2020 Global estimates of child labour - Frequently Asked Questions

Article | 10 June 2021

    Why are global estimates necessary?

    Accurate and reliable data is a vital tool in tackling complex social challenges such as child labour...
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    The global estimates provide an important snapshot of the current child labour situation at both the global and regional levels as well as insight into the pace of global and regional progress against child labour. The estimates are an important vehicle for raising global awareness of child labour, its prevalence and key characteristics, and where it is most concentrated in the world. They form a key part of a broader inter-agency effort under Alliance 8.7 to measure and monitor progress towards target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

    Which international agencies produced the global estimates?

    For the first time, the 2020 global estimates were produced jointly by the ILO and UNICEF, as co-custodians of Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals...
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    The global estimates also benefited from consultations with other UN partner agencies and external experts.

    When were the previous global estimates of child labour released?

    Global estimates were produced for the first time in 2000 and were released subsequently in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016...
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    The 2020 global estimates are therefore the sixth in the series, enabling us to build detailed picture of child labour trends over the last two decades.

    What is child labour?

    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...
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    Three main international human and labour rights standards – the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the ILO Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) and the universally-ratified ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182) – set legal boundaries for child labour and provide grounds for national and international actions to end it.

    In more technical terms, child labour encompasses work performed by children in any type of employment, with two important exceptions: permitted light work for children within the age range specified for light work; and work that is not classified as among the worst forms of child labour, particularly as hazardous work, for children above the general minimum working age.

    The definition of child labour can include hazardous unpaid household services, commonly referred to as hazardous household chores. Statistical standards for measuring child labour in household chores are less developed, however. The estimates of child labour published in the Report excluded household chores except where otherwise indicated.

    The detailed concepts and statistical definitions are referred to in the Annex of the global estimates report as well as the separate publication “Methodology of the global estimates of child labour”.

    What is hazardous work?

    Children in hazardous work are those involved in any activity or occupation that, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm their health, safety or morals...
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    In general, hazardous work may include night work or long hours of work, exposure to physical, psychological or sexual abuse; work underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces; work with dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads; and work in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging their health. For the 2020 Global Estimates of Child Labour, hazardous work is measured on the basis of a list of hazardous industries and occupations, excessive working hours performed for 43 or more hours per week, and hazardous working conditions (such as night work).

    What are the data sources?

    Like those produced every four years since 2000, the 2020 estimates are based on the extrapolation of data from national household surveys...
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    The 2020 estimates use data from more than 100 household surveys covering two-thirds of the world population of children aged 5 to 17 years. These include multiple indicator cluster surveys (MICS), implemented with the assistance of UNICEF, child labour surveys implemented with the assistance of the ILO, demographic and health surveys (DHS) from USAID, labour force surveys (LFS) and other national household surveys.

    What regions are covered?

    Different regional groupings are used by ILO, UNICEF and for the purpose of monitoring the Sustainable Development Goals...
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    The global estimates are disaggregated geographically in a manner to accommodate each. Estimates for 2020 in the main body of the Report are provided for six of the seven main regional groupings used for the monitoring of the Sustainable Development Goals: Sub-Saharan Africa; Northern Africa and Western Asia; Central and Southern Asia; Eastern and South-Eastern Asia; Latin America and the Caribbean; and Europe and Northern America. The seventh SDG regional grouping, Oceania, was not included because of data limitations.

    The statistical annex of the Report also presents 2020 estimates for the regions defined in accordance with the regional classification system employed by the ILO STATISTICS department (i.e., Africa, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, Americas, and Europe and Central Asia), as well as for the UNICEF regional groupings (i.e., East Asia and Pacific, Eastern and Southern Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, North America, South Asia, West and Central Africa, and Western Europe).

    The regions included in the main body of the Report for the analysis of trends are limited to three: Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Asia and the Pacific. Other regions were not included in the analysis of trends because of the lack of historical data on child labour for them.

    Are all children in child labour included in the Global Estimates?

    No. The Global Estimates include information from household surveys...
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    The surveys do not capture information on the other worst forms of child labour (slavery, trafficking, armed conflicts, prostitution, illicit activities, etc.). Estimates of forced labour of children and commercial sexual exploitation of children will be presented in the publication Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage, forthcoming in 2022. New research tools are needed to improve measurement of forced recruitment of children for armed conflict and the use of children in illicit activities.

    Is all work done by children classified as child labour and therefore prohibited?

    No. Children aged 12 to 14 years who are working in light work (i.e. in non-hazardous work for less than 14 hours a week), and children aged 15 to 17 years working in non-hazardous work (and for less than 43 hours a week) are not in child labour...
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    The surveys do not capture information on the other worst forms of child labour (slavery, trafficking, armed conflicts, prostitution, illicit activities, etc.).

    According to international labour standards and national legislation, approval by parents and supervision by labour inspection is required herefore. All working children below the age of 12 years are considered to be in child labour.

    How many children are in child labour according to the 2020 estimates?

    Worldwide, 160 million children are in child labour; almost half of them, 79 million, work in hazardous child labour...
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    That means that roughly one out of ten children in the world are in child labour, and around one out of 20 in hazardous child labour, with important variations between regions, sectors and occupations.

    How much have we progressed since the previous global estimates in 2016?

    Global progress against child labour has stagnated since 2016...
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    The percentage of children in child labour remained unchanged while the absolute number of children in child labour increased, by over eight million children. Children in hazardous work mirrored these patterns – remaining almost unchanged in percentage terms and rising in absolute terms over the four-year period by 6.5 million children.

    This is the first time since we began measuring in 2000 that the world has not registered progress against child labour.

    What do the 2020 global estimates mean for prospects for meeting Target 8.7?

    While there are nearly 86 million fewer children in child labour now than when we began measuring global child labour levels in 2000, recent trends have meant that we have fallen far behind in terms of our collective commitment to ending child labour in all its forms by 2025...
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    We calculate in the Report that in order to meet Target 8.7, global progress would need to be almost 18 times faster than the rate observed over the past two decades.

    It also shows that based on the pace of progress achieved during the period from 2008 to 2016, 140 million children will still be in child labour in 2025 in the absence of accelerated action. These calculations do not take into account the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, which will inevitably make the road to 2025 even steeper (see below).

    These facts underscore the urgent need to act on an unprecedented scale in order to arrive as close as possible to achieving Target 8.7 by the 2025 target date.

    Did the 2020 estimates bring also any positive news?

    Yes. The overall global picture marks continued progress against child labour in the Asia and Pacific and Latin America and Caribbean regions...
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    In both these regions, child labour fell over the last four years in percentage and absolute terms, continuing a consistent downward trend that now extends over multiple four-year estimation periods. However, similar progress in Sub-Saharan Africa proved elusive.

    Continued progress was also registered over the last four years among 12 to 14 year-olds and 15 to 17 year-olds. Both these age ranges experienced declines in child labour in both percentage and absolute terms over the last four years, again continuing a consistent downward trend seen also in the previous four-year estimation periods. Yet the last four years saw a worrying rise in child labour about young children aged 5 to 11 years. There were 16.8 million more 5-11 year-olds in child labour in 2020 than in 2016.

    Do the 2020 global estimates reflect the impact of the COVID-19 crisis?

    Unfortunately not. Practically all the datasets upon which the estimates are based predate the COVID-19 crisis, e.g. they have been collected before March 2020 when Covid-19 was officially classified as a pandemic.

    What do we know about the impact of COVID-19 on global child labour levels?

    The poverty increases and school closures associated with the pandemic are heightening the risk of child labour in many contexts...
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    A modelling exercise was undertaken for the Report in order to gain further insight into the likely near-term impact of COVID-19 on child labour. The exercise, based on a simple model that uses latest poverty projections to predict changes in child labour up to 2022, estimates that there will a further 8.9 million children in child labour by the end of 2022 as a result the poverty effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

    The modelling exercise also shows that this result is by no means a foregone conclusion; the actual impact of the crisis will depend on policy responses to it. An increase in social protection in the near term could potentially more than mitigate the impact of the crisis. On the other hand, in a scenario in which social protection coverage slips because of austerity measures or other factors, the model suggests that the child labour impact of the crisis could be much worse.

    Where is child labour most common?

     Regions: The number of children in child labour is highest in Sub-Saharan Africa (86.6 million)...
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    ...followed by Central and Southern Asia (26.3 million), Eastern and South-Eastern Asia (24.3 million), Northern Africa and Western Asia (10.1 million), Latin America and the Caribbean (8.2 million) and Europe and Northern America (3.8 million). In terms of prevalence, nearly one of four children in Sub-Saharan Africa (23.9%) are in child labour. Prevalence in other regions is much lower, ranging from 7.8% in Northern Africa and Western Asia, 6.2% in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, 6.0% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 5.5% in Central and Southern Asia to 2.3% in Europe and Northern America.

     Age groups: Of the 160 million children in child labour, 5-11 year-olds account for 89 million, while 12-14 year-olds and 15-17 year-olds each account for about 35 million. The child labour prevalence, however, is nearly the same for three age ranges – 9.7% for 5-11 year-olds, 9.3% for 12-14 year-olds and 9.5% for 15-17 year-olds.

     Sex: Boys significantly outnumber girls in child labour. Of the 160 million children in child labour, 97 million are boys and 63 million are girls. It should be noted, however, that when the definition of child labour is expanded to also include the performance of household chores for more than 21 hours each week, the gender gap in involvement in child labour narrows.

     Sectors: Child labour is concentrated primarily in agriculture, which accounts for 70% of all children in child labour. The agriculture sector comprises both subsistence and commercial farming, as well as fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture. Ten percent of children in child labour work in industry, including mining and construction, 5% in domestic work and 15% in other services.

     Status in employment: Seventy-two per cent of all child labour, and 83 per cent of child labour among children aged 5-11 years, occurs within families, primarily on family farms or in other family microenterprises. Seventeen percent of all children in child labour are employees and the remaining 11% are own account workers.

    How have child labour trends differed by age range?

    While child labour among 12-14 and 15-17 year-olds continued to trend downward over the last four years, there was a worrying rise in child labour among 5-11 year-olds...
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    There were 16.8 million more 5-11 year-olds in child labour in 2020 than in 2016. Further, more in depth, research at the country and regional levels is needed to understand why child labour among young children is trending upwards and to identify appropriate policy responses. We already know, however, that child labour among young children is found primarily in family-based work and in the agriculture sector, and these contexts are where eventual policy responses must therefore concentrate.

    How have child labour trends differed at the regional level?

    Child labour went up in Sub-Saharan Africa over the last four years, in both percentage (by 1.5 percentage points) and absolute terms (by 16.6 million), accounting for much of the overall rise in child labour numbers over the last four years...
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    By contrast, child labour fell over the last four years in percentage and absolute terms in both the Asia and Pacific and the Latin America and Caribbean regions, continuing a consistent downward trend for the two regions that now extends over multiple four-year estimation periods.

    Has the distribution of child labour by sector changed?

    No. The sectoral composition of child labour changed only marginally over the last four years.

    What is the relationship between child labour and national income levels?

    The estimates reveal that child labour is most prevalent in low-income countries but it is by no means only a low-income country problem...
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    Child labour rates vary from 26.2% of children in low income countries, 9.0% in lower-middle income countries, and 4.9% in upper middle income countries, down to 0.9% in high income countries. Three of every five children in child labour live in middle-income countries (this is explained by the fact that many middle-income countries are amongst the most populated ones).

    How many children in child labour are not attending school?

