Child labor is one of the biggest roadblocks to human rights worldwide. It deprives children of their childhood, potential, and dignity. Every year, as many as 218 million children aged 5 to 17 engage in child labor, working in jobs that deprive them of their childhood, interfere with schooling, or harm their mental, physical, or social development. Nearly half of them work under hazardous conditions, including digging in open-pit mines and carrying heavy loads on construction sites.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, many experts fear that this could increase the risks of child labor across the world. Children, particularly those who live in marginalized communities, are at higher risk of exploitation as parents fall deeper into poverty. Some may even force their kids to send them into the labor market while others seeking employment risk being trafficked for forced labor.
The Increasing Risks of Child Labor
Child labor is a violation of both child protection and child rights. In 1999, about 151 countries signed an international law that prohibits the worst forms of child labor, including debt bondage, child trafficking, all forms of slavery or slavery-like practices, forced recruitment of children in armed conflict, prostitution, and many more. Since then, the number of children exploited decreased by 94 million, a dramatic global reduction.
While this is huge progress, the incidence of child labor increased in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 134 million children in forced labor are in Africa and the region of Asia and the Pacific. Most of them work on farms that produce consumer products such as cocoa, coffee, cotton, rubber, and other crops. About 20 million child workers worldwide are employed in factories that make garments, carpets, toys, matches, and hand-rolled cigarettes.
GFA.org reported that if the 218 million child laborers constituted a country of their own, it would be the fifth-largest country in the world, exceeded in population only by China, India, the US, and Indonesia. Guy Ryder, the Director-General of the International Labor Organization (ILO), said that over 2.78 million work-related deaths and 374 million injuries and illnesses are caused by child labor. A report also revealed that about 10% of all work-related injuries child laborers experience are crushing accidents, amputations, and fractures.
“If these were the victims of a war, we would be talking a lot about it. Children and young workers are at greater risk and suffer disproportionately and with longer-lasting consequences,” Ryder said.
Child labor worldwide could increase due to the impacts of COVID-19. Experts said that they are more likely to be engaged in harmful jobs now that they are out of school. Virus-induced restrictions could also lead to disruptions in the cocoa supply chain, which would cause economic distress among rural cocoa farmers. A recent report by the International Cocoa Initiative found that due to a drop in cocoa price, there’s been a 10% fall in income, leading to an increase in child labor by more than 5%.
How the Pandemic Makes it Worse
Children are amongst the most vulnerable during this pandemic not only because they can get infected by the virus but also because there’s a huge possibility that they can be exploited. Since many schools are closing for indefinite periods of time, children lacking access to the internet and technology will be unable to participate in remote self-guided learning during school closures. Previous studies have shown that kids who are not enrolled in school are at a much higher risk of child labor. When schools reopen, parents without jobs may not have the money to pay for school fees, supplies, and uniforms.
According to Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that defends the rights of people, widespread job and income loss, as well as economic insecurity, are likely to increase rates of child labor, sexual exploitation, teenage pregnancy, and child marriage. “The risks posed by the COVID-19 crisis to children are enormous. Governments need to act urgently to protect children during the pandemic, but also to consider how their decisions now will best uphold children’s rights after the crisis ends,” Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said.
It is estimated that millions of children will be left orphaned after this pandemic as experts estimate that the global total of COVID-19 deaths could eventually reach 10 to 40 million. Previous studies revealed that orphaned children are particularly vulnerable to child labor, trafficking, and exploitation, including sexual exploitation, forced begging, selling goods on the streets, and more.
It is also likely that there will be an increasing rate not only of child labor but also child marriage because of the global economic downturn caused by the crisis. Research has shown that child labor is highly associated with financial shocks experienced by a family, such as illness, disability, or a parent’s loss of employment. Before the pandemic, statistics showed that 218 million children were already engaged in child labor and 12 million girls were married each year before their 18th birthday. These figures will rise without the governments supporting families that struggle to meet their basic needs.
A recent report by Europol reported increased online activity by people who look for child abuse material due to the pandemic. Children are now more at risk of online sexual exploitation because they spend a lot of time online due to school shutdowns. This can make them anxious or lonely because of isolation and confinement, making them more vulnerable to online predators.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted grave weaknesses in many countries’ protections for children, including inadequate health care and social protection systems, overcrowded detention facilities, and the lack of emergency plans for large-scale school shutdowns,” Becker said.
According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, governments need to ensure that child labor laws are in line with international labor conventions and that such laws are enforced through regular inspections. They also need to provide access to free and quality education for children, while supporting vulnerable families through social protections and income support.
“The choices governments make now are crucial, not only to mitigate the worst harm of the pandemic, but also to benefit children over the long term,” Becker added.