How climate affects child labour

Child labour is a complex and pervasive issue in developing nations

By Raza Hussain Qazi
June 15, 2024
A child carries clothes to sell to customers. — AFP/File

On the 12th of June each year, the International Labour Organization joins forces with ILO constituents and partners around the world to observe the World Day Against Child Labour.


This year’s day centered around commemorating the 25th anniversary of the adoption of ILO Convention No 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999), which, in 2020, became the first universally ratified ILO Convention. While many member states have yet to ratify ILO Convention No 138, the day also functioned as a reminder to all stakeholders to enhance their implementation of the two fundamental ILO Conventions?on child labour – ILO Convention No 182 and ILO Convention No 138 concerning Age for Admission to Employment or Work (1973).

Child labour is a complex and pervasive issue in developing nations. According to the International Labour Organization, a total of 152 million children – 64 million girls and 88 million boys – are engaged in child labour globally, depriving them of their childhood and constraining their capabilities. Unicef recently estimated that there are 246 million child labourers worldwide. For us, these estimates depict a grim reality, with about 3.3 million children ensnared in this vicious cycle. Their tiny hands are forced to navigate hazardous mines, weave carpets, or toil in brick kilns under extreme heat.

Agriculture, domestic work, and street vending represent additional harsh realities that subject children to physical and mental trauma, stunted growth, and restricted opportunities. These activities rob children of their childhood, impede their access to health and education, and consign them to the savage interplay of poverty and deprivation.

Punjab, the province which unfortunately remains a historic contributor to the staggering child labour statistics, sees 13.4 per cent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 engaged in child labor, which shows a decrease from 16 per cent recorded in 2014. However, there is only a fraction of the issue that we know about.

The fact is that updated and accurate data has always posed a daunting challenge for the responders – both public and private. The Punjab Child Labour Survey (PCLS) 2019-2020 is only the second child labour survey conducted in Punjab, followed by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Child Labour Survey (KPCLS) conducted from January to October 2022 across all 32 districts of the province, including the Newly Merged Districts (NMDs).

The survey offers distinctive insights into the living conditions of children and adolescents in the province, encompassing their daily activities such as schooling, work, household chores, and leisure. However, it is noteworthy that none of the documents considered climate change as a significant emerging factor that contributes to the worsening of child labour in the country.

It is now an established fact that children are recognized as one of the demographic groups most vulnerable to the systemic disruptions induced by climate change. The synthesis report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – sixth assessment report (AR6) in 2022 – highlights that climate change-induced occurrences have a detrimental impact on children’s educational attainment, exposing them vulnerable to engaging in child labour, hazardous occupations, and forced migration.

Climate-induced poverty and malnutrition exacerbate human rights situations and contribute to an increase in child labour. This nexus is especially important for agriculture and its subsectors, which experience 26 per cent of the economic impacts of climate change-related disasters and account for 70 percent of all child labour (160 million girls and boys).

After the 2010 floods, studies showed a rise in child labour, especially in begging. However, there is a lack of data following the 2022 floods that should be gathered promptly. Since the 2022 floods, an increasing number of children have been forced into domestic servitude to repay loans their parents borrowed from landlords. Reports estimate that around 70 per cent of bonded labourers in Pakistan are children.

Though insufficient efforts have been made to gather evidence of increased child labour incidences after the 2022 floods, there is concrete data showing the impact on children’s access to education, the health decline of families, and economic hardships in the affected regions. This situation compels parents to prioritize sending children to work over attending school.

Climate change is worsening child labour rates, especially in agriculture, which constitutes 70 per cent of all child labour, as per the ILO. The 14th Annual Meeting of the ILO Child Labour Platform focused on ‘From the Ground Up: Collective Action to End Child Labor in Supply Chains’. A recent report by Save the Children, ‘Born Into the Climate Crisis’, provides compelling evidence that calls for urgent action to secure the rights today and for future generations.

The interplaying web of poverty, hunger, child labour, and the climate crisis is essential to be unwoven to understand how we could save our children from falling into the unbridled quagmire which can consume their whole lives. The climate crisis has significantly augmented the risk of extreme weather events like droughts, wildfires, crop failures, floods, and heatwaves. Children in rural areas of low and middle-income countries, who are already at higher risk of child labour, are disproportionately impacted by this cruel reality.

Without a thorough understanding of child labour with a close view to newly emerging dynamics and trends, policies and programmes aimed at eradicating its worst forms may not achieve their goals. We have constitutional remedies that can be further refined or defined should there be perfect cognizance of the problem, its underlying causes, contributing factors.

All we need on top of all that is the ‘political will’ to address it. For instance, we have Article 11.3 of the constitution of Pakistan which prohibits children under fourteen from working in factories, mines, or any hazardous employment. Similar safeguards are outlined in Article 37 of the constitution. Section 50 of the Factories Act of 1934 prohibits the employment of young children. No child under fourteen years old can work in factories.

The Employment of Children Act, 1991, and subsequent lists of laws and policies made at national and provincial levels outline hazardous occupations, remedies, and processes prohibiting the employment of children under 14. However, the fundamental aspect is the lack of visible implementation spirit.

Despite being highly vulnerable to various forms of violence and exploitation, such as physical, psychological, sexual, economic, and climate-related shocks, children in Pakistan appear to be the least prioritized segment. Nearly 30 years after Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), no public coordinated child protection case management and referral system aligned with international standards has been established at any level. There is a need to align child protection in the curriculum at all levels. There are plenty of dignified ways to embed in appropriate ways.

Recognizing children as equal stakeholders and key agents of change is imperative for addressing the climate and child rights crisis. Scaling up social protection systems and including them and communities in policy discourse is a crucial step to mitigate the rising impacts of climate shocks on children and families.

The writer is a climate governance expert. He tweets/posts razashafqat and can be reached at: