For the first time in 20 years, progress toward ending child labor has taken a step backward. “Child labor globally is rising, not falling. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of children in child labor globally increased from 152 million to 160 million,” said Thea Lee, Deputy Under Secretary of Labor for International Affairs.
“Those figures are through the beginning of 2020, and we know that COVID has actually made this problem much worse, that it has thrown families into poverty, and it has disrupted economies and supply chains, and that has put many more children … at even heightened risk.”
Of the 160 million, more than 72 million children live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the International Labor Organization.
Many of them are denied an education and toil in hazardous working conditions as child soldiers, cobalt miners, and cocoa workers. Some are treated as little more than slaves. Others are lured by fraud into dangerous and degrading work.
Speaking in mid-May at the 5th Global Conference to Eliminate Child Labor, Deputy Under Secretary Lee said that this is a moment of crisis. “We know that children workers and adult workers in forced labor are often in the shadows.”
“Many are out of reach of regulations. They work in homes, in mines, or in fields that labor inspectors rarely visit and at the bottom end of global supply chains, far out of sight of the consumers who ultimately purchase their products.”
For its part, the U.S. Government is using a mix of approaches to the problem, said Under Secretary Lee. “We use our research and reporting, but we also use trade enforcement and monitoring. We use technical assistance projects, … and we use multilateral engagement and labor diplomacy to address these issues. … Being able to track what happens and where goods go through the global supply chain is a critical tool in the fight to end labor exploitation.”
“We’re looking at critical supply chains – like cocoa from West Africa; cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; polysilicon from China, which is a key input into solar panels; and many others.”
“Child labor is a form of child abuse,” said Under Secretary Lee. “It is the job of governments to make sure that nobody is profiting from exploitation of children because this is a heinous crime.”