Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward

Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward

Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward

Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, trends and the road forward takes stock of where we stand in the global effort to end child labour. Published in the United Nations International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), co-custodians of target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the report describes the scale and key characteristics of child labour today, and changes over time.

In line with child labour estimates produced by the ILO every four years since 2000, the 2020 calculations are based on the extrapolation of data from national household surveys. The new estimates use more than 100 household surveys covering two thirds of the world’s population of children aged 5 to 17 years.

What the report tells us is alarming. Global progress against child labour has stalled for the first time since we began producing global estimates two decades ago. In addition, without urgent mitigation measures, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to push millions more children into child labour.

These results constitute an important reality check in meeting the international commitment to end child labour by 2025. If we do not muster the will and resources to act now on an unprecedented scale, the timeline for ending child labour will stretch many years into the future.


Child labour remains a persistent problem in the world today. The latest global estimates indicate that 160 million children – 63 million girls and 97 million boys – were in child labour globally at the beginning of 2020, accounting for almost 1 in 10 of all children worldwide. Seventy-nine million children – nearly half of all those in child labour – were in hazardous work that directly endangers their health, safety and moral development.

Global progress against child labour has stagnated since 2016. The percentage of children in child labour remained unchanged over the four year period while the absolute number of children in child labour increased by over 8 million. Similarly, the percentage of children in hazardous work was almost unchanged but rose in absolute terms by 6.5 million children.

The global picture masks continued progress against child labour in Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean. In both regions, child labour trended downward over the last four years in percentage and absolute terms. Similar progress in sub-Saharan Africa has proven elusive. This region has seen an increase in both the number and percentage of children in child labour since 2012. There are now more children in child labour in sub-Saharan Africa than in the rest of the world combined. Global child labour goals will not be achieved without a breakthrough in this region.

Continued progress was registered over the last four years among children aged 12 to 14 and 15 to 17. Child labour in both age groups declined in percentage and absolute terms, continuing a consistent downward trend seen in previous estimates. Child labour rose among young children aged 5 to 11, however, after the 2016 global estimates signalled slowing progress for this age group. There were 16.8 million more children aged 5 to 11 in child labour in 2020 than in 2016.

The COVID-19 crisis threatens to further erode global progress against child labour unless urgent mitigation measures are taken. New analysis suggests a further 8.9 million children will be in child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of rising poverty driven by the pandemic.

Yet the predicted additional rise in child labour is by no means a foregone conclusion. The actual impact will depend on policy responses. Two additional scenarios demonstrate the huge influence of social protection coverage on child labour in the near term. Where social protection coverage is allowed to slip, a significant further increase in child labour 8 could occur by the end of 2022. A rise in social protection coverage, on the other hand, could more than offset the impact of COVID-19 on child labour, returning us to progress on the issue.

Other key results from the 2020 global estimates include:

  • Involvement in child labour is higher for boys than girls at all ages. Among all boys, 11.2 per cent are in child labour compared to 7.8 per cent of all girls. In absolute numbers, boys in child labour outnumber girls by 34 million. When the definition of child labour expands to include household chores for 21 hours or more each week, the gender gap in prevalence among boys and girls aged 5 to 14 is reduced by almost half.
  • Child labour is much more common in rural areas. There are 122.7 million rural children in child labour compared to 37.3 million urban children. The prevalence of child labour in rural areas (13.9 per cent) is close to three times higher than in urban areas (4.7 per cent).
  • Most child labour – for boys and girls alike – continues to occur in agriculture. Seventy per cent of all children in child labour, 112 million children in total, are in agriculture. Many are younger children, underscoring agriculture as an entry point to child labour. Over three quarters of all children aged 5 to 11 in child labour work in agriculture.
  • The largest share of child labour takes place within families. Seventy-two per cent of all child labour and 83 per cent of child labour among children aged 5 to 11 occurs within families, primarily on family farms or in family microenterprises. Family-based child labour is frequently hazardous despite common perceptions of the family as offering a safer work environment. More than one in four children aged 5 to 11 and nearly half of children aged 12 to 14 in family-based child labour are in work likely to harm their health, safety or morals.
  • Child labour is frequently associated with children being out of school. A large share of younger children in child labour are excluded from school despite falling within the age range for compulsory education. More than a quarter of children aged 5 to 11 and over a third of children aged 12 to 14 who are in child labour are out of school. This severely constrains their prospects for decent work in youth and adulthood as well as their life potential overall. Many more children in child labour struggle to balance the demands of school and child labour at the same time, which compromises their education and their right to leisure.

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