The economic vulnerabilities that confront households in the current sluggish recovery from the global meltdown are aggravating the fight against child labour, says the International Labour Organisation. Its latest report emphasises the need for universal coverage of at least a minimum level of social security to help some 215 million working children. Half that number is trapped in the worst forms of child labour — work akin to slavery, debt bondage, child prostitution and hazardous occupations harmful to health and safety. To be sure, the number of child workers did drop by some 30 million in the last decade. But job losses in the adult population in the wake of the global financial crisis and shocks related to crop failure and recurrent freak weather patterns are threatening a reversal of recent gains. The report collates findings from various studies that establish a clear correlation between adverse macro-economic indicators and the recourse to child labour. Correspondingly, cash transfers are known to prove effective in reducing child labour in Asia and Latin America, subject to supply-side conditions such as the availability of education facilities. Similarly, in many African countries where parents have been lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, social protection measures such as health insurance, targeted at the elderly, ensure uninterrupted school attendance among children.

It is abundantly clear then that the elimination of child labour is predicated upon making progress on many fronts. Getting kids to go to school, a key priority that drove the abolition campaign a decade ago, is obviously a necessary but not sufficient condition for the eradication of child labour. Surely, there has been a surge in enrolments in recent years and there has even been some talk of devising ways to retain wards beyond primary school. But all of this presupposes a sound overall policy framework to be sustained over the long term. A scenario where as much as 75 per cent of the global population (more than 5 billion people) has no access to comprehensive social protection, as per ILO estimates, hardly inspires confidence in the capacity of countries to kick start the lives of millions. To make headway, governments must be prepared to spend more. A hugely influential 2010 study which claimed that public debt ratios in excess of 90 per cent of gross domestic product would automatically lead to a decline in growth has recently been exposed as relying on erroneous calculations, a fact conceded by its authors. Several governments that have so far persisted with crippling austerity measures to cut back on welfare spending, with severe socio-political ramifications, should reconsider their stance.