Economy

COVID-19 and the changing face of child labour

The number of children working as child labourers came down by 100 million in last two decades; but COVID-19 pandemic has undone a lot of gains 

 
By Umi Daniel
Published: Thursday 01 July 2021
As many as 152 million (1 in 10) children work as labourers across the world. Photo:  Agnimirh Basu

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. 

Children are driven into this work for multiple reasons: When families fall into poverty, experience income insecurity, emergencies, or are affected by unemployment, human trafficking, conflict and extreme weather events. 

Child labour is prevalent not only in the agriculture sector, but today other sectors such as export-oriented agriculture, mining, manufacturing, industries, tourism and construction.

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.

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.

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 by the end of 2021. 

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.

Aide et Action’s study in India on the impact of COVID-19 on migrant children revealed a two-fold increase in the number of children who accompanied their working parents to the brick-making industry after the first wave COVID-19 pandemic. 

Those who work at brick kilns have been compelled to drag their children along. In South Asia, tens and thousands of brick kilns provide seasonal wage employment to the poor and debt-ridden rural families.

Migrant families are recruited by labour contractors and ferried to the urban location to work in brick kilns. The traditional brick kiln industries that operate on manual labourers often utilise child labour for work.

Aide et Action has been working with children living in brick kilns in India to provide education and care to them.  It has assisted thousands of migrant workers and their families to travel safely to their native villages and reintegrated them up with a government health support and social protection schemes.    

The pandemic-induced lockdowns shattered the labour market across the world. During the first COVID-19 wave, the lockdown forced millions of migrant labourers to move back to their villages in India.

The soaring demand for food, health supplies, basic services need a huge workforce to wheel and support the national and global supply chain.

A recent global report indicated that the link between child labour and the global supply chain was often indirect and happened in the lower tier of supply chain like raw material extraction and agriculture operations. The unprecedented economic crisis has, however, pulled children into the national and global supply chain and other informal sectors. 

The United Nations declared 2021 as the international year for the elimination of child labour. The Sustainable Development Goals 8 & 7 challenge the world to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery by 2025.

It can be a herculean task for policy makers and planners to devise effective strategy to contain the child labour.  Elimination of child labour needs several approaches.

The one-size-fits-all approach will fail to address the issues of poor and excluded communities. Every government and non-government action for the elimination of child labour should be effectively reinforced with national child rights policies, stricter law enforcement, quality social protection and strengthening of school ecosystem. 

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