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Topical Analysis: Linkage between COVID 19 and Child labour

  • Published
    23rd Jun, 2022

The COVID-19 health pandemic and the resulting economic and labour market shock are having a huge impact on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Unfortunately, children are often the first to suffer.

The crisis can push millions of vulnerable children into child labour. Child labour robs children of their childhood, potential and dignity. As many as 152 million (1 in 10) children work as labourers across the world, according to the International Labour Organization.

Among these, 64 million are girls. Almost half of the 72 million children are engaged in hazardous work; 6.3 million are pushed into forced work and human slavery. 

These children are now at even greater risk of facing circumstances that are even more difficult and working longer hours.

The term “child labour” is often defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It refers to work that:

  • is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children; and/or
  • interferes with a child’s ability to attend and participate in school fully by obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.
  • As per the 2011 Census, in the age group 5-14 years, 10.1 million of 259.6 million constituted working children. Even though there was a decline in the number of working children to 3.9% in 2011 from 5% in 2001.
  • The decline rate is grossly insufficient to meet target 8.7 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which is to end child labour in all forms by 2025. India therefore needs to embark on new and innovative approaches in its fight against child labour.

It is a global phenomenon and exists in different forms and intensities in almost every part of the globe. Yet, half the world’s child labourers (72.1 million) are in Africa; 62.1 million are in Asia and the Pacific.

However, due to Covid 19, the number of child labours have increased as discussed below.

The factors that contribute to child labour are:

  • Poverty and illiteracy of a child’s parents,
  • The family’s social and economic circumstances,
  • Lack of awareness about the harmful effects of child labour,
  • Lack of access to basic and meaningful quality education and skills training,
  • High rates of adult unemployment and under-employment,
  • Poverty and a lack of livelihood options lead to a child’s “need” to contribute to the family income,
  • Due to conflicts, droughts and other natural disasters, and family indebtedness,
  • Rural poverty and urban migration also often exposes children to being trafficked for work.

Over the last two decades, the number of children working as child labourers came down by a 100 million. But the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has dealt a heavy blow on human lives and endangered the economic activities of the poor and disadvantage people.

The above stated factors are likely to be exacerbated due to COVID 19.

According to ILO and UNICEF:

  • The economic and social crisis will hit children particularly hard. An estimated 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the crisis this year, adding to the estimated 386 million children already in extreme poverty in 2019.
  • The massive global disruption to education caused by confinement measures and the lack of distance-learning solutions in many countries could drive child labour numbers up.
  • Households may resort to child labour in order to cope with job loss and health shocks associated with COVID-19, in particular if they are not in the education system.
  • Children who are from marginalized minority groups, disabled, street-connected and homeless, or from single or child-headed households, migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, or from conflict or disaster affected areas are more vulnerable to child labour and at particular risk in the current crisis.
  • Children, in particular girls, in addition to the risk of child labour, might be burdened by increased domestic chores and caring responsibilities.
  • Vulnerable individuals and families who have lost their jobs in the informal economy, in urgent need of funds for household survival but with few savings and limited access to social protection or other forms of State support, are likely to be at greater risk of falling prey to lenders providing credit on terms constituting debt bondage.
  • Vulnerable workers are more likely to get tricked and trapped in forced labour. With more workers likely to contract debts to survive, the risk of increasing debt bondage is particularly important.
  • Criminal networks may actively use this global crisis to exploit vulnerabilities to further restrict the freedom of victims and increase the financial profit that forced labour and human trafficking generates.
  • Restrictions on movement may shift forms of exploitation, women and children for example may be commercially sexually exploited by their abusers online or within private homes.
  • Stricter controls at borders may increase the risk of human trafficking. In fact, victims with documentation confiscated, might be at risk of abuse, detention and re-victimisation from security actors/police officers enforcing quarantines and managing checkpoints.
  • Victims who have had their personal documentation removed by the exploiters may experience additional barriers in accessing COVID-19 related healthcare and other services.

According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the COVID-19 pandemic will cause more than a quarter of billion people suffering from acute hunger. 

The pandemic has hit the mental, physical and nutritional health of children. Schools have been shut for the longest time due to the crisis, denying children access to healthy school meals. According to UNICEF, more than 1.5 billion children missed out their schooling due to COVID-19 restrictions. This has compelled children to work to support their families.

Some examples:

Rajasthan

Children who should be in school are working in Dickensian conditions across Rajasthan, a majority in bangle factories, and others in roadside dhabas, tyre shops and saree printing workshops, trying to support families that have either lost work during the Covid-19 pandemic or seen deaths in the family. Their necks and shoulders hunched for long periods of time, their eyes squinting against the sunlight, and their bodies wracked by malnutrition, they are the invisible victims of Covid.

Each bangle fetches between Rs 10 and Rs 50 in markets across Rajasthan. The children work 16-18 hours a day, making a mere Rs 50, well below the minimum wage of Rs 252 per day in Rajasthan.

