SEATTLE, Washington — COVID-19’s impact on child labor threatens the strides made in the past two decades to reduce it by 30%. Because of school closures and general global unemployment, children worldwide are increasingly encouraged to work, putting themselves at risk of exploitation. Studies have shown that poverty directly correlates with child labor by a factor of 0.7. As a result, the number of children in forced labor could skyrocket by 28 to 42 million by the end of 2020. With child labor protection laws already challenging to enforce amid the pandemic, governments must not allow these laws to weaken as countries face more labor shortages. In doing so, they leave these children vulnerable to hazardous work, forced labor and human trafficking.
Shedding Light on the Causes
Since children not enrolled in school are at a higher risk of child labor, the current school closures affecting more than 90% of students worldwide are concerning international organizations working to fight child labor and exploitation. “As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce,” explains UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore. Historically, families have turned to children in times of economic hardship—a phenomenon witnessed during the Ebola crisis lockdowns in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Consequently, once children start working, they are also less likely to re-enroll in school and may drop out permanently. Even when schools open again, due to COVID-19 causing lower wages and fewer jobs, students may not be able to afford enrollment costs.
The escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused more children to become orphans, making them vulnerable to exploitative labor practices. Governments have reduced social service provisions, such as free meal programs and health services, so these orphaned children may have no choice but to break stay-at-home orders and sell goods on the street. This places them at a higher risk of contracting the virus, falling prey to human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Which Industries are Most Impacted?
During the current economic contraction, businesses are looking to cut production costs by hiring children who are typically willing to work for little to no pay. These businesses mainly fall under the agricultural sector, where 71% of the 152 million child laborers work. Cocoa, coffee and other industries with low production costs have already relied on child labor before the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the epidemic threatens to worsen those children’s circumstances by lengthening work hours and worsening hazardous conditions. A report from the International Cocoa Initiative concluded that when a drop in cocoa prices decreased income by 10%, it also caused child labor to increase by 4%. As prices continue dropping, companies will respond by slashing already-low wages or turning to forced labor.
Child labor is also prevalent in industries with a lack of regulation, such as the rural and informal sectors. COVID-19 has exacerbated this problem by presenting a set of unique challenges, including travel restrictions, that prevent child labor auditors from properly enforcing child protection laws. However, recently, the urban informal sector has experienced a surge in child labor as well. When states sealed their borders and shut down local transport facilities, city businesses faced a shortage of workers after migrant workers could not travel to work. The limited access to adult labor increased demand for local city workers, especially children.
Solutions to Address Child Labor Amid COVID-19
Foreign direct investment is a critical tool in raising income and, thus, reducing child labor. Foreign and domestic governments can mitigate COVID-19’s impact on child labor by contributing to improving social protection and assistance. This method does not have to be expensive. For example, small cash transfers to impoverished households, as seen in the early stages of Jordan’s COVID-19 response that helped 190,000 families, can disincentivize children from turning to possibly hazardous work. Other measures include expanding access to social services, such as health care and food security. Guaranteeing necessities for children and their families provides some safety nets for them to fall back on.
Another program aimed at providing social protection services and better economic opportunities is World Vision’s Campos de Esperanza project in Mexico. The project targets youth with the highest risk of engaging in hazardous and exploitative labor, namely those from migrant and agricultural communities. Ismael Solis, a regional manager for World Vision Mexico, foresees “having a direct effect on 500 children through our intervention in this project and having indirect effects on 2,000 more.” World Vision works with government social programs, schools and local businesses to address the numerous causes behind child labor ranging from familial pressures to larger companies’ deceitful labor practices. Since school closures had such a significant impact on increasing child labor, the project has also found success in referring families to quality education alternatives during the pandemic.
Governments must orient their solutions toward reducing children’s exploitation to combat COVID-19’s impact on child labor. These solutions must address the lack of social protection services that encourage children to consider exploitative labor practices. Child labor is not only an effect of poverty; it is a direct cause of it by reinforcing intergenerational cycles of poverty. Moving forward, without governments prioritizing quality education and economic opportunities for these children, the problem of child laborers being robbed of the knowledge and skills to break out of the continuum of poverty will only grow.