I am writing this opinion essay today in my quality as the Convenor of Nobel Laureates and Leaders for Children, supporting the Fair Share to End Child Labour campaign.
My friend and colleague Kailash Satyarthi (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, 2014) is an extraordinary man, very much in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi. Upon completion of his university studies at age 20 and as he was readying himself to wed his childhood sweetheart Sumedha, rather than starting a career as an electric engineer, Kailash sat down with his soon-to-be wife, told her, I want to help free children from slavery. Sumedha promptly agreed and ever since the couple and later their children and in laws all dedicate their whole life to this noble mission. Inspired by Kailash and Sumedha I accepted to be the Convenor of Laureates and Leaders for Children, supporting the Fair Share to End Child Labour campaign.
Last month, the International Labour Organization revealed that child labor had increased for the first time in two decades. Almost 17 million more children aged 5-11 were forced into work between 2016 and 2020 – the equivalent of 10,000 more small children entering servitude every day just to survive. Yet in the same period, the world has become $10 trillion wealthier. Why then are we seeing millions of more children toiling in fields, in mines, and in factories instead of in schools?
At no point in my lifetime has the incredible inequality of our world been laid so bare. During every stage of the pandemic, the vast gap between wealthy and poor countries has been exposed – easily witnessed in the enormous disparities in access to quality online schooling, clean water, safe health care, adequate short-term financial support, and access to vaccines. Imagine if your family had to endure the pandemic without any of these protections: would you survive?
Imagine now if this was your life before the pandemic. Because that is the reality for the 160 million children in child labor, all over the world: the first rise in child labor in twenty years happened before Covid struck. The ILO is predicting a further rise between 2020 and 2022, to almost 170 million, which could mean that the pandemic is effectively doubling the rate at which children are being forced into child labor, a warning raised by more than 80 Nobel laureates and leaders as part of Laureates and Leaders for Children at the beginning of the pandemic stating that the non-public health impact would be an increase in vulnerabilities leading to child labor, slavery and trafficking.
While the world gets richer, our children become poorer, because our global economy is built by the richest on the backs of the poorest. Children in Latin America are mining minerals, children in sub-Saharan Africa are growing cocoa beans and children in Asia are stitching clothes, all to meet the world’s growing demand for these commodities. And it is the governments of many of the world’s wealthiest countries which are letting this happen.
The IMF’s agreement of new Special Drawing Rights and the recent G20 agreement on the new global tax deal could provide much needed income to develop the kind of basic public services which end extreme poverty and child labor – from social welfare for the poorest families to education and health care. However, the countries in most needs of increased revenues have had far less say in the detail of these deals than their wealthier counterparts, and as such will benefit the least, despite being home to both the labor and the raw materials that are so critical to the rest of the world.
Last week, the UN’s High-Level Political Forum met to assess the world’s progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed by all member states in 2015. The outlook is bleak because the world is not keeping its promise to leave anyone behind as evidenced by the increase in child labor. The outcomes of the High-Level Political Forum are shamefully weak and do not acknowledge the serious work needed to stem the flow of children dropping out of school and entering child labor, let alone to pull children out of work and back into classrooms. We need an urgent response from the UN to ensure all governments take seriously the call to ‘build back better’.
To make the kind of progress children need, every child must be able to benefit from global wealth. Every child must have equitable access to the public services which families in wealthy countries rely on, such as education, energy, clean water and sanitation, and health care. It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of child labor occurs in rural communities; these are the areas that have the least access to reliable public services and give families the least opportunity to exit poverty.
We also know that when families are insulated against extreme poverty by social protection, such as family credits and welfare programmes, children are not forced to work to survive. During the pandemic, the majority of countries implemented new or increased financial support measures for those who were prevented from working, including those in which only fledgling infrastructure to deliver social protection existed. We know it is possible, but it must be affordable for the countries whose citizens have the most need.
No child should be forced to work - let alone forced into the most hazardous forms of child labor like slavery, commercial sexual exploitation, or fighting as soldiers in conflicts, not of their making. Until every child is free, none of us are free. We already have the means to realize this. As the Fair Share to End Child Labour campaign calls, only when every child has a fair share of financial resources, policies and social protection, we will eradicate child labor for good.
This is our world, our humanity. And we should all be indicted for the extreme violence and harm we have caused or have allowed to continue in this 21st century, against millions of children. While many of us live in grotesque offensive opulence, millions of children are eking out few cents a day working in cocoa farms or textile and shoe factories for the middle class and super rich of the world. Hopefully, in the Final Judgement Day, assisted by Kailash and Sumedha, God will judge each of us for our sins of commission or omission and some of us will be dispatched to Hell. Sadly, what I learned as a child about Heaven and Hell ended up being children’s stories to scare us.