Open letter: change course on the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour

Open letter: change course on the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour

Open letter: change course on the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour

Children at work repairing bicycles | Carl Heibert. All rights reserved.

Child labour will not end in 2021, and trying to eliminate it will only endanger working children further. Over 100 experts call on the international system to focus on well-being instead.

In light of the current pandemic and the official launch of the 2021 UN International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour on 21 January, the following public statement comes from a large number of prominent professors and researchers, supported by many experienced practitioners of development NGOs and agencies and working children themselves. At the heart of the statement lies an urgent call for more realistic and evidence-based approaches to child labour to be developed in dialogue with the research community and working children and their families.

It has become painfully clear that the COVID-19 pandemic does not affect all equally. Children are particularly vulnerable to the physical, psychological, social, and economic effects the pandemic has caused. Apart from disruption to education and lack of internet access, severe mental health problems can arise from extended isolation while growing up. Furthermore, UNICEF has warned us that COVID-19 has compounded food crises resulting from conflicts, disasters, and climate change to turn a nutritional crisis into an imminent catastrophe threatening millions of children in the immediate future.

Post-COVID recovery is unlikely to return children to pre-COVID conditions: disrupted and increasingly unequal economies, climate change, and growing land and water shortages are likely to make children’s lives increasingly precarious. Many families have been forced to include their children in efforts to obtain the necessities for life, which can result in extensive and even dangerous work, sometimes making schooling impossible. There is thus an urgent need to provide long-term supporting interventions to improve the lives and chances of these children.

As mentioned, 2021 has been declared the International Year for the Elimination of Child labour in direct support of Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which stipulates that child labour in all its forms is to be eliminated by 2025. Following the ILO’s own global estimates on child labour, even in a pre-COVID world this objective was entirely unrealistic. Currently, there is a great danger that working children’s precarious situations can be further damaged by well-intentioned, but ineffective and potentially counterproductive pre-COVID-19 norms and practices that are primarily based on ideological and emotional convictions instead of scientific evidence and working children’s own experiences.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been a learning experience for many people, demanding a reconsideration of some of the values that lie behind the way we live. We have learned to appreciate the value of poorly-paid front-line workers in a variety of services, even if this is still not reflected economically. We have seen young people taking up responsibility to help those who are vulnerable and needy, knowing that it is inadequate to rely on formal institutions for support. People have established food banks and soup kitchens for those whose food security is shattered. Small, local, informal classes have sprung up for children deprived of schooling and without resources for online classes. In short, as people have been driven apart physically, the values of social connectedness and responsibility have come to the fore. Old ways of living no longer work and are unlikely to work in the future, even when the pandemic has come to an end, as new challenges brought about by climate change and other factors will continue to make the conditions for many of the world’s children even more difficult.

In the light of this growing appreciation for cooperative inter-responsibility, it is now time to consider long-term strategies to eliminate harmful child labour in ways that effectively improve the lives of the children concerned. Removing them from work is no help if this drives them deeper into the famine and broken lives that the work was undertaken to mitigate.

To be helpful, interventions must be adapted to situations that vary not only locally, but also according to the specific status and circumstance of the children concerned – boys, girls, disabled children, children in minority groups, and children of different socio-economic statuses all have different needs and different vulnerabilities. Intervention should consider well-being holistically: it must attend to the overall well-being and development of the children – physical, mental, social and spiritual – as stipulated by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC; articles 17, 23, 27, 32). Subsequently, children’s work and the developed interventions must be assessed according to the actual effects – both beneficial and damaging – on the children’s well-being.

In many societies, children are educated to grow in their responsibility and contribution to their families and societies as they acquire competencies. Participation in work often contributes to this education – understanding ‘education’ to go beyond schooling, which indeed has been shown on occasion to damage such cultural learning. Even outside the COVID-19 crisis, appropriate work can have benefits for children, which should not be withdrawn from those who are in other ways disadvantaged: beneficial work should be encouraged rather than prohibited.

