For the past five months, our screens have been flooded with distressing imagery of one catastrophe after another: From the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable communities, to cyclones in West Bengal, Odisha, and Maharashtra. From locust attacks in the central and northwestern plains, to the floods in Assam and Bihar. All of these have had disastrous effects on the Indian economy—millions in the country lost their jobs or were forced to take pay cuts, economic activity in rural India came to a halt, and migrants were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres back home.
Amidst these ‘visible’ problems, there are other issues that have remained ‘invisible’. One such issue is the effect of the pandemic on children, specifically, an increased risk of child labour.
COVID-19 has made children more vulnerable to child labour
The numbers related to child labour in India were bleak even before the pandemic. Census 2011 data suggests that the total number of child labourers in India between 5-14 years of age is 4.35 million (main workers) and 5.76 million (marginal workers)—a total of 10.11 million. Further, the total number of adolescent labourers in India is 22.87 million, bringing the total (in the age group of 5-18 years) to around 33 million.
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The ongoing pandemic has augmented the existing causes of child labour, as well as added new ones.
First, children are forced to work because family incomes are not enough to survive on. With many people losing their jobs due to COVID-19, the financial crises being faced by families has increased manifold. These families will need extra pairs of hands to earn to provide two meals a day, leading to more children entering the economy or working on family-owned enterprises and farms.
Second, children are considered cheap labour, and with businesses and enterprises facing massive financial losses, the demand for cheap labour is going to increase. Due to reverse migration from urban centres, there is also going to be a shortage of adult labour. Children, especially adolescents, will be increasingly in demand to fill this gap.
Third, the pressure on children staying at home, especially girls, will be to contribute to household chores and sibling care. More and more girls will be pulled further away from education and into managing the household.
Fourth, with every livelihood crisis, the risk of trafficking increases. In India, a large number of children are already trafficked for labour. Due to reverse migration caused by the pandemic, a large number of children have returned to their villages. And given the livelihoods crisis already underway in rural areas, the children who are not tracked will become more vulnerable to trafficking. Children in overcrowded relief camps, quarantine centres, and those returning home with their parents are also at increased risk of being trafficked.
The recent changes in labour laws in the country will further weaken law enforcement when it comes to child labour.
Fifth, the closure of schools will lead to a gradual detachment from education, especially for those children who cannot access online education. This detachment will eventually lead to dropouts among children, which in turn will lead to them entering the workforce.
To add to these, the recent changes in labour laws in the country will further weaken law enforcement when it comes to child labour. With a view to boost the economy, states such as Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Assam have amended the Factories Act, 1948 through an ordinance, to 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 labourers. Though the recent changes do not affect child labour legislation per se, they may fuel an increase in demand for adolescent workers who are likely to be paid lower wages in hazardous and exploitative work conditions, due to their vulnerability and poorer bargaining power as compared to adults.
It is time for civil society to act
Now, more than ever, is the time to be proactive about making child labour a visible issue, to initiate dialogues around it, to bring plausible solutions to the table, and to start working towards them. While there are gaps that need to be plugged by the government, there is also a lot that civil society can do.
With presence on the ground and familiarity with communities, nonprofits are well-placed to support and strengthen government efforts, especially when it comes to identifying vulnerable children. They can conduct rescue operations in line with the Ministry of Labour and Employment’s protocols. They can also help the government build awareness about the issue, the legal provisions available, and children’s entitlements; as well as act as channels to amplify children’s voices. Additionally, they can assist vulnerable families and their children access social protection measures.
Compared to the actual number of child labour cases, the number of complaints made and FIRs filed remain quite low in India (only 464 cases were registered in 2018). Nonprofits and other civil society organisations can take up the mantle of making as many complaints about child labour as possible. Complaints related to child labour can be made directly to authorities such as the district collector, via Childline by calling at 1098, on the government portal PENCIL, or through statutory bodies such as the National or State Commissions for Protection of Child Rights or Child Welfare Committees (CWC). A larger number of complaints will also allow nonprofits to make stronger appeals to the administration to strengthen rescue processes and better implement compensation and rehabilitation schemes related to child labour.
Nonprofits also have an important role to play when it comes to building evidence around child labour. They can do this by conducting research and surveys in their intervention areas, as well as analysing available secondary data in an in-depth manner to examine issues related to child labour. This will strengthen and inform government policies and programmes and help address the issue holistically.
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A proven way to prevent child labour is to ensure that no children are left out in accessing education. There are many ways that civil society organisations can enable this. Recently, a headmaster in Jharkhand installed loudspeakers at various spots in the village so that children could attend classes from different locations. As another example, we, at CRY, have partnered with Mobile Vaani and are using interactive voice response (IVR) technology to drive awareness campaigns about health and nutrition issues in remote areas of Odisha and Bihar. Nonprofits can track the academic progress of children in schools and ensure that they are not pushed out of education systems.
Nonprofits can play a critical role in the rehabilitation process for children rescued from child labour. They can provide psycho-social support to children during court proceedings or run compensation programmes for them. They can also take efforts to ‘mainstream’ children who are rescued from child labour, for example, by getting them enrolled in schools.
Child labour does not only lead to lost childhoods. Since most of these children work in difficult, often exploitative, environments, their overall health and nutrition also suffers, leaving them vulnerable to various illnesses. Perhaps the first step in curbing the rise of child labour is to acknowledge that it is a problem. We need to accept that no pandemic, no economic crisis, and no extraordinary circumstances can ever justify children being exploited. Only then can sustainable change happen.
- Explore this report on the impact of COVID-19 on child labour by UNICEF and the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
- Read about the impact of COVID-19 on human trafficking and recommendations for action.
- Learn about urgent interventions undertaken to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on child labour.
- Read what the government needs to do to protect children during COVID-19, here and here.
- Understand and use the government portal, PENCIL to complain about cases of child labour that you come across.