UN warns coronavirus may push millions of children into underage labour

Coronavirus pandemic may spark the first rise in child labour since 2000, the United Nations warned.

child labour africa
Children dig and move dirt to make bricks and build houses in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Image: CIFOR, CC BY-SA 2.0

The coronavirus pandemic has put millions of children at risk of being pushed into underage labour, reversing two decades of work to combat the practice and potentially marking the first rise in child labour since 2000, the United Nations warned on Friday.

As the pandemic pummels the global economy, pushing millions of people into poverty, families may be under pressure to put their children to work for survival, the UN said, marking the World Day Against Child Labor.

“As the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes, without support, many could resort to child labour,” said Guy Ryder, director-general of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency, in a statement.

“Social protection is vital in times of crisis, as it provides assistance to those who are most vulnerable.”

Due to global shutdowns, the world economy is forecast to shrink 3.2 per cent this year, according to a Reuters poll of more than 250 economists.

As the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes, without support, many could resort to child labour.

Guy Ryder, director-general, International Labour Organization 

Forecasts for global economic growth had tended to range from 2.3 per cent to 3.6 per cent before the pandemic struck.

The number of child labourers worldwide has dropped significantly to 152 million children from 246 million in 2000, according to the ILO.

To prevent a rise in exploitation, the UN called upon governments to integrate child labour concerns into broader pieces of legislation, including policy on education, labour markets and human rights protections.

Some countries have begun to do so.

This month, Brazilian labour authorities launched a national campaign to help combat potential child labour, commissioning a song about child slavery to be written by well-known rappers Emicida and Drik Barbosa.

The recent death of an 8-year-old maid in Pakistan prompted the government to propose legislative changes to make it illegal for children to do domestic work.

Advocates also warn that children are susceptible to being put to work while schools are closed in the effort to stop the spread of coronavirus.

“As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce,” said Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, the UN children’s agency.

A nonprofit group in Ethiopia launched a novel way to keep thousands of children reading while school was out of session - deploying camels carrying wooden boxes filled with storybooks.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate.

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