Tamil Nadu

There has been a significant increase in the proportion of working children from 28.2% to 79.6% out of the 818 children who were surveyed, mainly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and closure of schools, reveals a study conducted by Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL). Children from Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes and those from lower economic background had to work to financially support their families during the pandemic.

The survey found that children were working in bakery shops, book stalls, two wheeler service workshops, newspaper distribution, ration shops, vegetable shops and as domestic helpers. 

Constitutional Provisions

  • Article 24 of the Constitution prohibits employment of children below the age of 14 in factories, mines, and other hazardous employment.
  • Article 21A and Article 45 promise to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14.
  • Article 39 The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength.

Laws are:

  • Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016

The Amendment inter alia covers the complete prohibition on employment or work of children below 14 years of age in all occupations and processes; linking the age of the prohibition of employment with the age for free and compulsory education under Right to Education Act, 2009; prohibition on employment of adolescents (14 to 18 years of age) in hazardous occupations or processes and making stricter punishment for the employers contravening the provisions of the Act.

Further After strengthening the legislative framework through amendment in Child Labour Act, Government has framed the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Rules, 2017 which inter alia specifies the duties and responsibilities of State Governments and District Authorities to ensure effective enforcement of the provisions of the Act. Government has also devised a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) as a ready reckoner for trainers, practitioners and enforcing and monitoring agencies and the same has been forwarded to all States/UTs.

  • Factories Act of 1948

The Act prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 years in any factory. The law also placed rules on who, when and how long can pre- adults aged 15–18 years be employed in any factory.

  • Mines Act of 1952

The Act prohibits the employment of children below 18 years of age in a mine.

  • Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act of 2000

This law made it a crime, punishable with a prison term, for anyone to procure or employ a child in any hazardous employment or in bondage.

  • Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009

The law mandates free and compulsory education to all children aged 6 to 14 years.

  • National Policy on Child Labour

This Policy seeks to adopt a gradual & sequential approach with a focus on rehabilitation of children working in hazardous occupations. It envisioned strict enforcement of Indian laws on child labour combined with development programs to address the root causes of child labour such as poverty

However most of the legislation passed lacks teeth to the effect that nothing can be effectively enforced or implemented. The machinery to tackle this problem effectively at the grass root level is lacking. Hence nothing much has been achieved.

Further the Right to Education Act 2009 have paved the way for ratification of ILO’s two core conventions:

1.      Convention No 138 stipulates that the minimum age at which children can start work should not be below the age of compulsory schooling and in any case not less than 15 years; with a possible exception for developing countries. ‘

2.      Convention No. 182 prohibits hazardous work which is likely to jeopardize children’s physical, mental or moral health. It aims at immediate elimination of the worst forms of child labour for children below 18 years.

The ratification of the core conventions on child labour gives rise to a range of priorities such as strengthening policy and legislative enforcement, and building the capacities of government, workers’ and employers’ organisations as well as other partners at national, State and community levels. 

Also to ensure effective enforcement of the provisions of the Child Labour Act and smooth implementation of the National Child Labour Project (NCLP) Scheme a separate online portal PENCIL (Platform for Effective Enforcement for No Child Labour) has been developed. The Portal connects Central Government to State Government(s), District(s) and all District Project Societies.  Further the Ministry has instructed all the concerned States where NCLP Scheme is sanctioned, to form State Resource Centre (SRC) under the chairmanship of State Labour Secretary, which would monitor the enforcement of Child Labour Act, coordinate for the rescue of children and adolescents, child tracking system and supervise all the functions through PENCIL portal. SRC would also prepare and implement awareness generation plan to curb the menace of child labour in the State.

The millions of children who will be victims of the COVID-19 pandemic need immediate attention from states and communities. The starting point should be the parents.

  • First, coordinated policy efforts should be taken to provide employment and income support to all informal sector workers to stimulate the economy and labour demand. These measures will cushion enterprises and workers against immediate employment and income losses and reduce the probability of children being made to enter the workforce.
  • As a direct measure, states should prioritise efforts to continue education for all children, using all available technology.
  • Financial support or relaxation of school fees and other related school expenses should be given to those children who wouldn’t be able to return to school otherwise.
  • Governments should also enact measures to ensure inclusion of children with disabilities.
  • States can reach out to local NGOs working on children with disabilities and engage with them at every stage of the response.
  • School authorities need to ensure that every student will have free lunches at home until schools open. Special efforts should be taken to identify children orphaned due to COVID-19, and arrangements of shelter and foster care for them should be made on a priority basis.
  • Combatting child labour requires long term co-ordinated action which involves many stakeholders and the government. This includes educational institutions, mass media, NGOs and community-based organizations as well as trade unions and employers.

Both the Central and state governments are already implementing a number of decisive measures to redress the situation of people. These include free ration, food and shelter to vulnerable families; social benefits to informal workers, tax relief to low-income earners and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).

These measures have responded to the emergency needs that COVID-19 has generated and also ease the life of children directly or indirectly to some extent. However, it is clear that more needs to be done to prevent children from lapsing into child labour.

The fight against child labour is not just the responsibility of one, it is the responsibility of all.

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