COVID-19 Crisis: Spike in Child Labour Underway, ILO, UNICEF, Warn

After two decades of progress, there are growing concerns within the United Nations that child labour will spike as a result of the raging COVID-19 crisis.  

This is a menace that commonly affects children in Nigeria due to the harsh economic conditions of most families.

On the streets of the Niger Delta and Eastern Nigeria, it is a common sight to see children hawking to assist their parents and guardians.

362 children (6–17 years of age) from farming households in Nigeria’s oil and gas region were interviewed by researchers. 

The research found that children were highly involved in most of the farming activities that are considered hazardous. The reasons given by the farming household heads for the engagement of household children in farming activities included cultural, economic, and political factors. 

Most of the children combined schooling and farming activities. The research data showed that there was no significant relationship in the level of involvement of children in agricultural labour between some states in the Niger Delta, but it showed a significant difference in the nature of farming activities in which the children were involved. 

Agricultural development implies that these conditions will lead to the transmission of agricultural knowledge, technical, and social skills from generation to generation. 

It is recommended that a compromise should be reached between schooling and the involvement of children in farming activities; children should always be made to wear protective gear when they carry out hazardous farming operations, and their involvement and technical education in agricultural skills should give them a future positive interest in agriculture as a career/profession.

However, a new brief from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF say millions of more children risk being pushed into child labour as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, which could lead to the first rise in child labour.

According to COVID-19 and child labour: A time of crisis, a time to act, child labour decreased by 94 million since 2000, but that gain is now at risk.

Global estimates in 2017 showed that 152 million children were in child labour worldwide.

Children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions, the report says. More of them may be forced into the worst forms of labour, which causes significant harm to their health and safety.

ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, says “as the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes, without support, many could resort to child labour. Social protection is vital in times of crisis, as it assists those who are most vulnerable. Integrating child labour concerns across broader policies for education, social protection, justice, labour markets, and international human and labour rights makes a critical difference.”

According to the brief, COVID-19 could result in a rise in poverty and therefore to an increase in child labour as households use every available means to survive. Some studies show that a one percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 per cent increase in child labour in certain countries.

UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore, says “in times of crisis, child labour becomes a coping mechanism for many families. As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce. 

‘’As we re-imagine the world post-COVID, we need to make sure that children and their families have the tools they need to weather similar storms in the future. Quality education, social protection services and better economic opportunities can be game-changers.”

Vulnerable population groups – such as those working in the informal economy and migrant workers – will suffer most from the economic downturn, increased informality and unemployment, the general fall in living standards, health shocks and insufficient social protection systems, among other pressures.

Evidence is gradually mounting that child labour is rising as schools close during the pandemic. Temporary school closures are currently affecting more than 1 billion learners in over 130 countries. Even when classes restart, some parents may no longer be able to afford to send their children to school.

As a result, more children could be forced into exploitative and hazardous jobs. Gender inequalities may grow more acute, with girls particularly vulnerable to exploitation in agriculture and domestic work, the brief says.

The brief proposes several measures to counter the threat of increased child labour, including more comprehensive social protection, easier access to credit for poor households, the promotion of decent work for adults, measures to get children back into school, including the elimination of school fees, and more resources for labour inspections and law enforcement.

ILO and UNICEF are developing a simulation model to look at the impact of COVID-19 on child labour globally. New global estimates on child labour will be released in 2021.

Meanwhile, ILO is the only tripartite UN agency that brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member states, to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men since 1919.

On the other hand, UNICEF works in some of the world’s toughest places, to reach the world’s most disadvantaged children. Across more than 190 countries and territories, it works for every child, everywhere, to build a better world for everyone.

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