COVID-19 Crisis Will Push Millions of Vulnerable Children Into Child Labour

From those who may be orphaned due to the pandemic to children who could be forced to drop out of school, the crisis could lead to a surge in child labourers.

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 impact would be an increase in the number of child workers.

Along with the health crisis, and the economic and labour market shock that the pandemic has generated, the vulnerability of millions to child labour is another issue that merits serious attention.

Already, there are 152 million child labourers worldwide. Despite the prohibition of engagement of children below the age of 14 in all occupations, India alone is home to 10.1 million child labourers in the age group 5-14 years (Census 2011). If the state governments do not take immediate and accelerated efforts to address this issue, we are going to lose the battle of eliminating all forms of child labour by 2025, a commitment under the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Consequences of imperfect labour market 

All over the world, the quantity and quality of employment is deteriorating rapidly because of COVID-19. The subsequent economic shock will increase both unemployment and underemployment. Besides the number of jobs, there is also the possibility of downward adjustment to wages, social security and working hours. The effect will be more on informal sector workers, including self-employed, casual and gig workers, and migrant workers who are more vulnerable to adverse labour market outcomes.

Around 90% of India’s workforce is in the informal sector. As per the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’s (CMIE) weekly tracker survey, the impact of COVID-19 has already pushed the urban unemployment rate to 30.9% (as on April 5, which was 8.21% on March 15). 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.

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.

The children of farmers and agricultural labourers in India are at even greater risk. As government restrictions to movement and gatherings have been imposed during harvesting and marketing time, in the absence of helping hands, children will be the fallback option to assist parents in the fields.

A migrant worker carries her daughter as she walks on a highway with others looking out for a transport to return to their villages, after India ordered a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, March 26, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Children currently working are more exposed to the crisis

The situation will also be alarming for legally working children (15-18 years). The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, which prohibits the engagement of adolescent children in hazardous occupations and processes, slashed the list occupations considered hazardous from 83 to 3 (mining, explosives, and occupations mentioned in the Factory Act). However, data shows children between 15-18 years engaged in hazardous work account for 62.8% of the India’s child labour workforce, 10% of whom are engaged in family enterprises. Because of low production during COVID-19, recently, many of the state governments are in the process of extending working hours at factories from a maximum of 8 hours to 12 hours a day with a limited workforce. Such a provision, seen in the context of adolescent child workers, will mean more at lower wages, as children are the cheapest labour force.

Also Read: Rethinking Education in the Age of the Coronavirus

Mortality leading to child labour

As on Tuesday evening, the COVID-19 pandemic has infected over 25 lakh people in 185 countries, resulting in more than 1.7 lakh deaths. In India, around 19,000 COVID-19 cases have been identified and the death toll has crossed 600. This will inevitably leave many children without one or both parents or other caregivers. Orphaned children are particularly vulnerable to trafficking and other exploitation like forced begging, or child labour. In such families, there is also the likelihood of older children dropping out of school to support their younger siblings.

Closure of schools has potential to increase child labour

As an immediate measure to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world have shut down educational institutions. UNESCO estimates that as of April 20, 91.3% of total enrolled learners, that is 1.57 billion learners⁠ from 191 countries, were affected by school closures.

The Government of India has also opted for a nationwide school closure. UNCESCO also estimates that around 32 crore learners are affected in India, of which 15.8 crore are female and 16.2 crore are male students. The bulk of these students are enrolled in primary and secondary schools (86%), followed by tertiary (10%) and pre-primary (4%) level of education.

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.

Representative image: Students wearing protective masks attend a class in a government-run school in Hyderabad, March 5, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Vinod Babu

Most of the focus has been on online learning platforms, even though nearly half of the world has no internet access. A similar scenario prevails in India. The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has suggested that all schools should connect with their students through digital platforms to compensate for the loss of school hours. As of now, mostly private schools and select public schools like Kendriya Vidyalaya have started online classrooms. However, most government schools are either not set up to use these platforms, or do not have the technology and equipment to provide online teaching. Moreover, the majority of students do not have access to internet, smartphones or a computer. 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.

Also Read: How Safe Are India’s Children From COVID-19?

Thus, for many children, the COVID-19 crisis will mean limited or no education, or falling further behind their peers. This will induce a large number of children to discontinue their study even after “normalcy” is restored. There is a high probability of many of these out of school children getting involved in child labour.

What is the way out?

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.

Children of migrant workers wear protective masks inside a sports complex turned into a shelter, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, April 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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).

States are also working on distance learning, food distribution to all school children and fees management. For example, while Kerala and Delhi government are delivering food packets as a part of mid-day meals for government school children at their doorsteps, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh are providing dry rations to children. The Maharashtra government has ordered all aided and unaided schools not to collect fees during the lockdown. The Delhi government has asked schools to collect only monthly tuition fees.

These measures will no doubt respond 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.

Protiva Kundu works with Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), New Delhi. She can be reached at protiva@cbgaindia.org.