From brick kilns to carpet factories, COVID-19 has pushed children as young as eight years old into dangerous and abusive jobs, rights groups said on Wednesday, urging governments to roll out cash allowances to reduce child labour.

Human Rights Watch and advocacy organisations in Ghana, Nepal and Uganda interviewed 81 children working in often risky settings, including gold mines, fisheries and construction sites, during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The most shocking finding for me was the exploitation some children were paid in alcohol at stone quarries,” said Angella Nabwowe Kasule, programmes director for the Ugandan charity Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, which was involved in the study.

“Due to extreme hunger, some ate the residue of the local brew for survival, they needed to put something in the stomach,” Kasule told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

The number of child labourers worldwide has dropped significantly to 152 million children from 246 million in 2000, but the United Nations (UN) fears job losses and school closures caused by the coronavirus will reverse these gains.

Ghana, Nepal and Uganda have all made progress in reducing child labour in recent years and are working to eradicate it by 2025 to meet the UN’s global development goals.

But in Ghana and Uganda, children shared stories with researchers of breathing in noxious dust at mines, carrying loaded bags of ore, using toxic mercury to extract the gold from the ore and being injured by flying rocks.

In Nepal, children reported working 14 hours a day in carpet factories. In all three countries, more than a third of interviewees worked at least 10 hours a day and more than a quarter said employers sometimes withheld wages.

Human Rights Watch said that cash transfers have historically proven effective in reducing child labour in poor families, but some 1.3 billion children globally, mainly in Africa and Asia, do not have access to such support.

“For many families with children, government assistance in response to the pandemic has been far too little to protect their children from dangerous and exploitative work,” said Jo Becker, the group’s children’s rights advocacy director.

“Governments and donors should scale up cash allowances to families to keep children out of exploitative and dangerous child labour.”

Kasule added that providing free school meals to all students in Uganda could also prevent children dropping out of school and turning to dangerous employment.

Solomon Kusi Ampofo, programme coordinator at the Ghanaian charity Friends of the Nation, also involved in the research, said despite the findings of the study he was hopeful because “awareness around child labour is growing”.

“(The research findings are) a lesson for us to really address the socio-economic issues in our country and improve access to healthcare, education and economic relief,” he said.