The rising risk of child labour due to COVID-19

Jun 10, 2020
Few things have commanded our attention and energy during COVID-19 as much as our weekly grocery shop. 

Early in the pandemic, many of us were driven by fear. Worried about shortages, we stocked up on canned goods, pasta and other essentials. As time has passed, we’ve had to adjust to new grocery shopping routines: booking that coveted curbside pick-up or delivery slot before it’s gone and hoping there won’t be too many substitutions, or waiting in long lines at the store, sanitizing on the way in and out, and physically distancing.

Across Canada, grocery sales increased by 19% in April compared to the same time last year.  Never have Canadians been so appreciative of – or thought as much about - our food as we do now.

Grocery love vs. producer challenges

But it’s not just Canadians’ connection to food that is being impacted by COVID-19. Workers in global food supply chains are also being profoundly affected and placed at greater risk.

While this certainly includes grocery store staff here in Canada working tirelessly to stock shelves and at the checkout, it also includes many child labourers. Prior to COVID-19, 71% of child labourers worldwide (108 million girls and boys) were found within the agricultural sector.  Whether it was harvesting cocoa in the Ivory Coast, coffee in Guatemala, or shrimp from Thailand, children have played an important role in supplying our food, often at the expense of their own health and education. 

Previous World Vision research has identified over a billion dollars worth of food items potentially produced by child labourers being imported into Canada each year by 174 different companies. COVID-19 is putting children at greater risk.

COVID-19’s impact on child labour

COVID-19 has the potential to increase child labour risks in multiples ways, including by driving more girls and boys into child labour, increasing the vulnerability of those who already must work, and by undermining efforts to address child labour.  

As girls and boys around the world stay home from school, many lack internet access and the technology needed to participate in remote learning. Experience shows that children not in school are at high risk of child labour, and many may simply never return. 

a rusty padlock on a wooden door painted green
Schools like this one in Mithapukur, Bangladesh, are closed in an effort 'plank the curve' of COVID-19. But for many children schools are an essential lifeline and protective environment. Photo: Batel Sarker

COVID-19 is also putting significant strains on families’ livelihoods and finances. The ILO has estimated that the equivalent of 305 million full-time jobs could be lost between April-June. 42-66 million children are at risk of falling into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year, in addition to the 386 million children already in extreme poverty. Millions of girls and boys could be pushed into child labour in order to survive and help make ends meet for their family.

A good indication of the ripple impact of income loss can be found in cocoa. Evidence from an International Cocoa Initiative study in the Ivory Coast found a 10% reduction in family income led to 5% increase in child labour.  Although this study was done prior to COVID-19, it serves as a warning call for the current context.

Fairtrade International is warning that the crisis is disrupting global food supply chains and the well-being of producers. Western countries are decreasing certain imports due to safety concerns resulting in severe drops in orders. For example, the price of tea in India is reported to have dropped by almost 40% due to reduced demand. This has led to heavy job and income losses amongst groups who were already vulnerable. 

Even when schools reopen, parents without jobs may not have the money to pay for school fees or supplies, leading to further vulnerability to child labour.

What can we do?

Knowing the story behind our food and the connections to child labour may seem like an extra burden our minds can’t muster the energy for right now.

But we have a chance to rethink how we consume and the impact these purchases have on those who grow and produce our food. 

Knowing children are likely to be exploited in greater numbers should give us a sense of urgency to act. 

In this context, what can we do as regular visitors to the grocery store?
  1. Do your research - know what food items are at high risk of child labour 
  2. Become conscious consumers – looking for ethical labels like Fairtrade is one way that you can help parents around the world earn a living wage and reduce the likelihood that their children end up in dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs. Here’s a helpful guide to start you on that path.
  3. Call on Canada to adopt supply chain legislation –Momentum is building in Canada towards legislation that would help hold companies accountable for the well-being of workers in their global supply chains. This is an important one for Canada to take, especially as we know many more children are vulnerable to child labour. Sign the petition.
Our weekly grocery shop can be exhausting in many respects. But we can prioritize the well-being of children by becoming informed, seeking out ethical alternatives, and calling for lasting change.

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