The day people really start believing that there can be no reason that justifies child labour, not even poverty — is the day the real change will come
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has declared the theme for the World Day Against Child Labour 2020, as ‘Protect Children from Child Labour, now more than ever!’ Nothing could have been more apt, as the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a humanitarian crisis of an unprecedented proportion which the world has never seen before.
Not only has it had a huge impact on the Indian economy, but as corroborated by many industry experts, it has also increased the chances of a huge rise in engaging children in home-based enterprises, agriculture and many other hazardous occupations.
The financial insecurity is set to increase in the poor households that were already facing the wrath of the struggling Indian economy. The massive loss of work and wages and reduced employment opportunities due to the global pandemic is only going to make children more vulnerable.
They are likely to be pushed into unskilled labour to compensate for the economic loss and to supplement dwindling family income. And yes, this will take a higher toll especially on the older children, who are more likely to choose to work instead of study to help their families in future.
If one wants to look at the numbers, Census 2011 revealed that 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. As if that was a small number to combat, the threats are of a steep rise in them.
Where do children usually work? Sixty-two per cent of child labourers between the age-group of 5-14 years are concentrated in agriculture, forestry and fishing, closely followed by industries and services.
Scarier still, is that 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.
With the recent developments caused by COVID-19, several states (including those with high prevalence of child and adolescent labour) have made recent relaxations to their labour laws which includes extension of working hours from 8 hours to 12 hours per day, with 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 remain unchanged, the spill-over effect of adult workers is likely to have a negative impact, especially for adolescent workers. Don't we all know how children are always considered ‘cheap labour’ and hence preferred and employed by the labour market and employers?
In the absence of availability of adult labourers in urban areas (since they have migrated back to their native places), the demand for employing children and especially adolescents may rise in the coming days. Possibilities are, many of them will be forced to work for long hours, in hazardous and often abusive environments, for little or no pay, and often far from home.
The closure of schools to prevent the spread of the virus among students 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.
The facts and figures seem to suggest a bleak future. But is there anything we could do to change the flow of the story?
Yes, children from marginalised communities are at a high risk of dropping out of education. But if the community level child protection mechanisms including the village child protection committees, along with Panchayati Raj institutions, school management committees track every child in their villages and ensure their safety, especially from trafficking, underage marriage and forced labour, we might be able reduce the numbers significantly.
Stringent enforcement of the child labour law by 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 keeping physical distancing and other norms in mind, to help children make up for the academic loss.
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 media. It is essential that adequate investments are made so that these families are given incentives to access these media for remote learning.
The Union and state governments need to make concerted efforts to improve the public health system along with strengthening social security, education and child protection mechanisms.
Non-government and civil society organisations also have a huge role to play here. We should support and strengthen government efforts, especially when it comes to identifying vulnerable children.
We must also reach out to the last child and their family in the remote and resource-poor regions to help deliver the social protection schemes effectively.
But, I believe, the biggest change has to be in our thought process. The day we really start believing that there is no reason that justifies child labour, not even poverty — is the day change will come in the true sense of the term.
So, for me, yes, it is the worst of times — but it is the best of times too — only if we all are prepared to come forward and take a decision to rewrite the story for our own children.
Puja Marwaha is the CEO at CRY – Child Rights and You
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