Previous studies have focused on the impact of pandemics and health crises on the welfare of children. Lockdowns during pandemics increase the reported cases of child abuse and neglect and the loss of parental support worldwide (Douglas et al. 2009
; Jentsch and Schnock 2020
; Rodriguez et al. 2021
). Nevertheless, during pandemics, the social protection of children has been judged as inadequate, as in the case of the H1N1 flu (Douglas et al. 2009
; Murray 2010
). In general, pandemics create conditions under which the maltreatment, abuse and neglect of children are enabled (Rodriguez et al. 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has attracted research interest over the past few months that has mostly focused on its socio-economic consequences worldwide (Aneja and Ahuja 2020
; Ali et al. 2020
; Nicola et al. 2020
). It has been estimated that COVID-19 will mainly affect the well-being of vulnerable groups, including children (Armitage and Nellums 2020
). The UN Committee of the Rights of the Child highlighted the importance of investigating the impact of the recent pandemic on children’s human rights, including health issues, their well-being and development, as well as the problem of child labour (Campbell et al. 2021
; Lee 2021
). Therefore, the estimated effects of COVID-19 on child labour merit attention and this should be a top research priority considering the vulnerability of minors to child labour. In particular, according to Zahed et al.
) the case of children when investigating the consequences of COVID-19 is often neglected, even though they are a vulnerable social group. Apart from the psychological and physical consequences of COVID-19, the researchers concluded that working children are more susceptible to the infection and that the pandemic has increased poverty, which is a contributing factor to child labour.
The recent pandemic is expected to increase the risks for vulnerable social groups including children and it could lead to higher rates of child labour, exploitation, forced labour and slavery (Ahad et al. 2020
; Rafferty 2020
; Raman et al. 2020
). These findings are in line with Gupta and Jawanda
), who argued that the pandemic will increase economic insecurity and child exploitation, including child labour, mainly in poor regions. Similarly, the pandemic is expected to lead to an economic crisis and to increase child poverty, which is a determinant of child labour (Goldman et al. 2020
; Van Lancker and Parolin 2020
). Ghosh et al.
) also argued that the recent pandemic has had a significant psychological impact on children. According to the researchers, COVID-19 is expected to increase child abuse and domestic violence, as well as child labour and exploitation.
Over the past decades, several international organizations (e.g., the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour, the UNICEF Office of Research-Innocenti, the ILO’s Asia Regional Child Labour Programme) and non-governmental organizations (e.g., Save the Children, Love 146, the HAQ Centre for Child Rights, the International Initiative to End Child Labor, Plan International, World Vision etc.) have made significant efforts towards the reduction in child labour rates in developing countries. It has been argued that over the past decades the rates of child labour were controlled due to several economic policies that set commitments for poverty eradication, educational opportunities and the elimination of child labour, according to the first Millenium Development Goal (MDGs) (Leinberger-Jabari et al. 2005
; Haines et al. 2007
; Rena 2009
). Nevertheless, it has been predicted that the pandemic and the health measures will lead to an economic recession, limited demand for consumer goods, higher unemployment, reduced household income and cross—border remittances (Ahad et al. 2020
; Nicola et al. 2020
The impact of previous pandemics (e.g., Ebola, SARS, HIV/AIDS, H1N1, Influenza) on the well-being of minors has been the subject of previous studies (Holmberg 2017
; Shelley-Egan and Dratwa 2019
). Nevertheless, the economic exploitation of children during health crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, remains under investigated. Therefore, the present paper represents the first effort to conduct an extended literature review on empirical papers that have studied the association between pandemics and child labour in developing countries, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
The paper is structured as follows: In Section 2
the issue of child labour is briefly defined and the principal reasons for this phenomenon are mentioned. The following sections present the findings of previous studies. In particular, in Section 3
the findings of the literature review on child labour and pandemics are presented and discussed, focusing on developing countries, while Section 3
is limited to the association between COVID-19 and working children. The paper concludes with suggestions and policy implications. The limitations of the present study are also presented in Section 6
2. Rationale and Contribution of the Study
This research focused on low- and middle- income economies (for brevity developing countries) and argues that they are characterised by overpopulation and inadequate health systems which renders these economies more vulnerable to economic and social shocks, such as the recent health crisis (Bong et al. 2020
). In particular, less developed countries have insufficient health care services, including limited health personnel and protection equipment (Bong et al. 2020
; Sharfuddin 2020
), high poverty rates and limited public expenditure on health and access to social amenities (Ataguba and Ataguba 2020
). Moreover, population density in developing countries rendered social distancing impossible during the COVID-19 pandemic (Bong et al. 2020
; Bortz et al. 2020
), while several developing economies have a large labour force, including minor employees (Sharfuddin 2020
According to Daly et al.
) there has been minimal research on child labour and COVID-19 that has focused on the case of migrant employees. It is noted that Gupta and Jawanda
) studied the potential consequences of the pandemic on children’s well-being and everyday life, while Zahed et al.
) investigated the association between COVID-19 and child labour in general; on the contrary, the present research focuses on developing economies. Similarly, Roberton et al.
) investigated the indirect effects of the pandemic on children in developing countries but focused solely on the mortality rates. Therefore, previous studies have focused on the other ways in which COVID-19 affected children (e.g., mortality rates, everyday life etc.). On the contrary, the present research is the first systematic review to investigate the impact of previous pandemics and COVID-19 on child labour.
3. Definition of Child Labour
The past decades have witnessed various efforts by international and local organizations in the fight against the phenomenon of child labour. The present research focuses on minor employees in developing countries and argues that they have higher rates of child labour (Scanlon et al. 2002
), including contributing family workers (Diallo et al. 2013
). Child labour includes the violation of the human rights of minors and it is associated with various harmful activities (Edmonds and Pavcnik 2005
). Several definitions of child labour have been presented to date, ranging from wage work for minors (Psacharopoulos 1997
) and various forms of market work (Ray and Lancaster 2005
) to domestic activities (Basu et al. 2010
; Assaad et al. 2010
). These findings are in line with Levison and Moe
) and Webbink et al.
), who also defined domestic activities as a “hidden” form of child labour. According to Basu
), child labour could be either paid or not paid and it is associated with domestic activities.
Similarly, according to the ILO/IPEC
), child labour should not be confused with child work. In particular, child labour includes activities that deprive minors of their childhood, potential and dignity and could negatively affect their mental and physical development; it is therefore harmful to minors. Based on the ILO Minimum Age Convention (ILO 1973, No. 138
), minors should be older than 15 to legally participate in the labour force (ILO 1973
). UNICEF has further extended the above presented definitions and focuses on the importance of both domestic and economic work. In particular, child labour refers to minors aged 5–11 engaged in any economic activity or at least 28 h of domestic activities, minors aged 12–14 engaged in any economic activity, excluding light work for no more than 14 h weekly and minors aged 15–16 engaged in any hazardous work (UNICEF 2007
). Therefore, it is concluded that there is no single universally accepted definition of the phenomenon. Finally, the ILO/IPEC
) observed that in order to define “work” as child labour several factors should be considered, including the age, the hours and the type of work, the working conditions and the objectives.
Several international organizations provide country-level data on child labour, including the ILO, the World Bank, the United Nations and UNICEF, as well as child labour indicators (e.g., ILO’s indicator on the Proportion and Number of Children aged 5–17 years engaged in Child Labour, UNICEF’s indicator on the Percentage of Children aged 5–17 years engaged in Child Labour etc.), while certain previous studies have used the secondary school non-enrollment rates as a proxy for child labour (Kucera 2002
; Busse and Braun 2004
; Braun 2006
; Beegle et al. 2009
), although several minor employees go to school and it is argued that school enrolment and child labour are not incompatible activities; therefore, combining child labour and school enrolment is feasible but difficult (Ravallion and Wodon 2000
; Attanasio et al. 2010
; Edmonds and Shrestha 2014
The Latin American and the Caribbean countries rank second among the regions with higher child labour rates, which has also been attributed mostly to poverty (Sedlacek et al. 2009
; Lieten 2011
). Consequently, despite the regional prevalence of the phenomenon in Sub-Saharan Africa, there are economically active children in other geographic regions as well. Thus, the problem mostly affects the developing countries; however, it is not a matter of national or regional concern but a subject of international dialogue, most of all during global crises such as pandemics, which are investigated in the following section.
