Alarming new child labour numbers reiterate the need for quality public education

published 11 June 2021 updated 20 June 2024

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children pushed into child labour has reached 160 million, a 8,4 million increase, with 9 million more at risk. This alarming trend can be effectively addressed by making quality public education accessible to all, a top priority worldwide.

The impact of the COVID 19 pandemic with its accompanying school closures and economic crisis, is being felt by millions of children who have been pushed into the labour force at a devastating rate.

The number of children forced into child labour has reached an alarming 160 million worldwide according to the latest numbers from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF. This is an increase of 8,4 million since the last report 4 years ago.

The report stresses that for the first time in two decades the progress towards the eradication of child labour has been halted. There has also been a worrying increase in the number of children between the ages of 5 to 11 who are now working instead of attending school. This is more than half of all children worldwide.

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed millions of children into child labour. Nine million more are at risk of joining the ranks of child labourers by the end of 2022, and if urgent measures aren't taken the number could reach 46 million more.

Education unions take the lead to eradicate child labour

EI affiliates in thirteen countries (1) are carrying out child labor eradication programs with the support of EI and its partners.

Most of these projects concern the development of " Child Labor Free Zones" (CFLZ) in a community or group of villages. In these types of projects, all sectors of a school community cooperate with local authorities, community leaders and employers for the systematic elimination of child labor and their (re)integration into formal schools attending full-time.

The involvement of education unions generally begins with the training of teachers in the area concerned. These training courses mainly focus on getting girls back to school, as they are more affected by child labor.

In countries like Mali and Togo, the teachers' unions involved in these projects are encouraging the creation or strengthening of students’ mothers’ associations, as they play a crucial role in girls’ education.

From working to back to school

The unions involved in these projects report numerous cases of former child laborers brought back to school thanks to their projects, and of children who were at risk of dropping out but who were able to stay in school. In 2019-2020, in the CFLZs developed by EI affiliates in seven African countries (2), 686 children (374 boys, 312 girls) were brought back to school.

In Albania, where the SPASH and FSASH unions have extensive experience in working against child labor, monitoring groups are set up in schools, bringing together teachers, parents and students. They are responsible for closely monitoring the children most at risk of dropping out of school and contacting the families of children who have already dropped out.

This model has made it possible to limit child labor even in more vulnerable communities, such as the Roma. It has also helped teachers to increase the involvement of local authorities.

Enriketa Zeno, head of the FSASH section in Berati district, shared her experience in a teacher trainers’ training course organized by SPASH and FSASH in May:

We collaborated not only with the regional directorate of education, but also with the municipality, which allowed 15 families of students who had dropped out of school to receive a monthly allowance, making it easier for them to go get back into the classroom . This example may inspire my colleagues in other districts."

The devastating effects of the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in long periods of school closures, and an increase in child labor worldwide.

During this pandemic period, unions kept in touch with teachers, community leaders, local and school authorities involved in projects against child labor, enabling them to gather first-hand information.

Among the reported observations were:

  • a loss of interest in education among students due to the inability to access educational materials online;
  • the lack of funds available to schools to purchase protective equipment against COVID-19;
  • the difficulty of enforcing and maintaining physical distance in schools and on the way to school,
  • an increase in early pregnancies and marriages;
  • the difficulty of finding students who were in the adult world or in the world of work during the closures, who had got used to earning a little money and lost the academic discipline they had before the pandemic.

When schools reopen, there are often fewer students compared to the period before the closure.

The strategies put in place in the contexts of the projects make it possible to achieve results in terms of getting children back to school soon after teaching has resumed. This is the case in Malawi.

Before the closure, in March 2020, out of the 10 schools included in our project in the Kabwinja area, the number of students enrolled in these schools was 7,809, but when these schools reopened in October, there were no more than 4,096 students,” says Pilirani Kamaliza, Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) project coordinator.

“We organized a 'back to school' campaign: messages in favor of education were broadcast on loudspeakers placed on vehicles that traveled around Kabwinja, three large panels raising awareness against child labor were displayed and placed in strategic places, the teachers and heads of villages went to parents’ homes ”.

TUM and The Private School Education Union of Malawi (PSEUM) also held an assembly bringing together the highest district authorities, teachers, students and parents from the targeted schools. Messages were sent to bring every child back to school. In December 2020, three months after the reopening of 10 schools in the targeted area, the number of students enrolled was 8,058, more than before the pandemic closure.

"Thanks to our awareness-raising efforts, the rate of children returning to school is higher in Kabwinja than in other areas of the district, the schools in the project also have a better school retention rate. Teachers are now attentive and react as soon as they see the first sign of a child dropping out of school, "says Pilirani Kamaliza.

Among the relevant responses of union projects to fight child labor to the crisis posed by the pandemic, there are also training workshops for manufacturing hand sanitizer using local equipment in Nicaragua, training by SNE-FDT in Morocco for teachers who are lost in the face of new technologies linked to distance education, the training of teachers from Togo on modes of transmission of COVID 19, the broadcasting of radio spots calling for a return to school, etc. The Ugandan union UNATU has started to organize psychological support sessions for teachers facing a large number of cases of early pregnancy and marriage among their students.

The lessons learned by unions involved in these projects show that it is possible to limit the devastating effects of school closures on the rise in school dropouts rates and child labor. They should open the eyes of governments to meet their obligations to ensure access to quality education for all financed by public funds.

To listen to the testimony of a former child labourer who is now a teacher please click here

To learn more about EI's work, see the study: EI's Child Labor Projects and AOb: Transnational Best Practices

(1) Projects to combat child labor are currently supported by EI and its partners (AOb, Mondiaal FNV, GEW Fair Childhood Foundation, Stop Child Labor coalition) in 13 countries: Albania, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Côte d'Ivoire, India, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Nicaragua, Uganda, Senegal, Togo, and Zimbabwe.

(2) Burkina Faso, Malawi, Mali, Morocco, Uganda, Togo, Zimbabwe.