World Day Against Child Labour 2020: Vulnerable children worse off due to COVID-19

The nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has left child labourers with no source of income, no means of protection against the disease

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Friday 12 June 2020

For millions of children in Odisha who are forced to work for a living, the World Day Against Child Labour — observed on June 12 every year — holds no meaning. In 2020, child labourers are worse off: The nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has left them with no source of income and no means of protection against the disease.

Every day, 13-year-old Sabina Khatun of Dobandha village in Odisha’s Kendrapara district binds bidis (thin cigarettes) for five to seven hours to earn Rs 50-75. Pramod Behera, 14, who lives in Kakata village in Kendrapara, washes dishes in a roadside hotel to earn Rs 100 daily.

The children do not get any assistance from the government either. They grow up without education and no knowledge of their rights.

Most of them do not own land. Several of them are homeless. Street children and child labourers also face several other challenges, said Ranjan Mohanty, the Chairman of Odisha Alliance for Child Rights.

An insecure life, physical and sexual abuse by adults in their immediate communities, harassment by law enforcing agencies, inadequate or no access to education and healthcare facilities are some of them, said Mohanty.

Street children constitute one of the most vulnerable and marginal groups in Odisha. For them, the streets, unoccupied dwellings, wastelands etc, have become homes and sources of livelihood. They are inadequately protected or supervised by responsible adults, Mohanty added.

The lockdown has proved to be catastrophic for millions of migrant labourers and child labourers. Several child labourers also lost their jobs after roadside hotels, dhabas, garages and shops were forced to shut.

The lockdown has forced millions of migrant workers — facing long-term unemployment — to return to their villages without any jobs. Children of returnee migrants have been forced to become child labourers in Odisha, according to Mohanty.

There are around 1.7 million child labourers working in different sectors in Odisha, according to the state government. Some experts said the real number of child labourers in the state is much more, at 3.6 million. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 1989. The scope of this convention — that India ratified in 1990 — extends to individuals up to the age of 18.

The parties (of the convention) recognise the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, stated Article 32 of the CRC.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shock are enough to push several vulnerable children — often the first to suffer — into child labour.

There are an estimated 152 million children in child labour, 72 million of whom undertake hazardous work to earn a living. These children are now at a greater risk of facing circumstances that force them to work longer hours and are much more difficult to get out of.

The World Day Against Child Labour in 2020 will be conducted as a virtual campaign and is being jointly organised jointly with international non-profit Global March Against Child Labour and the International Partnership for Cooperation on Child Labour in Agriculture.

The issue of child labour is still a major one in India, despite the presence of several laws, including the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.

While almost everyone agrees child labour cannot be overlooked, the issue is complex. The cycle of poverty and its implications must be addressed properly, so families can find other means to survive, said trade union leader Jagajiban Das.

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