For nearly two decades, the use of child labor had been on a very promising downward trend. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis has reversed it. While child labor had been decreasing since the year 2000, a UNICEF report released last June states that the number of children engaged in child labor has now risen to 160 million worldwide. The report further 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.” And, children who had already been engaged in child labor were pushed to work longer hours or in worse conditions, especially where employers might have taken advantage of cutbacks in labor safety inspections.
Job losses in the family increased financial pressures. For families who might have gotten ill with COVID, time off work increases financial burden. The costs of treatment also can increase financial burden–and that’s aside from the burden on the families who suffered the loss of a loved one. “In less than two years, 100 million more children have fallen into poverty, a 10 per cent increase since 2019.” (Source: UNICEF, “Preventing a Lost Decade”)
School closures meant families had to scramble to come up with alternatives: things to keep the children occupied, as well as other sources of income. It was especially dire for children who depended on schools for access to food at lunch. Many resorted to sending their children to work.
The losses, for children and society, are almost incalculable. Here are some of the impacts.
First, Loss of Education
Disruption to learning came as schools closed down or switched to pared-down models. As a UNICEF report explains, “disruption to education has meant millions of children have significantly missed out on the academic learning they would have acquired if they had been in the classroom, with younger and more marginalized children facing the greatest loss.” Losses have been observed in reading and math abilities, sometimes up to entire grade levels. Far too many children dropped out of school altogether. Simply opening schools back up again would not be enough, for many, to recover these losses. It could require an extended period of dedicated effort to recover.
Then There’s the Mental Health Impact
School closures and isolation from social contact has led to an increase in anxiety and depression amongst young people, even smaller children. This happened even for those in safe and secure homes – imagine how much worse for those who were sent to work in poor conditions to help support their families.
Then There’s the Inequality of Access to Tech & Learning
The deepening digital divide, where so many children were left behind (especially poorer children, rural children, girls compared to boys, with schools or teachers that weren’t able to adapt, and those in home environments with lots of disruptions or noise), is such a huge issue, with many complicated parts (including digital security and privacy). The implications, however, are that it exacerbates existing inequalities, making it that much harder for those in more disadvantaged situations to be able to scramble to keep up. It creates knock-on effects for their future prospects and hopes for escaping poverty.
There’s the Impact on Older Youth Employment & Implications
For youth in the 15-24 year age range, other impacts were felt. These youths seek employment not only to support their families, but also as an important part of their development, to gain job experience as they begin their paths to later careers. A report from the ILO and the Asian Development Bank in mid-2020 stated that the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a massive disruption in employment, with disproportionate impacts on youth employment in Asia and the Pacific. They anticipated youth would be hit harder than adults, and that they would bear more of the costs. This stems from the fact that youth tended to be employed in sectors that were hit hardest, like retail, accommodation, and food services. Compounded with disruptions to their education and job training, it will be that much harder for them to gain a foothold in future employment opportunities.
Challenges in Child Labor to Overcome Post-COVID
As we emerge from acute crisis and hopefully into an endemic stage with COVID, key challenges in this area will be to address widening gender and socioeconomic inequalities in access to education, get infrastructures on board to help close digitization gaps, invest extra resources to recover losses in learning, and support families with income alternatives so they don’t feel compelled to resort to child labor.