On June 9, 2021, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Henrietta Fore took to Twitter to make a grave declaration: “we are losing ground in the fight against child labor.” Fore’s words marked a sharp departure from years of encouraging news. Between 2000 to 2016, advocacy efforts had succeeded in reducing the number of child laborers by 94 million. COVID-19 has seen this progress halt and reverse. The rapid increase since 2016 of 6.5 million to 79 million children aged five to 17 and working in dangerous conditions provides “a wake-up call,” in the words of International Labor Organization (ILO) Director-General Guy Ryder.
Child labor is a phenomenon fueled by systemic inequities exacerbated by COVID-19. In order to compensate for their parents losing jobs due to the pandemic, children have begun working in conditions of unfair pay, theft, and even violence. As for already employed children, the workplace conditions have only become more hazardous. Such workplace conditions can result in permanent disability, serious injury, physiological damage, and death—the ILO estimates 22,000 children die because of workplace conditions each year. Children, still developing physically, psychologically, and intellectually, are all the more susceptible to dangers in the workplace.
Youth exploited through child labor carry the shadow of exploitation for the rest of their lives—many drop out of school, remain in dangerous conditions for the rest of their lives, and never accumulate the finances to support a quality way of life. As such, many countries have instated strict child labor laws in order to protect their youth, but even under such regulations child labor continues to soar.
In attempts at mitigation, the ILO and UNICEF have sought to focus on directing children into the education system and finding more and higher quality jobs for adults. In Ryder’s words, “We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk […] we are at a pivotal moment and much depends on how we respond.”
Rising child labor numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic spells disaster for millions of children around the globe. As the pandemic rages on, we have a responsibility to act.
By: Emory Wilson