* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
World must capitalise on the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour after COVID-19 setback
Mark Sheard is CEO of World Vision UK
Few people will have made it through the past 10 months without saying they are looking forward to the end of 2020, branded ‘the worst year ever’ by Time magazine’s December cover.
The hope of a rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine – and life returning to some semblance of normal – in 2021 is much anticipated. But there are many other reasons to look forward to the coming year, not least that it has been declared by the UN General Assembly as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour.
Sponsored by more than 70 countries, this declaration reaffirms a commitment to end child labour in all its forms by 2025, presenting a significant opportunity to accelerate the global anti-child labour movement as big promises are translated into practices on the ground.
This is a challenging time on almost every level for almost every human on earth, and we’ve seen child labour rates soar on a global level as a result of the pandemic.
According to estimates made by the International Labour Office in 2016, 152 million children were engaged in child labour; 73 million of them in hazardous work, and up to a quarter of these were under the age of 12. Global progress was being made but coronavirus has set us back considerably.
A World Vision study in July found that as jobs were lost en masse and family incomes fell, millions of children were being forced into begging, child labour and early marriage as parents struggled to put food on the table.
We warned then that without immediate action to protect people’s livelihoods, the impact of the pandemic would reverse progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals and irreparably damage the lives of current and future generations of children.
Investment in ending child labour for good has never been more needed. It’s for that reason that the UN’s declaration is particularly timely.
The UN’s focus on this complex issue will provide opportunities for the redrawing of national laws and policies, with greater accountability for commitments to reduce harmful child labour. A focus on global supply chains could result in framing clear expectations for the private sector, and opportunities to work with suppliers.
It offers a chance to establish an achievable, global framework, while events, forums and platforms will strengthen collaboration between actors in the field, allowing them to share ideas, experiences and actions.
It also presents the opportunity for a focus on adding to the scant body of research evidence about how to reduce child labour, such as that currently underway by the PACE consortium in Ethiopia, CAR and DRC. Viable alternatives to sending children out to dangerous work are essential.
International trade continues to decline as a result of the pandemic, meaning lower living standards and more families struggling to feed their kids. The closing of borders and businesses means that already vulnerable communities are suffering from inflation and reduced incomes, inevitably leading to an increase in child labour as a means of family survival.
Not to mention that more people slipping into poverty worldwide creates even more complex and fragile environments within which to address something as complicated as child labour.
But there is a need to balance swift and decisive action with carefully tested and contextually appropriate measures that can achieve both systemic and sustainable change, mitigating the risks of displacing the problem or only achieving short term ‘wins’.
One of the greatest challenges is the lack of nuanced understanding of the issue and contexts surrounding child labour. The lack of wider understanding of the issues and how to best address them can often result in short-term, knee-jerk responses.
In many places around the world children can be involved in work which is a crucial part of their education and vocational training, or even their place in society. However hazardous, harmful and forced work – the worst forms of child labour – never has a place.
So despite the challenges we face as 2020 comes to an end, it’s not all bad news. Even the pandemic itself has presented its own opportunity: the disruption of global supply chains means a chance to rebuild better systems that will protect the most vulnerable long into the future.
World leaders, the private sector, academia, media and legal organisations, NGOs, schools, parents and children themselves are all part of the solution. All are needed to have a real chance to make a lasting change in 2021 and beyond. After a testing year, we’ve got to grab this moment with both hands.