Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the socio-economic setbacks it has created, this is a good time to discuss the plight of child labour and ways to combat this social evil.
According to estimates by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), the world economy is projected to shrink by 3.2% this year. The estimates also state that GDP in developed countries is likely to shrink by five percent, while that of developing countries will contract by around 0.7% in 2020. Massive job losses will push an additional 34.3 million people into extreme poverty by the end of this year. Compared to developed countries, poverty, lack of access to employment opportunities and weak social security systems have induced large-scale distress in developing countries like India.
The promulgation of the national lockdown, though important to contain the spread of the virus, has negatively affected the Indian economy with a slower growth rate, increased unemployment rates and a decline in consumption expenditure. It is estimated by CMIE (2020) that by the end of May 2020, around 12.2 crore Indians were rendered jobless due to the lockdown.
The Government of India responded with an economic stimulus package called the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan as well as several state-level policy changes including relaxations in labour laws to revitalise the economy. The question is, will this package help poor households become resilient enough to keep their children safe in their homes and away from child labour? To put it in simpler terms, how far will this package impact the current child labour scenario in the country? The answer, as unfortunate as it may seem, tends towards the negative.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, the country saw a massive movement of migrant workers across the country. The vacuum created by a deficit labour supply in destination cities will put inadvertent pressure on poorer households to send their children into the workforce to aid their survival when there is an absence of both government support and adequate credit or savings to withstand financial setbacks.
In rural areas, when the migrant families return to their homes, lack of employment opportunities and falling wage rates are likely to lead to an increased demand for child labour. Since children are considered ‘cheap labour’ with poor or no bargaining skills, the lowered wages will make them easy prey for employers. Children from families engaged in agriculture and allied sectors will also be at great risk due to the upcoming kharif crop season. The uncertainty about when schools will reopen only exacerbates this crisis.
Simultaneously, for those children who are already working, there are strong chances that their work conditions will become more exploitative. They are at high risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and could, at a later stage, be vulnerable to trafficking.
In these difficult times, when poorer households need more fiscal stimuli and relief, several state governments are making relaxations to the existing labour laws which will have a strong bearing on child labour as well, even if the child labour legislation remains untouched.
Debunking labour law changes and its impact on child labour
With a view to boost the economy by increasing production and attracting foreign direct investments, states such as Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Assam have amended the Factories Act, 1948, through an ordinance that would allow companies to extend a factory worker’s daily shift from eight to 12 hours per day.
Most of these states also have a high burden of child and adolescent labour. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) expressed deep anguish at this move since it violates Convention no. 144 which calls for tripartite consultations between the government, employers and workers before changing labour laws. India’s Ministry of Labour and Employment is now examining whether the changes will impact ILO conventions.
In Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, the relaxation of labour laws has deregulated factories from the purview of these labour laws. This will intensify the informality and precarious nature of labour employment and its conditions in several ways and dilute the existing enforcement mechanism that would otherwise assist in identifying and detecting the incidence of child labourers.
Moreover, the move towards online clearance in regard with the entry and exit of new firms is likely to reduce the effectiveness of the monitoring standards of working conditions in hazardous industries, including those laid down in the Environment Protection Act of 1986 (u/s 2F).
All these factors may result in an increase in demand for adolescent workers who would be paid lower wages in hazardous and exploitative work conditions due to their vulnerability and poorer bargaining power compared to adults.
The COVID-19-induced labour law changes will also exploit another important loophole in the existing child labour legislation. Legally, in India, children are allowed to ‘help’ their families whether at home or in family enterprises after school hours and during vacations, as long as it does not infringe on their education. As schools remain closed, and industries reopen with labour law relaxations and economic stimuli from the government, agriculture-based work and small family enterprises are likely to be critical contributors in the supply chain, thereby expanding the scope for the employment of children which will be difficult to monitor.
Hazardous occupations and processes in the context of child labour
In a legal analysis by CRY (Child Rights and You) in 2019, it was observed that the child labour legislation draws its definition of ‘hazardous’ occupations and processes from the Factories Act, 1948. Subsequently, the notification of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, provided a more comprehensive definition of what constitutes hazardous substances and processes and therefore a more exhaustive list of hazardous industries. The 1986 Act has been used as the principal list for providing licenses and permissions. Therefore, the child labour legislation should have ideally drawn the list of hazardous occupations and processes from the Environment Protection Act, 1986, as it is more expansive than the Factories Act, 1948.
The analysis also observed that after the amendment to the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, (CLPRA) in 2016, the list of hazardous occupations and processes reduced from 83 to 38. Moreover, the list left out 66 hazardous processes and occupations which fall under the peripheral industrial activities under the Environmental Protection Act of 1986 and the Factories Act of 1948. These occupations and processes still act as catchment areas for the employment of adolescent labour.
Another critical observation from the child rights perspective is the fact that neither of these legislations was focused on children. Therefore, while developing a comprehensive list of hazardous occupations and processes from other legislations, it is important that the child labour legislation defines ‘hazards’ in the context of the developing capacities of children and in keeping with their basic right to survival, development, protection and participation.
‘Building back better’ is one of the key approaches of humanitarian response. Now is the crucial time for India to review its policies and programmes on child labour. The child labour law must be strengthened by revisiting the definition of ‘hazards’ when it comes to employing children. We may find that the list of hazardous occupations and processes is much longer than it is now.
Civil society organisations like CRY need to support the government, identify vulnerable children and families and link them with social protection schemes while keeping an eye on school dropouts. This is also the right time to expand access to schooling for all children up to higher secondary levels and plug the gaps in our child protection system so that no children fall through the cracks and everyone gets a fair chance to reach their full potential irrespective of where they come from.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has increased the difficulties of ensuring a safe and secure future for children, we still dare to dream that in the coming days, child labour will abolished from the country and all children will complete 12 years of school education.
Priti Mahara is the Director of Policy Research & Advocacy at CRY – Child Rights and You. Rahul Suresh Sapkal is Assistant Professor, Centre for Labour Studies, School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.