Vatican City

Pope Francis on Wednesday urged governments to combat child labour, saying it was terrible that children who should be playing are instead working as adults or scavenging in garbage dumps for something to sell.

Speaking at his weekly general audience Francis also lamented that in many countries people were being exploited in the unofficial, underground economy, working without benefits or legal protection.

"Let's think of the victims of work, of children who are forced to work. This is terrible," he said.

Vatican Pope Francis children

Pope Francis blesses a child after the weekly general audience at the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican, on 12th January. PICTURE: Reuters/Guglielmo Mangiapane.

The UN International Labour Organization said in a report last year that the number of children in labour rose to about 160 million worldwide in 2020.

"Children who are at an age when they should be playing are forced to work like adults. Let's think of those children, poor little things, who scour in garbage dumps looking for something useful to trade or sell," the Pope said in comments that were mostly improvised.

The ILO report, done with the UN children agency UNICEF, said progress to end child labour had stalled for the first time in 20 years at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, reversing a previous downward trend.

He said that lack of work was a "social injustice" and that while charity and handouts for the jobless were important, they filled the stomach but did not dispense dignity.

"Governments must give everyone the possibility of earning their bread because this gives them dignity. Work anoints people with dignity," he said.

According to the ILO, Africa has the largest number of child workers in the world, with about 72 million, about 43 per cent of them doing hazardous work.

At the audience, Francis asked for a moment of silence to remember the unemployed, victims of industrial accidents and those who had taken their own lives after losing their jobs because of the pandemic.