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International Partnerships

When child labour is reduced, opportunities for youth increase

European Union

This year is the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour which calls on all of us to raise awareness of the importance of ending child labour and step up our collective efforts for impactful and sustainable actions.

Throughout the year we are publishing regular articles on different themes related to child labour and you can find links to all of our previous articles below.

For July and August, we are turning our attention to the often unexplored link that exists between child labour and the untapped potential of youth, when they are provided with opportunities to develop their skills and access decent jobs.

Child labour and youth unemployment – the trends and challenges

The latest Child Labour Global Estimates has found that the number of children trapped in child labour is increasing for the first time in two decades and now stands at 160 million. According to the ILO, child labour refers to work that deprives children (anyone under the age of 18, including adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17) of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development. Children can sometimes be preferred to young workers as they can be more easily exploited.

While child labour is increasing, young people are faced with high levels of unemployment, poor jobs and a lack of opportunities for skills development. This has only deteriorated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, young people were three times more likely to be unemployed than adults and many work in poor jobs in the informal sector. Some young workers are unpaid, have very low wages and have no protections. Others are subjected to forced labour and human trafficking, with young migrant workers at particular risk.

Young people constitute over 40% of the world’s population with the majority found in rural areas in developing countries. In Africa alone, three quarters of the population is below 35, and 12 to 15 million jobs are needed annually to absorb them into the labour market.

Young Africa Mozambique
© European Union

Tackling child labour while promoting youth skills and employment

It is important to draw more attention to youth employment in the policy discussions related to child labour. There are significant opportunities to increase youth employment and skills development, while reducing the incidence of child labour, across all sectors and especially in agriculture.

Most child labourers are doubly disadvantaged when they reach working age. As most are denied a chance of going to school, their prospects for decent work in youth and adulthood are severely constrained.

Young people that are not in education, employment or training (NEETs) should be equipped with relevant skills and given access to resources to take advantage of opportunities that may stem from the elimination of child labour. The exploitation of children, especially in hazardous work, should not be replaced by the exploitation of young people. Youth deserve decent work opportunities, that is fairly paid and safe.

The recent 2021 UN ECOSOC Youth Forum identified specific needs and solutions required to boost youth employment. They include: quality apprenticeships and paid traineeships programmes; subsidies to support continuity of young people in education and training; hiring subsidies also for families to end dependence on child labour; and access to various forms of capital and technology for young entrepreneurs.

A call for rural transformation

The greatest opportunities for this positive transformation lies in rural areas. The agricultural sector and rural settings account for the largest share of child labour worldwide with 70 and 76 per cent respectively.

Participants at a workshop on child labour in agriculture organised by INTPA, together with the ILO and FAO in 2019, highlighted the fact that 20% of rural youth worldwide never went to school. Their aspirations for training and jobs are sky-high, but there is a huge gap with the reality to fulfil this need. They recommended the creation and reform of accessible Vocational Education and Training (VET) systems that match labour market needs in the areas where children and youth are victims and at risk of child labour.

To effectively reduce and eventually eliminate child labour, workable solutions are required especially in agriculture and food production. This fits very well with the opportunities presented by rural transformation and green industrialisation agendas, and to create more wage employment for young people in a sustainable manner.

Agro-food industries are labour-intensive and can create jobs in rural areas as well as ensure food security. As household dietary patterns change as a result of new demands by a rising middle class for diversified and processed foods, new decent job opportunities are being created in food-related manufacturing and services.

Examples of the EU’s action

The VET Toolbox works with partner countries to strengthen their capacity to implement Vocational Education and Training (VET) and labour market reforms, enhancing labour market relevance and employability of young people.

The EU Emergency Trust Fund for stability and addressing root causes of irregular migration and displaced persons in Africa, is increasing economic and employment opportunities and inclusion for youth. This is being achieved by increasing their social and professional skills as well as enhancing effective job creation for young people. Read about one such project being implemented in the Sahel here.

Credit: © FAO/ Sadou Doumi

The CLEAR Cotton project, financed by the EU and implemented by the FAO in Mali, is offering rural families and young people training and inputs for other income-generating activities, such as poultry or small ruminant breeding and market gardening, increasing their household income. This in turn allows them to hire adult day workers for fieldwork and pay school fees for their children. In Burkina Faso and Mali the project has withdrawn adolescents in situations or at risk of child labour and reintegrated them into vocational education and on the job training.

    The EU stands committed

    The EU has continuously worked to address the root causes of child labour. At the same time, we stand committed to promoting youth employment. These two policy objectives can be achieved together by tackling poverty, inequalities, increasing access to quality education and skills development, promoting due diligence for sustainable supply chains, and seizing on new opportunities.

    At the very beginning of her mandate, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, made a commitment to step up the EU’s fight against child labour to the next level, by pledging a zero-tolerance policy on child labour in new trade agreements. The recently adopted EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child is another milestone in implementing this commitment in our external action. The European Consensus on Development, recognises youth as a key driver of sustainable development and the Council Conclusions on Youth in External Action calls forinvesting in youthand promoting their access toeducation, decent jobsand entrepreneurial opportunities.

    The recent creation of the Youth Sounding Board established by EU Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, is a concrete step to promote the greater participation of young people in our policy making.

      Join us on the journey to end child labour

      The EU will continue to explore new areas and innovative and effective approaches to eradicate child labour, in cooperation with existing initiatives and alliances. And to raise awareness of all actors on this unacceptable reality: everybody can play a role even if very little. The 2022 global conference on child labour in South Africa will be instrumental in this regard: the EU is ready to actively participate and commit to further work with all actors towards an ambitious outcome by 2025.

      We call on all others to step-up their actions: governments, private sector, civil society, communities, trade unions and other stakeholders. If not, we risk losing another generation of children to child labour.

      At the same time, youth employment is one of the most pressing challenges we face today, especially as we look to build back better after the Covid-19 pandemic.

      Let’s promote youth inclusion and empowerment to end child labour together!

        Additional resources

        Read our previous articles exploring different themes on child labour for the International Year: