The Guardian • Issue #1966

COVID-19 and child labour

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported that child labour has risen by over 8mil to 160mil children in the four years from 2016 to 2020.

“Child labour remains unacceptably common in the world today. At the start of 2020, prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, 160mil children – 63mil girls and 97mil boys – were in child labour, or one in ten children worldwide.”

We are still living in an uncivilised world. The most uncivilised, by any meaningful sense of the word, are the imperialists who make their millions off of the system that produces these inhuman crimes. The imperialists of the US, Europe, Australia, are the so-far lasting traces of pure backwardness. People of the world deserve better than such rulers.

The pandemic has no doubt exacerbated the problem, with kids out of school and parents out of work. A humane society would be prepared for such eventualities and guarantee the necessities to all the people; but we do not live in a world where such humanity is predominant.

But the rise in child labour had already begun before the pandemic, and the full impact of the changed conditions is believed to be yet to be felt, with a lower bound estimate of a further 9mil children predicted to be pushed into child labour, up to over 40mil.

According to the ILO findings, the proportion of children aged five to seventeen in hazardous work “likely to harm their health, safety or morals” has risen by nine per cent since 2016, to 79mil. It’s rather difficult to imagine what kind of work wouldn’t be likely to harm the health, safety, and morals of a five-year-old child.

The ILO and UNICEF recommendations in response to these findings are:

  • Adequate social protection for all, including universal child benefits.
  • Increased spending on free and good-quality schooling and getting all children back into school – including children who were out of school before COVID-19.
  • Promotion of decent work for adults, so families don’t have to resort to children helping to generate family income.
  • An end to harmful gender norms and discrimination that influence child labour.
  • Investment in child protection systems, agricultural development, rural public services, infrastructure and livelihoods.

While this problem exists across the world, it is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. While these are good recommendations, the fact that so many African countries struggle to provide these measures is not simply down to arbitrary policy decisions, but to the international chains of production and exploitation that consign millions of people to poverty.

The European pillage of Africa began very overtly but still continues to this day, joined by other imperialist countries such as the US, Japan, and Australia. Financial and political domination strip nations of their independence and sovereignty. African countries have been kept deliberately underdeveloped by the activities of these powers and their corporations to more easily rob Africa of its vast natural and human resources. Achieving independence from imperial domination is necessary to develop strong, self-reliant economies. Infrastructure development, in the hands of the people and not foreign mining companies, is key to this.

So too is education. The link between lack of education and cycles of poverty is clear. Educating the people is vital to tackling poverty, an understanding demonstrated well by socialist countries such as the former Soviet Union and China, which prioritised large scale literacy and education programs from the start. These measures, together with large-scale organisation of production and technological development facilitated by education, were successful at turning deeply impoverished, mostly-peasant nations into advanced powerhouses, doubling life expectancies.

A large proportion of children in child labour work for their family in subsistence or cash-crop farming. While some would ignorantly look at this and place moral blame on the parents, this is overwhelmingly a phenomenon of utter necessity in dire conditions. Because of the conditions imposed upon developing countries, agricultural production usually employs the majority of the population yet is extremely labour-intensive and inefficient in output, miring millions in inescapable poverty.

Another myth is the concept of “overpopulation,” a term often disingenuously used in these discussions. Relative to the stock of natural resources, the African continent is still significantly underpopulated compared to, for example, Europe.

Western powers often donate “aid” in the form of foodstuffs such as grain to African countries. This is a ploy to ensure dependence and keep agriculture in these countries underdeveloped. There is no clearer proof of this than the example set by Thomas Sankara.

Sankara, who became President of Burkina Faso in 1983, said: “those who come with wheat, millet, corn, or milk are not helping us. Those who really want to help us can give us ploughs, tractors, fertiliser, insecticide, watering cans, drills, dams. That is how we would define food aid.”

Demonstrating the truth of this in practice, Sankara declared that Burkina Faso would no longer accept food “aid” and instead put in place massive agriculture programs, education, and massive strides in women’s rights. Within a couple years, Burkina Faso had become entirely self-sufficient in agriculture.

But he was murdered in 1987, and evidence points to French intelligence playing a role in his assassination.

As Sankara said: “Imperialism is a system of exploitation that occurs not only in the brutal form of those who come with guns to conquer territory. Imperialism often occurs in more subtle forms, a loan, food aid, blackmail. We are fighting this system that allows a handful of men on Earth to rule all of humanity.”

To eradicate poverty everywhere and all its evil consequences such as child labour, the current international economic system must be consigned to history.

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