All work, no play

The sweetest chocolate can come from the most bitter of sources. In May police in Ivory Coast rescued 68 children working on cocoa farms, allegedly trafficked in from neighbouring Burkina Faso. They are a tiny share of the approximately 790,000 children working in cocoa production in Ivory Coast alone. According to a report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF based on data from more than 100 national household surveys, some 160m five- to 17-year-olds—one in ten of the world’s children—are engaged in labour, understood as work that they are too young to perform or that might harm their “health, safety or morals”. Between 2000 and 2016 the percentage of children in work globally fell. But since 2016 that decline has levelled off—and the absolute number of child workers has increased by 8m, the first time it has gone up since the ILO began collecting data.

Progress had in fact begun to stall by as early as 2012. Between 2008 and 2012 the share of children in work fell by three percentage points. Between 2012 and 2016 it dropped by only one. But these global figures obscure regional differences. Although most parts of the world continue to see a decline, the number of children working in sub-Saharan Africa began to increase in 2012. That rise is mostly explained by the number of people in poverty, the main determinant of child labour. Although the percentage of sub-Saharan Africans living below the World Bank’s global poverty threshold of $1.90 per day dropped from 56% in 1990 to 40% in 2018, the continent's population increased, swelling the absolute number of Africans below that line and pushing more children to take up tools. Fully 24% of children in sub-Saharan Africa work—four times the proportion in Latin America and the Caribbean. The continent now has more child labourers than the rest of the world combined.

Although there was both an absolute and a relative decline in the number of children aged 12-17 in work globally between 2016 and 2020, the number of children aged 5-11 in work increased by 16.8m. Over 75% of them toiled away on farms or in family businesses. More boys were put to work than girls, and children in rural areas were three times more likely to work than those in urban areas. Of the 160m children in work, nearly half are in jobs likely to be dangerous. That is especially true in Africa, where 86% of jobs are informal and unregulated.

Policies that could help to reduce the number of children in work, such as the Harkin-Engel protocol, a voluntary agreement signed by cocoa manufacturers designed to tackle the worst forms of child labour in the industry, are not being implemented quickly or effectively enough to bring down the numbers. Covid-19 made things worse, because schools shut down and poverty worsened. The ILO suggests that increasing social-protection measures, such as cash transfers and unemployment benefits for parents, could cut the number of toiling children by 15m by the end of next year. Given the pressures on many African countries during the pandemic, such prescriptions seem somewhat implausible.

This article is from our Graphic detail section.