4. Studies on Child Labour and Previous Non-COVID-19 Pandemics in Developing Countries
Child labour is considered a visible and the most common form of child abuse and neglect in developing countries (Caesar-Leo 1999
; Maruf et al. 2003
; Mahmod et al. 2016
) and based on the above, the present research focuses on the association between child labour and the pandemics in the developing countries, including the COVID-19 pandemic. In several developing countries, pandemics push minors into the labour markets (Grier 2004
; Deb 2005
). Therefore, an in-depth systematic literature review was conducted using reliable databases, (e.g., Sciencedirect, Scopus, Google Scholar, NCBI etc.). The key terms used during the research were “child labor”, “child labour”, “epidemic”, “pandemic”, as presented in Table 1
. It is noted that scientific peer-journal articles were included that were published in English and that focused on developing countries, as well as reports from international organizations, such as the UNICEF, the ILO etc. Thus, books and conference proceedings were excluded.
The literature review revealed that there has been limited contemporary academic research on child labour and pandemics over the past decades, as presented in Table 2
. For each study, the case study of the developing country and the pandemic is presented, as well as the methodological approach applied. Moreover, the main conclusions of the previous related studies are included in the following table.
It could be argued that previous pandemics in developing economies exacerbated the existing issues of child exploitation and labour, while gendered responsibilities were observed. Moreover, previous studies focused on paid child labour and it is argued that non-paid work could be characterised as invisible and difficult to estimate. Among the above presented studies, Sorsa and Abera
) were the first to study child labour and malaria as a type of pandemic. However, their study did not focus exclusively on the association between the two variables, but mainly on children that worked in regions in which malaria was endemic. Lugalla and Sigalla
) argued that in Tanzania there was little awareness of working children, mainly in rural areas. They suggested that the government and international organizations should cooperate to reduce rural poverty and therefore eliminate child labour.
To summarise, there is evidence to support the claim that there is an important research gap on child labour in Latin America during pandemics, which should be confronted since minor employees remain a major social issue in the region. It is interesting that several Latin American countries were affected by pandemics over the past decades, including the outbreak of cholera in the ‘90s (Kumate et al. 1998
; Poirier et al. 2012
), which affected other countries with high rates of child labour, such as Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela (Psacharopoulos 1997
; Silva et al. 2019
; Costa et al. 2020
). Therefore, the present study concludes that there is a research gap regarding child labour and pandemics in the region.
5. Studies on COVID-19 and Child Labour in Developing Countries
Based on the above presented procedure, the additional terms “COVID-19” and “SARS-COV-2” were included as keywords. Therefore, the keywords used in this analysis were: “child labor”, “child labour”, “epidemic”, “pandemic”, “COVID-19” and “SARS-COV-2”. The results of the final search are presented in Table 3
. It is noted that the included papers were based on secondary data and literature reviews.
The studies lead to the common argument that the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to lead to an employment crisis in developing countries, which will lead to higher percentages of child labour. As for the methodological approach, it was observed that all of the included papers were based on a literature review and on secondary data. Except for the study of Greenbaum et al.
), the researchers focused on the cases of specific countries rather than on a group of countries. The case of India was dominant and it has been studied by four researchers to date, who were motivated by the increased demand for cheap labour force in the country and high poverty rates in the country (Kaur and Byard 2021
). On the contrary, Sserwanja et al.
) focused on the case of Uganda, which was motivated by the increase in children abuse incidents in the county during the pandemic.
