On November 20, 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted as an act of recognition and worldwide commitment to children and their full physical, mental and social development, as individuals with rights and agents with their own voice. This agreement has been supported and promoted through different global initiatives that seek to highlight the importance of guaranteeing a full childhood that is not interrupted by conflicts and problems in the environment, which lead girls and boys to assume new roles or to be exposed to high-risk situations, when carrying out jobs at an early age, limiting their right to education and entertainment. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes, through goal 8.7, the need for immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery, human trafficking, and child labor.
The ratification of this human rights agreement and the efforts made to comply with the SDGs, specifically goal 8.7, have become a tool to transform the lives of girls and boys around the world. However, global challenges persist: child labor, which today extends to production chains, crops, machine shops, domestic services and the streets, is causing childhood to end before time.
It is important to mention that this problem is the result of a series of socioeconomic phenomena such as poverty, informality, violence, the absence of social infrastructure, natural disasters, among others, which limit the opportunities for a sustainable life of both girls and boys.
Child labor in numbers
The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as “all work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is detrimental to their physical and mental development”. According to the report Child labor – Global Estimates 2020, trends and the road forward, prepared by the ILO and UNICEF:
- 160 million girls and boys between the ages of 5 and 17 are victims of child labor, among them 79 million are in a situation of dangerous child labor.
- 60.7% of children in this situation are boys and 55.8% are between 5 and 11 years old.
- The prevalence of child labor in rural areas (13.9%) is almost three times higher than in urban areas (4.7%).
- 70% of the girls and boys who perform child labor carry out activities associated with agriculture (fishing, forestry, livestock, aquaculture and agriculture).
- 72.1% of the girls and boys in child labor work in their own family unit.
- Sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest prevalence percentage (23.9%) while Europe and North America represent the region with the lowest prevalence (2.3%).
- Although the percentage difference in the prevalence of child labor between low-income (26.2%) and upper-middle-income (4.9%) countries is alarming (21.3%), it also indicates that the problem is global in nature and requires attention in all cases.
- The annual average rate of reduction in the percentage of children between the ages of 5 and 17 in child labor required for its elimination was calculated at 35.8% in 2025.
This data highlights the need for immediate action to counteract the setback seen in global efforts to eliminate child labor, that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased. Governments and civil society, the private sector and the community must have a common objective to prevent this situation from becoming a vicious cycle that perpetuates both social exclusion and poverty.
Global supply chains
The eradication of child labor requires addressing multiple factors that occur in different sectors such as global supply chains,  which although an engine of economic growth, promotion of innovation and job creation, the existence of legal loopholes, among other factors, can lead to the violation of human rights, including those of girls, boys and adolescents. According to the ILO, OECD, IOM & UNICEF (2019), the highest percentage of child labor linked to export goods and services is observed in the East and South-East Asia region (26%), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (22%).
On the other hand, in all regions, between 28% and 43% of child labor contributes to exports indirectly, that is, through the initial levels of the supply chain such as the extraction of raw materials, being the food products the main industry in this category for all regions except Central Asia and South Asia where textiles and clothing rank first (ILO, OECD, IOM & UNICEF, 2019).
Thus, the fight against child labor in global supply chains is not limited to controlling and supervising those who participate in the final levels of the production chain, but, on the contrary, requires a detailed analysis of the contractual dynamics of initial suppliers and the applicability of national, sectoral and local regulations. Likewise, this challenge transcends the workplace and involves all the participants in the production and consumption chains. For this reason, creating transparency mechanisms, such as management reports rigorously supported by the State, that allow clients and consumers, civil society and academia to evaluate companies is essential.
Child labor and the pandemic
A little more than a year ago, the world paused in the presence of a new global pandemic that required emergency measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and safeguard life. Measures such as the cancellation of classes and economic activities and lockdowns for months, could imply significant risks of setbacks in different dimensions: social, economic, educational, gender, etc.
Today it is possible to see how these risks crystallize in an unprecedented economic recession with uneven results across regions and countries. For example, in 2020, the Latin American economy contracted by 7.0% and India experienced a recession of 8.0% (IMF, 2021). In this same year, the world unemployment rate stood at 6.5% (World Bank, 2021), the highest record in recent decades that reduces social protection for a large number of people and their families, in addition to putting informality on the table as an income option.
The above factors have led to a reduction in household income, increasing the probability that girls and boys will have to contribute financially to the household, which forces them to perform dangerous jobs. In 2020, for the first time in four years, child labor increased by 8.4 million children (ILO & UNICEF, 2021). In addition, faced with financial difficulties, families tend to make cuts in different areas, including schooling. More than three quarters of children aged 5 to 11 and more than a third of children aged 12 to 14 in child labor are not in school (ILO & UNICEF, 2021). Which, together with the closure of schools, can deepen the crisis of both child labor and the gender role where girls tend to occupy a greater role in the household chores.
According to the report COVID-19 and School Closures, one in seven students from pre-primary to higher education has lost more than three-quarters of face-to-face education due to the suspension of classes. Between March 2020 and February 2021, schools have been completely closed for 95 school days globally, affecting 168 million students. Even when the health crisis is over, the economic effects will have long-term repercussions, hindering the reintegration of girls and boys into schools, and promoting their participation in child labor. An estimated 8.9 million more children will be in child labor by the end of 2022 as a result of increasing poverty (ILO & UNICEF, 2021).
Child labor is a violation of the rights of children, and although widely recognized, its eradication has been a historical challenge that has erupted in all areas of society and manifests the need for joint actions by all actors through comprehensive public policies that address the problem from a multidimensional perspective, including both girls, boys and adolescents as well as their families and caregivers
Therefore, addressing child labor requires the alignment of educational, social, labor, economic, and migratory protection strategies, among others, promoted by a political will that guarantees all children and adolescents access to the conditions and opportunities to build a future of their own.
Thus, the year 2021 has been established as the international year for the elimination of child labor where the call is focused on moving from commitments to actions and creating regional roadmaps to avoid the increase in child labor as a result of COVID- 19. We join this call to act, inspire and contribute from our individual endeavors to the achievement of goal 8.7.