Children of a lesser god

For the past several months, media has kept highlighting the stress caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. This pandemic impacted people at multiple levels — millions in the country lost their jobs or were forced to take pay cuts, economic activity in rural India came to a standstill, and migrant labourers were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres back home. Amidst these visible problems, the issue that has largely remained invisible  is the effect of the pandemic on children, especially an increased risk of them being pushed into child labour.

At the outset, let us acknowledge the fact that so far not much substantial data are available in the public domain to quantify the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child labour. However, the field work that we conducted increasingly suggests that pandemic has forced a proportion of children into labour industry. According to Census 2011, the total number of child labourers in India between 5-14 years is 4.35 million (main workers) and 5.76 million (marginal workers), which comes to a total of 10.11 million. Furthermore, the total number of adolescent labourers in India is 22.87 million, bringing the total (5-18 years) to around 33 million. 62% of child labourers between the age-group of 5-14 years are concentrated in agriculture, forestry and fishing, closely followed by industries and services. Children are also involved in ‘worst forms of child labour’ including forced labour, bonded labour, children being used, procured or offered for prostitution, pornography and trafficking of drugs. According to more recent data (Periodic Labour Force Survey, PLFS, 2017-18), total number of children within the age group of 5-14 years who reported not going to school and working as helper in family enterprises counts to 15, 243,888 (male 83,64,761; female 68,79,127).

According to Priti Mahara, Director, Policy Research & Advocacy at CRY – Child Rights and You, “The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted an already struggling Indian economy. This had translated to economic insecurity in households either due to death of earning members, loss of work and wages, or reduced employment opportunities especially for vulnerable communities. Thus, there are strong chances of children being forced to enter manual or unskilled labour to compensate for the economic loss and / or supplement family income”. While recent years had seen significant progress against child labour, there were early sepeculations by International Labour Organisation (ILO) that COVID-19 will badly affect the progresses made so far. United Nations Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) had also warned that COVID-19 will push millions of children into grips of Child labour and will increase the working hours of already working in it.

How COVID-19 Pandemic can push more children into Labour Industry 

The Economic Survey Report 2019-20 shows that nearly 80% of the work force in India comes from the unorganised sector with limited access to social security measures and employment benefits.  Children’s demand in manual work in agriculture sector and home based enterprise and small scale business might increase rapidly in the coming days. A few months back, several states in India (including those with high prevalence of child and adolescent labour) have made significant relaxations to their labour laws including extending work hours form 8 hours to 12 hours per day, limited time for rest, relaxations in inspections and monitoring by authorities, restricted grievance redress mechanisms and collective bargaining through labour unions.

Even though labour laws for children and women remain unchanged, the spill-over effect of adult workers is likely to have a negative impact, especially for adolescent workers. Children are always considered as ‘cheap labour’ hence vastly preferred and employed by labour market and employers. In the absence of availability of adult labourers in urban areas, since many have migrated to their native places, the demand for employing children specially adolescents may rise in the coming days. Many of whom are forced to work for long hours, in hazardous and often abusive environments, for little or no pay, and often far from home. The loss of livelihood may force the family and children into bonded labour.

Thus, the risk of engaging adolescent workers in exploitative work conditions may increase. The closure of schools only exacerbates the risk of increase in working children, since drop-out children will either be directly supporting their families, or caught in trafficking, begging, debt bondage and other indecent and exploitative work conditions. In the absence of helping hands, especially in the times of harvesting and marketing, children will likely be engaged in the fields.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck the entire mankind like a tornado, from which we are yet to emerge out. Apart from taking lives on huge scale, it has made entire population vulnerable to its infection particularly weaker sections of the society like women and children. As it appears from the conversation with these children, COVID-19 has flipped the normal lives of the major section of our population, who have no means other than this to sustain their lives. But what remains ironical is that government has taken no steps to help the affected people and what is more concerning is that these children are not only working longer hours but also work in conditions where no protocol for prevention of COVID-19 is followed.  

Child labour does not only lead to lost childhoods. Since many of these children work in difficult, often exploitative, environments, their overall health and nutrition also suffer leaving them vulnerable to various illnesses, and they miss out on education too. Perhaps the first step in curbing the rise of child labour is to acknowledge that it is a problem. We need to accept that no pandemic, no economic crisis, and no extraordinary circumstances can ever justify children being exploited. Only then can sustainable change can happen. 

What Steps Government should take after COVID-19 Pandemic with reference to Child Labour?

The government at the Centre as well as in the states need to make concerted efforts to improve the public health system along with strengthening social security, education and child protection mechanisms. Addressing health conditions of adults would enable them to work without compromising household security. Additionally social security schemes such as provision of pensions, ration through the public distribution system, extending livelihood and employment opportunities, unemployment allowance / support and other anti-poverty measures would help families sustain themselves.

In addition, ensuring continuation of education for all children, especially the ones from marginalised households would be critical at this juncture. While efforts have been made to continue education for children through remote teaching options such as online classes, radio, television etc., most children from poor families do not have access to these mediums. It is essential that investments are made so that these families are given incentives to buy / access these media for remote learning.

These children are at a high risk of dropping out of education, and the community level child protection mechanisms including the village child protection committees, along with Panchayati Raj Institutions, School Management Committees must track every child in their villages and ensure their safety, especially from trafficking, marriage and forced labour. Stringent enforcement of the child labour law, the Integrated Child Protection Services Scheme is critical to safeguard children from the impact of the COVID-19, including the fall outs of the economic slowdown. The government should also open special training centres with bridge classes in keeping with social distancing and other norms to help children make up for the academic loss.

Non-Government Organisations and Civil Society organisations can strengthen government efforts especially when it comes to identification of vulnerable children and awareness generation and acting as a channel for children’s voices. They can also play huge role in reaching out to last mile to child and families and help government to deliver the social protection schemes to children and their families.

Muneeb Yousuf is Ph.D. Candidate, MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi