Matt: I'm Matt Katz, in for Tenzina Vega. Since the pandemic started, experts have warned that it could reverse two decades of progress in the global fight against child labor. According to the United Nations, at least 24 million children around the world will likely drop out of school, millions of those children will be pushed into the workforce to support their families as economic fallout from the pandemic continues. For more on this, we're joined now by Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. Jo, welcome to the show.
Jo: Thanks. It's good to be with you, Matt.
Matt: It's good to have you. What do we know about rates of child labor globally since this pandemic started?
Jo: Well, we know that they are increasing across the globe. There are several reasons why COVID-19 is having such a big impact on child labor. One, obviously, is just what's happening economically due to the pandemic. Families are under huge economic stress, many have lost their jobs or their income, and that creates a lot of pressure on parents to send their children to work to meet their basic needs. UNICEF has estimated that since the pandemic began, an additional 150 million children have fallen into poverty and when poverty rates rise, so does child labor.
A second element is what's happening with schools, the massive school shutdowns around the globe. Hundreds of millions of kids are out of school, and many don't have access to the internet, to online learning. That leaves them with little to do and they see work as the best alternative. A third factor is the rising mortality rate. Globally, we have more than 34 million COVID-19 cases over a million deaths. A big driver of child labor is when a parent falls sick, becomes disabled, or dies. Then children often become the breadwinners for the family.
We saw this during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, when orphans ended up trafficked in sexual exploitation or other forms of child labor. Then finally, we have less enforcement of child labor laws. COVID-19 precautions mean that many labor inspectors aren't doing active inspections. Child labor is likely to go undetected and employers are less worried about getting caught.
Matt: You mentioned Africa, are there certain regions of the world that are more vulnerable than others, to seeing this uptick in child labor right now?
Jo: Asia and Africa would be two of the regions that we'd be most concerned about. Africa has one of the highest rates and Asia has just in terms of raw numbers, some of the largest numbers of child laborers. It's certainly a concern everywhere.
Matt: What kind of jobs are kids around the world doing now that for all these factors that you mentioned earlier, that are driving them into the workforce? What kind of work are they actually doing?
Jo: The largest number are in agriculture, but others are working in mining and brick kilns. They're working as street vendors, picking through trash heaps looking for items to sell. Just yesterday, the US Department of Labor put out a new report, and they find that the goods that are most often made with child labor include gold, bricks, sugar cane, coffee, and tobacco.
Matt: I imagine some of these jobs and some of these goods are connected to consumer demand from places like the US, right?
Jo: Yes, exactly. That's something that consumers need to think about is, when they buy products, is there a possibility that they've been made with child labor?
Matt: I've seen some reporting on children dropping out of schools in the US as well, do we know if there's any shifts in child labor rates here?
Jo: Well, child labor isn't just an issue in other countries, it is a problem in the United States, primarily in agriculture. There are exemptions in US labor law that allows children to work in agriculture at much younger ages for longer hours, and under much more hazardous conditions than in any other industry. A 12-year-old child in the US can work 40 or 50 hours a week in the fields, and it's perfectly legal. Agriculture is surprisingly dangerous. There are more child workers in the US who die in agriculture than any other industry. Every day 33 children are injured working on US farms.
Adult farmworkers make very little money in the US and so that creates pressure to take their children into the fields. Now with many US schools closed, the fact that this work is legal creates an additional pool to bring more children into that kind of work.
Matt: Do we know that there are more kids now in the fields doing work instead of going to school?
Jo: Well, unfortunately, we have very little data. All the information that we have is pretty much anecdotal, but it's certainly a logical outcome of the different factors that we see in the US right now.
Matt: What kind of interventions from governments or the UN are we seeing right now to try to address this issue?
Jo: Well, one big intervention that's needed is guaranteed monthly income for poor families. They need support to meet their basic needs without resorting to child labor. One of the lessons of the last 20 years is that cash transfer programs were one of the biggest factors in reducing child labor rates, because it did protect those vulnerable families from economic crisis. One important thing is that governments continue to provide this kind of financial relief to the most vulnerable families.
A second thing is education. We know that children who are in school are much less likely to enter the workforce. Whether it's in person or online, children need to have access to schooling. If it's safe to reopen schools, that's great, but if not, governments need to ensure full access to the internet and online learning so that kids don't fall behind.
Matt: If they have classes to go to even online, then they won't be working and their schools could be keeping track of them, I imagine.
Jo: Exactly. As schools reopen, they really need to be very proactive and reaching out to make sure that children are coming back. As you noted, in your introduction, there are 24 million children that are estimated to have dropped out permanently, they may never return. There really needs to be outreach efforts to make sure that children are kept in the educational system.
Matt: Jo Becker is the children's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. Jo, thank you very much for joining us.
Jo: My pleasure.
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