Child labor increased in 2020 despite decades of efforts to reduce unsafe, exploitative labor practices, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report published Sept. 29.

Of the 233 million working children in the world in 2020, 160 million were in conditions of child labor (up from 152 million in 2019) and 79 million of the 160 million were in hazardous child labor situations (up from 73 million).

This means around 10% of the world’s children are in child labor situations, and around 5% in hazardous child labor situations. The report defines these categories as follows:

  • Working children: “Those engaged in any productive activity for at least 1 hour during the reference period. Productive activity includes market production and certain types of non-market production, principally the production of goods and services for their families’ use.”
  • Child labor: “Work below the minimum age for work, as established in national legislation that conforms to international standards.”
  • Hazardous child labor: “Work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety, or morals of children.”

After several decades of decline in child labor from 246 million in 2000 to 152 million in 2016, the numbers flatlined, before increasing to 160 million by 2020.

The DOL report cited a June 2021 International Labor Organization (ILO) projection of an additional 8.9 million in child labor by 2022 without increases in social protection measures. As many as 46 million more could enter child labor in the next two years, the ILO reports, if social protection measures decline.

While COVID-19 itself has played a role in the increase, the pandemic also illuminated and exacerbated pre-existent challenges to efforts aimed at reducing child labor.

“The latest global estimates also show that the majority of child labor is among boys, is rural and agricultural, takes place within families, and is deeply entwined with a lack of access to education,” the DOL report said. “Gaps in access to education and a lack of access to social programs, coupled with key global trends that worsen child labor risks, have left children and their families even more vulnerable to labor and human rights abuses.”

Children not in education programs are far more likely to be in child labor, with around 25% of children aged 5-11 and around 33% of those aged 12-14 being in child labor.

A December 2020 World Bank report found that, at the height of the pandemic, only 6% of children worldwide were attending in-person learning opportunities, with an estimated 72 million falling behind as a result.

“The inability to access schooling for any reason has long been a driver of child labor,” the DOL report said. “With schools closed, families may encourage children to work, even in harmful conditions, to earn money for food and other necessities, especially as many children depend on schools for the meals they offer.”

Other factors contributing to child labor include armed conflicts, government corruption and instability, climate change, forced displacement and gender inequality.

Migrant workers and their children are among the most vulnerable to labor abuses, including child labor. Agricultural roles accounted for 70% of children in child labor, compared to 19.7% in service and 10.3% in industry jobs.

“Progress made over decades continues to erode, fueled by employer abuses and worsened by the global pandemic,” said Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs Thea Lee in a press release announcing the report. “Working together with the global community, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs will use our leverage, resources and voice to protect children worldwide.”

A “Sweat and Toil” app was created by the Department of Labor to make it easier to review and find country-delineated and item-specific data on child labor-produced goods. It is available here.

In addition, an interactive Better Trade Tool has been created that allows you to search by country, good / product type, labor exploitation situation and/or year to see where goods produced by child labor are coming from.

The full report on child labor is available here. A report on forced labor will be released by the DOL later this year.

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