To ensure that interventions to end child labour achieve holistic improvement, we can no longer continue blindly with the well-intended but unrealistic goal of eliminating child labour by 2025. Instead we have to take into account what working children and their families are already doing to mitigate their hardship and improve their lives, and to consider how, both in response to the COVID crises and the precarious future, it might be possible to build on this.

We therefore call on the UN, UNICEF, and the UNCRC Committee as the primary overseers of the UNCRC along with the ILO to facilitate a more inclusive dialogue among governments, UN agencies, donors, NGOs, researchers, and working children themselves.


  1. Dr. Tatek Abebe, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
  2. Dr. Jiniya Afroze, Terre des hommes, Switzerland
  3. Dr. Bree Akesson, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada
  4. Prof. Priscilla Alderson, UCL, UK
  5. Dr. Mohammed Alrozzi, University of Bath, UK
  6. Prof. Nicola Ansell, Brunel University London, UK
  7. Dr. Marina Apgar, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, UK
  8. Dr. Deniz Arzuk, University College London, UK
  9. Dr. Dena Aufseeser, University of Maryland Baltimore County, USA
  10. Mr. Mavuto K. Banda, University of Hull, UK
  11. Mg. Marco Bazán, Instituto de Formacion de Educadores de JANTs, Peru
  12. Vittoria Becci, Sciences Po Law School, Paris, France
  13. Dr. Shelina Bhamani, Aga Khan University
  14. Dr. Tanu Biswas, University of Bayreuth, Germany
  15. Prof. Janet Boddy, University of Sussex, UK
  16. Prof. Michael Bourdillon, University of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe
  17. Prof. Jo Boyden, University of Oxford, UK
  18. Mr. James Suru Boyon, African Movement of Working Children and Youth, Senegal
  19. Dr. Nicolás Brando, Centre for Children’s Rights – Queen’s University Belfast, UK
  20. Dr. Rachel Burr, School of Education and Social Work, Sussex University, UK
  21. Mr. Richard Carothers, Children and Work Network (member), Canada
  22. Dr. Eve K. Chandaengerwa, Midlands State University, Zimbabwe
  23. Dr. Kristen Cheney, International Institute of Social Studies, Netherlands
  24. Dr. Tara Collins, School of Child and Youth Care, Ryerson University, Canada
  25. Dr. Philip Cook, University of Edinburgh, UK
  26. Prof. Michelle Cottier, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  27. Dr. Gina Crivello, University of Oxford, UK
  28. Prof Alejandro Cussianovich, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos – Lima, Perú
  29. Prof. Ellen Desmet, Ghent University, Belgium
  30. Dr. Jenny Driscoll, King’s College London, UK
  31. Prof. Claudia Espinoza Carramiñana, Grupo interdisciplinario estudios niñez de Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile
  32. Dr. María Florencia Amigó, Macquarie University, Australia
  33. Mr. Justin Flynn, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, UK
  34. Dr. Lourdes Gaitán, Grupo de Sociología de la Infancia y la Adolescencia (GSIA), Spain
  35. Prof. Karl Hanson, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  36. Dr. Jason Hart, University of Bath, UK
  37. Dr. Roger Hart, Graduate Center of the City University of New York, USA
  38. Jennifer Haza Gutiérrez, Melel Xojobal A.C. Mexico
  39. Prof. Heinz Hengst, Hochschule Bremen, Germany
  40. Dr. Neil Howard, University of Bath, UK
  41. Dr. Roy Huijsmans, International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, Netherlands
  42. Dr Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, University of Bristol, UK
  43. Dr. Mélanie Jacquemin, Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, LPED- Aix Marseille Université, France
  44. Lic. Santiago Joaquín Morales, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Argentina
  45. Dr. Victor Karunan, Chulalongkorn University, Thammasat University, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand
  46. Prof. Anne Trine Kjørholt, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
  47. Prof. Andrea Kleeberg-Niepage, Europa Universität Flensburg, Germany
  48. Ms. Lea Kulakow, Kindernothilfe, Germany
  49. Prof. Cath Larkins, University of Central Lancashire, UK
  50. Prof. Deborah Levison, University of Minnesota, USA
  51. Prof. Manfred Liebel, University of Applied Sciences of Potsdam, Germany
  52. Prof Ronald Lutz, University of Applied Sciences, Erfurt, Germany
  53. Dr. Nicolas Mabillard, University of Geneva, Switzerland
  54. Dr. Stanford Mahati, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa
  55. Prof. Claudia Maier-Höfer, Evangelische Hochschule Darmstadt, Germany
  56. Mr. A K M Maksud, Grambangla Unnayan Committee, Bangladesh
  57. Dr. Gillian Mann, Child Frontiers, Canada
  58. Marta Martinez Muñoz, Enclave de Evaluación, Spain
  59. Mr. Philip Meade, University of Applied Sciences of Potsdam / ProNATs e.V. Germany
  60. Mr. Per Miljeteig
  61. Prof. Phil Mizen, Aston University, Birmingham, UK
  62. Org. MNNATSOP, Movimiento Nacional de Niños, Niñas Adolescentes Trabajadores Organizados del Perú
  63. Org. MOLACNATS, Movimiento Lactinoamericano y del Caribe de Niños, Niñas y adolescentes Trabajadores- MOLACNATS
  64. Dr. Virginia Morrow, University of Oxford, UK
  65. Dr. Maria Federica Moscati, University of Sussex, UK
  66. Dr. William Myers
  67. Lic. Quesil Nina Ramos, Universidad Nacional del Centro del Perú
  68. Prof. Chamutal Noimann, BMCC City University of New York, USA
  69. Dr. Sevast-Melissa Nolas, Goldsmiths, UK
  70. Prof. Julia O’Connell Davidson, University of Bristol, UK
  71. Ms. Claire O’Kane, Proteknon Foundation for Innovation and Learning, France
  72. Dr. Sam Okyere, University of Bristol, UK
  73. Dr. Alula Pankhurst, Young Lives Ethiopia
  74. Lic. Martin Paolini, Universidad Nacional de Lujan Argentina
  75. Dr. Noam Peleg, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
  76. Prof. Minerva Gómez Plata, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana. Programa Infancia, Mexico
  77. Dr. Kirsten Pontalti, Proteknôn Foundation, Canada
  78. Prof. Gina Porter, Durham University, UK
  79. Dr. Rebecca Raby, Brock University, Canada
  80. NATS. Samira Ramirez, Movimiento Lactinoamericano y del Caribe de Niños, Niñas y adolescentes Trabajadores- MOLACNATS
  81. Dr. Maria Eugenia Rausky, CIMeCS-IdIHCS/CONICET-Universidad Nacional de La Plata, Spain
  82. Dr. Alberto Rinaldi, Sciences Po Law School, Paris, France
  83. Org. Ternura Revelde, Ternura Revelde, Argentina
  84. Dr. Elsbeth Robson, University of Hull, UK
  85. Dr. Keetie Roelen, Institute of Development Studies, UK
  86. Dr. Rachel Rosen, University College London, UK
  87. Mr. Iven Saadi, University of Applied Sciences of Potsdam, Germany
  88. Dr. Helmut Sax, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Fundamental and Human Rights, Austria
  89. Prof. Jacquelyn Sennett, Western Washington University, USA
  90. Prof. Spyros Spyrou, European University Cyprus, Cyprus
  91. Ms. Carolina Szyp, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, UK
  92. Dr. Jessica K. Taft, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA
  93. Prof. Nigel Patrick Thomas, University of Central Lancashire, UK
  94. Dr. Dorte Thorsen, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, UK
  95. Mtra. Irma Alma Ochoa Treviño, Arthemisas por la Equidad, A.C., Monterrey, Nuevo León. México
  96. Dr. Edward van Daalen, McGill University, Canada
  97. Prof. Wouter Vandenhole, University of Antwerp, Law and Development Research Group, Belgium
  98. Prof. Debbie Watson, University of Bristol, UK
  99. Prof. Ben White, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University, Netherlands
  100. Prof. Reinhart Wolff, Alice Salomon University Berlin, Germany
  101. Mónica G. Yerena Suárez, Educando en los Derechos y la Solidaridad A.C. Mexico