COVID-19 pandemic fuelling child labour in Ghana, says HRW

Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that the government should provide cash allowances to families to protect children’s rights

The unprecedented economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, together with global school closures and inadequate government assistance, are pushing children into exploitative and dangerous child labour, Human Rights Watch and Friends of the Nation said in a report released in the lead-up to the World Day Against Child Labour on 12 June 2021.

The Ghanaian government and donors should prioritise cash allowances to families to protect children’s rights and enable families to maintain an adequate standard of living without resorting to child labour.

The 69-page report, “‘I Must Work to Eat’: Covid-19, Poverty and Child Labour in Ghana, Nepal and Uganda,” was co-published with Friends of the Nation in Ghana and the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) in Uganda.

It examines the rise in child labour and poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of the disease outbreak on children’s rights. Children described working long, gruelling hours for little pay after their parents lost jobs or income because of COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns. Many described hazardous working conditions.

“The pandemic has hit Ghanaian families hard, forcing many children into exploitative work,” said Solomon Kusi Ampofo, programme co-ordinator for Friends of the Nation.

“The government should increase cash assistance to families to prevent further increases in poverty and child labour.”

Researchers interviewed 81 working children, some as young as eight, in GhanaNepal and Uganda.

In Ghana, Friends of the Nation interviewed 24 children between the ages of 11 and 17 who worked in gold mines, in carpentry, in fishing, by transporting goods, and selling items on the street.

Negative effect

Nearly all of the Ghanaian children interviewed said that the pandemic has affected their family income negatively. Many entered the workforce for the first time to support their families. Some said they decided to work because their families didn’t have enough food.

A 16-year-old Ghanaian boy told Friends of the Nation that his mother, a trader, no longer made enough money to support him and his siblings. “I went to work to at least care for myself,” he said.

Some Ghanaian children described work that was clearly hazardous. Fifteen of the children interviewed worked in gold mining, which the government of Ghana has identified as one of the worst forms of child labour.

The children said they carried heavy loads, crushed ore with hammers, inhaled dust from processing machines and handled mercury, a toxic chemical that can cause irreversible brain damage. One 16-year-old boy reported handling explosives to blast the ore.

Children working in other jobs also described exhaustion and carrying heavy loads.


Many described long working hours, particularly during school closures and lockdowns. In Ghana, one-third of the children interviewed worked at least ten hours a day, some of them seven days a week.

Many were paid very little. A 12-year-old boy said that he worked 11 hours a day carting fish to market but was paid only GHC2-GHC3 per day (US$0.34-$0.52). “On many days, I go very hungry,” he told Friends of the Nation. Some children reported that their customers delayed paying them or refused to pay them.

School closures worldwide have also contributed to an increase in child labour. In Ghana, nationwide school closures began on 16 March 2020, affecting more than nine million students.

Although the government has provided distance learning services, children without access to televisions, mobile devices and the internet have had little benefit. “I was idle at home after schools closed down,” a 15-year-old boy said. “So I decided to work to reduce the burden on my mum.”

Although most of the Ghanaian children interviewed returned to school after schools reopened in January 2021, some reported that their education suffered because of continued work demands. “I do not attend regularly, because I must work to eat,” the 12-year-old boy said.

Significant progress

The researchers focused on Ghana, Nepal and Uganda because they have made significant progress in reducing poverty and child labour. And, as “pathfinder” countries, they have committed to accelerate efforts to eradicate child labour by 2025, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

However, each has lagged behind regional peers in using cash allowances to address the COVID-19 crisis, spending less than neighbouring countries and covering a smaller proportion of households with children.

Leading up to the pandemic, cash allowances to families with children contributed to a significant decrease in child labor globally. According to the International Labour Organization, the number of children in child labour decreased by approximately 94 million between 2000 and 2016, a drop of 38%.

In 2008 Ghana initiated a cash transfer programme called LEAP (the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty), but in 2020 the programme reached only 5% of the country’s population. Before the spread of COVID-19, Ghana spent less than half of the regional average for sub-Saharan Africa on social safety net programmes, including cash transfers.

Its pandemic response has also lagged behind its regional peers. Mali scaled up its cash transfer coverage by 591% and Kenya by 800%, while Ghana expanded the number of cash transfer beneficiaries by only 5%.

“For many families with children, government assistance has been far too little to help them meet their basic needs,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

“Ghana and its donors should scale up cash allowances to families to help keep children out of exploitative and dangerous child labour and support their return to school.”

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