In particular, the majority of the above presented studies turned their orientation towards child labour and COVID-19 in the Asian developing countries. Therefore, it is observed that to date there is no published research regarding the case of the Latin American and the Caribbean countries, while there is decreasing research interest in the African developing countries compared to previous pandemics and health crises. This could be attributed to the characteristics of several Asian countries that render children more vulnerable to the disease, including population density, poor health systems and insufficient testing, which led to research interest in COVID-19 and its consequences to the region (Sarkar et al. 2020
; Stone 2020
; Alam 2021
On the contrary, even though Africa has similar characteristics to Asia, it has not been studied so far given that the onset of the COVID-19 was later and mortality and fatality rates were lower compared to other regions (Bamgboye et al. 2020
; Makoni 2020
). Thus, according to Ghosh et al.
) there is an African paradox. Additionally, it is concluded that the Latin American countries, which are listed among the highly affected countries (Rivarola Puntigliano 2020
), have not been the subject of recent research.
Another developing issue refers to the gender of the minor employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. The present study concludes that the role of child labourers during the recent pandemic has not been the subject of research so far. Nevertheless, gender is listed among the determinants of child labour (Edmonds and Pavcnik 2005
; Alam et al. 2015
; Bérenger and Verdier-Chouchane 2016
). Additionally, in developing economies, including the Asian countries presented above, gender inequality remains a pervasive problem (Stone 2020
) and it could be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic (Pinchoff et al. 2021
Finally, the reports of international organizations on child labour and COVID-19 (e.g., ILO/UNICEF 2020
; United Nations/DESA 2020
; The World Bank Group 2020
) reached the common conclusion that the current pandemic could reverse the positive trends and increase child labour worldwide. This rise is attributed to the disruption in supply chains and to higher commodity prices. School closures, dropout rates, limited employment opportunities, failing living standards and trading activity in the post-COVID-19 period are listed among the channels of child labour during the pandemic. It is noted that Ghosh et al.
) also concluded that COVID-19 is expected to increase child labour; nevertheless, their research did not focus on developing countries and thus the study was excluded from the above presented table.
6. Discussion and Suggestions
The present research focused on the consequences of pandemics, including COVID-19, on child labour in developing countries. Developing countries were the subject of the research since they have several structural and social inequities. The pandemic is expected to have socio-economic and employment consequences that will greatly affect individuals’ well-being and lives, including minor employees. This research represents the first attempt to conduct a literature review on the association between pandemics and child labour in developing countries.
The findings of the literature review on pandemics highlighted their impact on child labour rates, among other increasing socio-economic issues. It is concluded that pandemics are associated with an increased demand for child labour, along with absenteeism and higher dropout rates (Gicharu et al. 2015
; Ngegba and Mansaray 2016
; The World Bank Group 2020
). Similarly, it is anticipated that the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to human rights abuses, mainly in developing countries, as well as to social inequalities. The recent pandemic could lead to a sudden rise in the child labour rates in developing countries, wiping out previous efforts to combat the problem and to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals on forced labour, trafficking and child labour (Goal 8.7.).
The included studies and reports were based on different methodological approaches, considering that the research on the recent pandemic is ongoing and that currently there is no published study that includes primary data. Studies on previous pandemics were based on both primary and secondary data, using a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches. Among them, certain studies (e.g., Sorsa and Abera 2016
; Evans 2012
; Ngegba and Mansaray 2016
) collected primary data from focus groups, which could lead to inaccurate or biased results. It is noted that only the report presented by the Save the Children/UNICEF/World Vision/Plan International
) included a thematic content analysis, which was based on the capture of certain words and phrases; nevertheless, the phrases might not have captured the exact meaning of the answers. Questionnaires were used by certain researchers (Nyambedha et al. 2003
; Gicharu et al. 2015
) which provided wide coverage, compared to other research tools (e.g., observations, interviews etc.) and ensured greater validity and anonymity. As for the studies on the COVID-19 pandemic, as mentioned above, they were based on a literature review given that the investigation into the association between COVID-19 and child labour is ongoing and it is difficult to collect, elaborate and publish primary data on the subject at present.
The study is subjected to certain limitations, which are mostly related to the issues that arise when investigating child labour. Firstly, one limitation refers to the number of the published papers on child labour and COVID-19, let alone in developing countries. Nevertheless, the paper focused on the specific issue motivated by the literature gap and the importance of child labour as a social phenomenon and COVID-19 as a global health crisis.
