The Pandemic of Child Labour
Remarkable strides have been made in the last 20 years to decrease the number
of children involved in child labour worldwide—and the UN Sustainable
Development Goal 8.7, which aspires to eradicate all forms of child labour by
2025, has created a new momentum for this pressing challenge. Even then, a
staggering 152 million children worldwide are still involved in child labour, of
which India alone is home to a whopping 10.1 million child labourers below the
age of 14!
While banning child labour is commonly perceived as the magic bullet, it isn’t
quite enough. Child labour is a complex issue with different social, economic,
and political causes. These causes can include lack of access to education, weak
enforcement of labour laws, lack of women empowerment, poverty, and
insufficient social protection for the poor. Needless to say, a severe pandemic-
the COVID-19- has stormed its way into the list.
The differential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on society needs to be
acknowledged. While some of us are practising social distancing and
exploring work from home options aggressively in the hope of a better
tomorrow, there is a possibility that a substantial number of children would
emerge as victims of such apparently positive measures- one of them being
child labour, which merits serious attention because of the vulnerability of
children in such trying times where the world and India are in a state of
financial and political shock.
Estimates show that about 400 million informal workers in India may
not get back their livelihood status for a longer period in the near
future. Obvious as it may seem, without adequate credit or savings
to withstand financial setbacks, and without adequate governmental
support, these households will be left with no other option than
putting their children in the workforce to aid survival.
Adding to the ceaseless list are the children of India’s very own
farmers, who, in the absence of helping hands, will be the fallback
option to assist parents in the fields as a result of government
restrictions to movement and gathering.
Owing to the steep fall in production during this pandemic and the
limited labour available, many state governments are in the process
of extending working hours from a maximum of 8 hours to 12 hours
a day. Undoubtedly, with children being the cheapest labour force,
such a provision would mean more hiring at lower wages.
As an immediate measure to stem the spread of the COVID-19
pandemic, governments around the world- including India- have shut
down educational institutions. A lion’s share of children have been
affected. As governments are obligated to respect the right to
education of children, UNESCO has recommended that countries
adopt a variety of hi-tech, low-tech and no tech solutions to assure
the continuity of learning during this period. In the grand scheme of
things, most of the focus has been on online learning platforms, but
what we do not realise is that the loss of school hours cannot be
compensated digitally for people who do not have internet access.
Therefore, a large number of children studying in public schools
remain cut off from online education.
The closure will disproportionately affect children who already
experience barriers in accessing education, or who are at higher risk
of exclusion. This includes children with disabilities, students in
remote locations, children of migrant workers, or those whose
families have lost income as a result of job loss or precarious
employment. While this will mean children will be forced by parents
to work for three meals a day, it will also mean that children will fall
furher behind their peers even after ‘normalcy’ is restored, leaving
them with no option but to continue child labour.
Life for us will be normal again. The lockdown will be just another event to
remember later in life. Another evolutuionary cul-de-sac. But for some it will
cost their entire livelihoods- and while child labour is bound to increase
during the pandemic, the graph will only rise after COVID-19.