The role of social protection in the elimination of child labour: Evidence review and policy implications


Executive Summary

Child labour is at a crossroads

At the beginning of 2020 1 in 10 children aged 5 and over were involved in child labour worldwide – equating to an estimated 160 million children, or 63 million girls and 97 million boys. Despite significant progress in reducing child labour in the past two decades, most recent data shows that global progress on this measure has stalled since 2016 (ILO and UNICEF 2021).

Global estimates hide uneven progress by region in the past 20 years, with Asia and the Pacific (AP), and Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) showing steady reductions overall, while rates actually increased in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) from 2012 onwards. Although there is much variation across countries within each region, today, there are more children in child labour in SSA than in the rest of the world combined.

Evidence by age groups shows that there has been a greater toll on children aged 5-11 years, whose rates of child labour actually increased in contrast to a steady reduction for those aged 12 years or above. Girls are faring better than boys, whose trend decreased more slowly over time, and indeed reversed to register an overall increase in recent years (ILO and UNICEF 2021).

The above trends undermine children’s rights, well-being, and development, as well as the efforts being made through the Sustainable Development Goals and other mechanisms to eradicate child labour.

And what is more, these trends were observed prior to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, which has put millions more children at risk of child labour. It is estimated that without mitigation strategies, the number of children in child labour could rise by 8.9 million by the end of 2022, due to higher poverty and increased vulnerability (ILO and UNICEF 2021).

Strong social protection systems are necessary for the reduction and eventual elimination of child labour

By reducing family poverty risks and vulnerability, supporting livelihoods and school enrolment amongst other things, government social protection systems are essential in the fight to eradicate and prevent child labour (ILO 2013; ILO and UNICEF 2019 and 2021; Dammert et al. 2018; De Hoop and Rosati 2014a).

The good news is that in recent years many countries have significantly improved social protection coverage, by strengthening their social protection systems, and establishing effective social protection floors (ILO 2021d). However, global coverage is still too low: as of 2020, less than half of the global population were effectively covered by at least one social protection benefit, leaving more than four billion people wholly unprotected. Social protection coverage varies widely by region, broadly aligned with income levels (see Section 1.3).

Importantly, for child labour concerns at the global level, the vast majority of children under 15s – 73.6 per cent or 1.5 billion children in total – receive no child or family cash benefits (ILO 2021d). In many cases, programmes are not designed with the objective of benefiting children directly or to address child labour risk specifically. And, where other benefits are available, they are often not sufficiently adequate, comprehensive and child-sensitive and in many cases the quality of services is far from satisfactory.

Coverage and quality limitations are associated with underinvestment in social protection. Prior to the pandemic, low-income countries (LIC) and lower-middle-income countries (LMIC) spent respectively 1.1 and 2.5 per cent of GDP on social protection (excluding healthcare), compared to 8 per cent in upper-middle-income countries (UMIC) and 16.4 per cent in high-income countries (HIC). Countries spend on average 12.9 per cent of GDP on social protection, and child-specific spending was a mere 1.1 per cent (ILO 2021d). With children making up around 28 per cent of the global population, it is clear that this level of child-specific social protection spending is too low. Filling this “financing gap” for children, to ensure at least minimum provision for all, should be a priority, and an action which is likely to have significant implications for child labour too.

The need to access healthcare, sickness and unemployment benefits, care and family friendly-policies, became especially acute after the outbreak of COVID-19, and 2020 saw the largest mobilization of government social protection measures ever (Gentilini et al. 2022; ILO 2021c and 2021d). The ILO estimated that expanding social protection to adequately respond to the COVID-19 crisis could reduce the number of children in child labour by 15.1 million between 2020 and 2022 (ILO and UNICEF 2021).

However, the sensitivity of the overall social protection response to COVID-19 to the needs of families with children has been limited. Government stimuli in high-income countries and middle-income countries made little use of child-specific social protection measures, and instead focused on business supports and job protection schemes – often excluding households without secure and formal employment (Richardson et al. 2020a and 2020b). Indeed, support for vulnerable groups in the COVID-19 response in general was criticized by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty as being “maladapted, short-term, reactive, and inattentive to the realities of people in poverty” (De Schutter 2020).