Secondly, it is difficult to estimate the hidden or non-paid work by minor employees, such as domestic activities, which are defined as a form of child labour (Levison and Moe 1998
; Basu et al. 2010
; Assaad et al. 2010
; Webbink et al. 2012
). Thirdly, only published scientific papers from different databases and reports from international organizations were selected and included. Therefore, dissertations and book chapters were excluded, as well as papers not published in English. Finally, another limitation of the research refers to the ethical dilemmas arising when investigating child labour. According to Daly et al.
) it is difficult to communicate with the families of minor employees; however, their study focused solely on minor employees in Nepal. On the contrary, Dammert and Galdo
) conducted large-scale research and observed that the survey design influences child labour statistics, which is in line with the findings of Dillon et al.
6.2. Suggestions for Future Research
Empirical and theoretical research on child labour should be a top priority among researchers of different fields. A literature gap was observed for the case of child labour in the Latin American and the Caribbean countries considering that the impact of health crises, including previous pandemics and COVID-19, has not been adequately studied. Therefore, it is concluded that the countries of the region should also be investigated to cover all geographic regions.
In addition, future studies should also be oriented towards the investigation of children in the street during the pandemics, considering that the related literature remains relatively silent. Children in the street are vulnerable to exploitation and violence (Caesar-Leo 1999
) and it would be interesting to investigate the impact of health crises in this specific sub-group. Similarly, the case of migrant children in developing countries is of increasing interest, as suggested by Daly et al.
Finally, the study focused on the impact of large health shocks on child labour arguing that they influence, among others, household income, insecurity, demand for a cheap labour force, migration and remittances, etc. Nevertheless, other large shocks could increase child labour. It is observed that armed conflicts and wars increase child labour (ILO 2010
; Haer 2019
; Naufal et al. 2019
), as well as economic shocks (Beegle et al. 2003
; Duryea et al. 2007
; Dumas 2020
), earthquakes and other natural disasters (Santos 2010
; Vásquez and Bohara 2010
) etc. Therefore, future studies could conduct a systematic review on the relationship between child labour and other forms of shocks (e.g., economic, social etc.).
6.3. Policy Implications
The study concluded that emergency actions should be taken in order to prevent child exploitation and to ensure that previous gains will not be lost. It is crucial to tackle child labour and to proceed to combined actions to protect children at risk of exploitation. The study highlights the importance of preventing child labour as a side effect of the pandemic and argues that it undermines the development of children and society.
Furthermore, the existing legal framework on child labour should be enforced and implemented worldwide. Policymakers should focus on the effectiveness of child protection services and on their role in preventing the exploitation and abuse of children. Among the studied economies, it is observed that India has inadequate protection services (Chopra 2020
; Kaur and Byard 2021
), while the social support in Uganda is insufficient, according to the findings of Sserwanja et al.
). Therefore, protection services should be improved through improving the recruitment and retention of employees, promoting cooperation among services and improving supervision (UNICEF 2019b
Local authorities should cooperate with childcare institutions and international organizations to report violence against children and facilitate communication among children, police/non-government organizations and lawyers. According to the findings of Larmar et al.
) the cooperation between the involved parts could be strengthened via recovery programs based on the capacity development approach, as in the case of Nepal.
Finally, public awareness on child abuse and exploitation, mainly amidst social crises, should be raised. Attention should also be paid to poor households and cash transfer programs for them could be developed. Poor working children contribute to the family income to cope with poverty; therefore, banning child labour could negatively affect household income. Smith
) proposed that poor households should receive financial support so that children are not forced into labour. Therefore, to help children in developing economies during pandemics local authorities and governments must provide child-friendly environments and free education.
Regardless of the geographic region and the countries’ level of development, actions should be coordinated to prevent a potential reversal of the achieved goals regarding child labour. It should be kept in mind that child labour should be eradicated in order to develop a just and free society. In conclusion, as suggested by the UNICEF, it is a time of crisis, a time to act.