The world has marked the first rise in child labour in two decades and the coronavirus crisis threatens to push millions more youngsters toward the same fate, the United Nations said Thursday.
In a joint report, the International Labour Organization and the UN children's agency UNICEF said the number in child labour stood at 160 million at the start of 2020 -- an increase of 8.4 million in four years.
The hike began before the pandemic hit and marks a dramatic reversal of a downward trend that had seen child labour numbers shrink by 94 million between year 2000 and 2016, it said.
Just as the Covid-19 crisis was beginning to pick up steam, nearly one in 10 children globally were stuck in child labour, with sub-Saharan Africa the worst affected.
While the percentage of children in child labour remained the same as in 2016, population growth meant that the numbers rose significantly.
And the pandemic risks worsening the situation significantly, the agencies said.
They warned that unless urgent action is taken to help ballooning numbers of families plunging into poverty, nearly 50 million more kids could be forced into child labour over the next two years.
"We are losing ground in the fight to end child labour," UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore told reporters, stressing that "the Covid-19 crisis is making a bad situation even worse."
"Now, well into a second year of global lockdowns, school closures, economic disruptions, and shrinking national budgets, families are forced to make heart-breaking choices."
If the latest projections of poverty increases due to the pandemic materialise, another nine million children will be pushed into child labour by the end of 2022, the report said.
But statistic modelling shows that number could potentially be more than five times higher, according to UNICEF statistics specialist Claudia Cappa, who co-authored the report.
"If social protection coverage slips from the current levels... as a result of austerity measures and other factors, the number of children falling into child labour can go up (an additional) 46 million" by the end of next year, she told AFP.
The report, which is published every four years, showed that children aged between five and 11 accounted for over half of the global figure.