa remain most vulnerable. Armed conflict in dozens of countries as well as extended drought has only accentuated poverty and pushed more children into work. The real numbers will take a while to emerge.
Though Latin America and most of Asia are not in armed conflict, there has been civil unrest in most countries, including Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Columbia, Bolivia and Peru. These countries have suffered tremendously due to the pandemic and their economies remain in the doldrums. This is bound to have had a serious impact on the incidence of child labor.
Similarly, in India, gross mismanagement by the political leadership of both the economy and the battle against COVID-19 has seen the country reel under an unprecedented crisis for more than 18 months. There are reports of several hundreds of thousands of children being forced back into work, reversing the impressive gains made by the country in the 2000-2016 period.
Projections by the UNICEF-ILO may need to revisited again in 2022 to see the real impact of the pandemic on child labor. And my bet is the picture will not be a pretty one.
To deal with the aftermath, governments, not just of the developing nations, but especially the developed ones, will need to step up funding to recreate destroyed social security and education systems to ensure that the battle against child labor continues and is won — if not by 2025, then at least by 2030, the deadline for most of the other UNSDGs.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.