2021: A Year Highlighting Child Labor

The United Nations has named 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labor. Throughout this year, U.N. member states and civil society are being called on to take concrete steps to end the practice of child labor, which involves an estimated 152 million children worldwide.

This global focus on child labor could not come at a more urgent time. Coronavirus restrictions around the world have shut down schools and pushed an estimated 120 million more families into extreme poverty, making it even more likely for children to be burdened with the responsibility to earn income. International agencies such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) are expecting a large increase in child labor this year – a trend that will have enormous implications for years to come.

What exactly constitutes child labor? The ILO defines child labor as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” In addition, it is most often work that interferes with their education or that is “mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous.”

The majority of child labor occurs in the agricultural sector –about 70%. About two-thirds of child laborers work in family enterprises. About half of child laborers work in what is known as “hazardous” labor, or jobs that place them in direct physical danger.

In many societies around the world, it is expected that children will prioritize helping with agricultural labor or providing income for the family over education. This is especially true for girls, whose education is often least valued. Research demonstrates that inappropriate levels or types of child labor can cause significant and lifelong developmental harm for children, which has led to the global movement against child labor.

Now, with families experiencing even more desperate poverty during the coronavirus pandemic, the problem has grown more endemic. The United Nations has estimated that between 2000 and 2020, the number of child laborers had fallen by about 40%, but UNICEF now suggests that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could almost entirely reverse that progress.

Ending the practice of child labor will be no mean feat. Around the world, certain approaches to combating child labor have backfired, such as strict criminalization, which can unfairly target poor families and drive the practice underground, making it even more dangerous. Studies have shown that working against child labor requires an integrated approach that increases social protections and addresses the root causes of the problem, including the structural causes of poverty, lack of incentives for education and other social norms that legitimize the practice.

Despite the challenge, global leaders are urging recommitment to the fight against child labor. “There is no place for child labor in society,” said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder. “It robs children of their future and keeps families in poverty… With COVID-19 threatening to reverse years of progress, we need to deliver on promises now more than ever.”

Faith in action:
• Join us for a webinar on June 9 featuring Maryknoll missioners on the subject of child labor, in honor of the U.N. Year for the Elimination of Child Labor: http://bit.ly/June9EndChildLabor

• Explore the United Nation’s official website for the Year for the Elimination of Child Labor and make a personal pledge for how you can take action: https://endchildlabour2021.org/

The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, based in Washington, D.C., is a resource for Maryknoll on matters of peace, social justice and integrity of creation, and brings Maryknoll’s mission experience into U.S. policy discussions. Phone (202) 832-1780, visit www.maryknollogc.org or email ogc@maryknollogc.org.

To read more columns by MOGC, go to “World Watch.”

Featured Image: A boy makes handicrafts with plant fiber in Bascari, near Legaspi, in the Philippines. (Sean Sprague/Philippines)

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About the author

Kathleen Kollman Birch

Kathleen Kollman Birch is communications manager for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.