A Staggering 160 Million Are Victims of Child Labour

By Simone Galimberti*

The international community commemorates World Day Against Child Labour on June 12

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Jun 11 2021 (IPS) – Among the many daunting issues leaders of the G7 will have to discuss in their upcoming summit in idyllic Cornwall on June 11-13, child labour won’t be on the official agenda.

Yet the latest figures jointly released by ILO and UNICEF in occasion of the upcoming World Day Against Child Labour on 12th June are depicting a very worrying scenario with unprecedented rise of children engaged in work.

Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward”, the latest major publication on the issue, shows that there are now 160 million children in child labour, a rise of 8.4 million in the last four years, a very worrying, though unsurprising finding that is a major blow to the gains of the last two decades.

That’s why it is an imperative that the leaders of the G7 take a stand against this global plague, ensuring that any global strategy focused on “building forward better” must also enlist the fight against child exploitation as a top priority within a broader strategy to reset global development.

At legislative levels there are some encouraging developments that could pave the way for an holistic approach built on the Agenda 2030 that will create a global momentum around global target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The target, after which a global coalition against child labour is named, focuses on “taking immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”.

For example, several countries around the world including France and Netherlands have in place a strong human rights due diligence legislation that compels major corporations to have more robust compliance mechanisms along the lines of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Business Conduct.

The good news is that the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, is expected to come up with a wide-ranging reform package on a mandatory human rights due diligence by the end of year though there is fear this might be further delayed.

Though future negotiations within the complex decision-making system of the EU might water down the final legislation, there is no doubt that the expectations are so high and the level of ambition expected to be found in the final document so large that half cooked measures won’t be accepted by the Parliament whose consent is mandatory for the legislation to be approved.

Amid also news that the G7 is close to a deal on a global taxation agreement that will affect the major world corporations, we might assume that the best and most effective way to tackle child labour “head on” is to force corporates to step up their commitment towards human rights.

Probably this is the most pragmatic manner from a western’s point of view to have child labour again at the center of the global agenda.

Given the almost universal discontent against big business all over the world, this is also perhaps the safest bet to ensure that G7 and G20 nations will not overlook the fight against child labour from their proceedings.

While it is vital that the global leaders meeting over the weekend in a beautiful setting in Cornwall to take a stand on the issue, yet we should not neglect that, most of the times, child labour is a phenomenon thriving out of an enabling environment in the developing world, and in the worst cases, it is almost an intrinsic element of the local fabric.

Oftentimes working children are recruited by small, often informal micro businesses in the developing world, economic entities that are not even under the purview of local tax offices nor those of the mostly ineffective Labour authorities in charge of checking on child labour.

The ILO-UNICEF joint report is clear on this point when it explains that it is “much more common in rural areas with 122.7 million rural children in child labour compared to 37.3 million urban children where children are involved in agriculture related work.

To confirm the trend, according to the report, the “largest share of child labour takes place within families with “72 per cent of all child labour and 83 per cent of child labour among children aged 5 to 11 occurs within families, primarily on family farms or in family microenterprises.”

These insights prove how challenging the fight against child labour has always been in the last two decades despite very encouraging improvements worldwide.

Exercising pressures on big corporations alone won’t suffice also because many of the developing countries with high number of working children are not attractive enough to host manufacturing sites that elsewhere are technically run by local contractors often in breach of the most basic human rights provisions.

To really build forward better, G7 and the G20 need to go well beyond a much-needed equitable distribution and production of vaccines, a mammoth task itself.

They need to come up with ambitious plans that will mobilize massive amounts of resources in unprecedented figures that will help developing nations not only to transit towards a net zero future but doing so by also ensuring a far greater equity in the national development outcomes pursued by developing nations that must be inclusive of the most vulnerable segments of their populations.

It means dealing with child labour not as a standing alone problem but as a part of a bigger strategy able to close the faulting lines so common in many emerging nations, like weak public health and poor education, lack of dignified job opportunities, all scars of remarkable but unfair economic pre-pandemic growths that proved to be unable to truly trickle down.

World leaders should go tough on billionaires and uncanny global corporations but at the same time they should remember the fight against child labour is a priority and an essential pillar to build a more equitable world.

A way for them to start would be to come up with an urgent plan of action to back those nations in the Pathfinders Initiative, countries who showed in the past commitment against child labour but whose efforts are now at risk of a brutal reversal.

Bold action is a must especially if we do not want to make a contempt of Year for the Elimination of Child Labour that happens to be undergoing unnoticed by most.

Eliminating child labour by 2025 might be out of reality but taking meaningful actions in that direction now is not.


*The Author, Co-Founder of ENGAGE, a not-for-profit NGO in Nepal, writes on volunteerism, social inclusion, youth development and regional integration as an engine to improve people’s lives. He can be reached at simone_engage@yahoo.com