160 million children in child labour

160 million children in child labour

Taisha, 16, cooks breakfast, cleans the house and cares for her grandmothers, which takes up most of her day. With her school closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, her chores have increased. She tries to watch educational programmes on television but does not have enough time to keep up. As the only member of her family ever to go to school, she gets very little support.

On 11th June 2021, ahead of the World Day Against Child Labour (12 June), the International Labour Office (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) jointly published the report “Child labour global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward”. The report reveals the trends and characteristics of child labour in the world today as well as provides policy recommendation to protect the rights of child.

According to the report, at the start of 2020, prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 160 million children or 9.6 % of children worldwide were in child labour1. Of the 160 million, 89.3 million were children aged 5 to 11. Nearly half of the 160 million or 79 million were in hazardous work that is, by its nature or circumstances, likely to harm children’s health, safety or morals. 

The new estimates are a wake-up call. We cannot stand by while a new generation of children is put at risk,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder. Although the number of children in child labour had drastically decreased between 2000 to 2016, progress stagnated in the last four years. The percentage remained unchanged, while the absolute number of children in child labour increased by over 8 million from 2016 to 2020.  The report warns that globally, 9 million additional children are at risk of being pushed into child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of the pandemic.

Despite the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8.7, at present, the world does not seem on track to eliminate child labour by 2025.

Profile of children in child labour

Accordingly, child labour is more common for boys than girls (11.2% for boys, 7.8% for girls2). However, it is worth noting that the statistics do not include involvement in household chores in children’s own homes, which girls are disproportionately involved in compared to boys in most societies.

Looking at child labour by sector of economic activity, agriculture is the sector in which child labour is the most prevalent by far for both boys and girls. Besides that, whereas girls are more likely to work in domestic work and other services3, boys seem to work more in the industrial sector such as construction, mining and manufacturing. 

Moreover, without particular attention to protection, most children in child labour face many hazards, for example, exposure to inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and toxic chemicals, physical burden of carrying heavy loads, use of dangerous tools such as machetes, scythes or heavy machinery, or physical, verbal and sexual abuse. These are just a few examples of hazards surrounding child labour. Furthermore, it goes without saying that the isolated nature of certain works, domestic work for example, renders children vulnerable to abuse by their employer.

Return to a path of progress

Facing such an alarming situation, the report concludes with some recommendations. For instance, promoting decent work with a fairer income or extending social protection such as income support or child benefits can mitigate the poverty and economic uncertainty that may drive child labour in the first place. Moreover, ensuring birth registration may help put children in the framework of legal protection. Investing in good-quality and safe schooling may prevent children from entering child labour and provide a chance at a better future. 

Finally, the report calls for international cooperation and partnership. Although the ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182) has achieved the first universal ratification in 2020, the implementation of effective measures to eradicate child labour on the ground remains insufficient. Financing through Official Development Assistance (ODA) can contribute to government budgets of some countries, exchanging experiences and good practices can accelerate change, and partnership between different stakeholders can facilitate collaborative actions and drive innovation. 

To read the full report, here.


1 Child labour comprises “work that children are too young to perform and/or work that, by its nature or circumstances is likely to harm children’s health, safety or morals”.

2 The percentage of children aged 5 to 17 years in child labour.

3 “Other services” include work in commerce, transport and motor vehicle repair.

Photo credit: ILO ( Marcel Crozet ) / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 IGO)

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