To strengthen social protection systems for the reduction and elimination of child labour, this report recommends:

  • Close the yawning gap in the coverage of social protection for children by promoting inclusive social protection systems, and develop sustainable and equitable financing for this, as a matter of priority. This could translate into prioritizing child benefits as well as extending social protection to the two billion informal economy workers. The latter will support their transition to the formal economy. Formalization is a critical step in sustainable tax and transfer systems.

  • Don’t wait for development to build social protection systems – these systems are key to development. How specific social protection programmes complement one another within a system will determine overall efforts in addressing the determinants of households’ vulnerability to child labour across the life course. This is true also for integrated cross-sectoral social provision for children. No single programme will do the job.

  • In support of system building efforts, policymakers can utilize existing international policy commitments to universal social protection in building political consensus for action. Pre-existing commitments and frameworks, including the Sustainable Development Agenda and Goals (SDGs) and the strong tripartite policy consensus agreed by the International Labour Conference, offer this opportunity.

Design features of social protection policies matter

While social protection can be a powerful tool to combat child labour, it is not guaranteed that it reduces child labour in all cases. For instance, access to cash benefits can reduce the demand for child labour and increase household investment in children’s education, yet, at the same time, such transfers can lead to households investing in productive assets such as livestock or agricultural inputs that can potentially increase the demand for child labour. It is through the expansion of household economic activities that children can be drawn into child labour, sometimes in hazardous conditions, particularly if households cannot afford to access labour-saving technologies or engage adult workers.

To help ensure that productive investments by families do not increase child labour, the design features of social protection programmes matter. The transfer amounts, regularity and predictability, and duration of payments can all determine the child labour impacts of social protection. Moreover, as child labour is also influenced by national child labour legislation and enforcement capacity, social norms, local markets and infrastructure, as well as schooling access and quality, programme design features need to account for contexts to be effective in reducing it. Overall, it is a combination of economic, social, and educational policies (underpinned by appropriate national legislation and enforcement) that is needed to provide families and children with viable and sustained alternatives to child labour (Thévenon and Edmonds 2019).

To strengthen the design of social protection programmes for the reduction and elimination of child labour, including its worst forms, this report recommends:

  • Make use of inclusive universal social protection programmes which can increase the coverage and take-up of benefits by limiting exclusion errors, reducing stigma and shame, and procedural complexity, and therefore lower transaction and opportunity cost barriers.

  • Apply child-sensitive designs that consider the potential implications in terms of child labour, in the different sectors where children work. This can include sensitization on children’s rights, or provision of information on the hazards related to child labour. In combination, positive “messaging” on the relevance of promoting education over labour can make the difference.

  • Ensure both adequacy and predictability of social protection benefits. This is critical for generating protective impacts on child labour. Setting adequate benefit levels means taking into account household size and number of children, and adapting transfer amounts according to contexts such as local prices and wages, and revising transfer amounts to account for inflation. Regular payments make for predictable incomes, and longer-term decision making, including productive investments, that secure futures including for children at risk of child labour.

  • Combine social protection programmes with complementary and resourced interventions in the education and health sectors – this is particularly relevant in humanitarian settings, or settings where services might be weak or where supply struggles to meet demand. For instance, where education facilities are missing or of low quality, households may lack sufficient incentives to invest cash benefits in education opportunities.

What’s in this report?

This report explores the mechanisms by which social protection can impact child labour, and assesses the role of programme design features and contextual characteristics. To do this, it updates and expands previous ILO work in this area (ILO 2013), builds on recent systematic reviews (Bastagli et al 2019; Dammert et al. 2018), and conducts new searches for impact evaluations on the child labour impact of social protection in the period 2010-22.

Because all forms of social protection can impact child labour (even when not designed with an explicit child labour reduction objective) this report considers programmes beyond child and family benefits to include social protection available to caregivers of children (working-age adults and older persons) such as unemployment benefits or pensions. To learn more about the importance of design features, the report examines and compares different types of social protection programmes from non-contributory tax-financed schemes, contributory schemes, labour market policies for caregivers of children, social services, and integrated social protection programmes that combine cash benefits and services (“cash plus”).

Section 1 follows with a closer look at child labour trends and social protection policies globally. Section 2 summarizes the evidence on social protection policies by type, and their impacts on child labour. Section 3 concludes with policy implications and research recommendations.