    A large share of younger children in child labour are excluded from school despite falling within the age range for compulsory education...
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    More than a quarter of children aged 5-11 and over a third of children aged 12-14 who are in child labour are out of school. This severely constrains prospects for decent work in youth and adulthood as well as life potential overall. Many more children in child labour struggle to balance the demands of school and child labour at the same time, which often also significantly compromises their education.

    How many hours do children spend in child labour each week?

    Unfortunately, the data constraints meant that it was not possible to generate robust estimates of the amount of time each week that the children spent in child labour...
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    Efforts will be made to address this data shortcoming in subsequent global estimates of child labour, as information on working hours provides important insights into the length of children’s exposure to eventual workplace hazards and into the possible educational consequences of children’s involvement in child labour.

    How do child labour estimates change when we also consider household chores in the definition of child labour?

    When the definition of child labour expands to include household chores for more than 21 hours each week, the gender gap in child labour prevalence narrows from 3 percentage points to 1 percentage points.

    What are some of the immediate policy priorities for addressing child labour?

    Immediate steps are needed to avoiding falling further behind during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis...
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    The pandemic has clearly heightened the risk of child labour, above all through a sharp rise in poverty that may increase families’ reliance on child labour and through school closures that deny families the logical alternative to sending children to work.

    To reduce these risks, expanded income support measures for families in situations of vulnerability, through child benefits and other means, will be critical. So too will back-to-school campaigns and stepped-up remedial learning to get children back in the classroom and help them make up for lost learning once there, when conditions permit.

    What are some of the broader policy imperatives for ending child labour?

    During the acute and recovery phases of the COVID-19 crisis, it will be important not to lose sight of the broader set of policy imperatives for ending child labour...
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    These have long been clear:

     Extending social protection for children and their families to mitigate the poverty and economic uncertainty that underpin child labour.

     Promoting adequate rural livelihoods and resilience, including through supporting economic diversification, investing in basic services infrastructure, extending social protection and devising agricultural extension policies for crop diversification. Family farms and enterprises that depend on the (mostly unpaid) labour of their children need greater support to improve their livelihoods and end that dependence.

     Promoting decent work that delivers a fair income for young people (of legal working age) and adults, with a particular emphasis on workers in the informal economy, in order for families to escape poverty-driven child labour.

     Ensuring free and good-quality public schooling at least up to the minimum age for entering employment to provide a viable alternative to child labour and afford children a chance at a better future.

     Ensuring that necessary laws and regulations are in place to protect children, backed by enforcement machinery and child protection systems, and services required to apply them.

     Guaranteeing that every child’s birth is registered so that children have a legal identity and can enjoy their rights from birth.

     Addressing gender norms and discrimination that increase child labour risks, particularly for girls, related to domestic work and unpaid household chores.

    How has COVID-19 changed the broad policy imperatives for ending child labour?

    The COVID-19 crisis has not changed the key policies required for ending child labour, but rather has lent them added urgency at a time when governments are grappling with restricted fiscal space...
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    Sound policy choices and resource allocation decisions will be critical. Strengthening the country-level evidence base on child labour can help to identify local priorities and guide policy and spending decisions. Social dialogue among governments, workers’ organizations and employers’ organizations is also key to developing appropriate and responsive policies for addressing child labour and related challenges, wherever they occur.

    Where will the necessary resources for policy implementation come from?

    Governments will need to adopt creative resource mobilization strategies to expand their fiscal space...
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    Given unavoidable budget shortfalls generated by the pandemic, the international community will need to step up to fill the financing gap. A meaningful proportion of the funds provided for Covid-19 response and recovery programmes can be invested in public services and rural livelihoods that prevent and mitigate the risks of child labour.

    Many industrialized countries still fall short of long-standing commitments to official development assistance and financing for sustainable development. This needs to change.

    Debt relief should be extended and debt restructured in already heavily indebted countries so that social spending is not crowded out by increasing debt service payments. We must avoid the mistakes of the past that saw urgently needed credit flows made contingent on austerity measures that inflicted the most harm on children and families in greatest need.