Poverty is the root cause of child labour, which, despite being a priority for a succession of Indian governments, is yet to be eradicated.
Labour rights and labour laws have always been a contentious issue in any country. One of the most significant discussions by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) during the pandemic is on child labour — particularly on how child labour could increase after the pandemic. The global economic slump caused by Covid-19 has resulted in widespread job cuts coupled with schools also being closed, it is expected that more and more children will be pushed towards child labour. ILO currently estimates 152 million children engaged in child labour, and 73 million of them working in hazardous sectors such as in mining or construction.
Table 1: Children engaged in child labour across the world
|Number of Child Labourers (million)
|Regional Prevalence of Child Labour (%)
|Asia and the Pacific
|Europe and Central Asia
Child labour is predominantly found in the agricultural sector, where 71 percent of all child labour is employed. These children often work with hazardous substances like pesticides and dangerous jobs like herding cattle. Services employ 17 percent, the rest of the 12 percent work in the manufacturing industry. Coffee plantations across South America and Sub-Saharan African, cotton-picking plantations in Central Asia, and garment industries in Asia all employ child labour.
Although India has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Children, the census data of 2011 shows that India still has 10.1 million children engaged in child labour. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh are the states that engage in maximum child labour. India’s Child Labour Amendment (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 2016, bars any child under 14 years of age to be employed in any form of work. Adolescents from 14-18 years of age are also not permitted to work in hazardous jobs. The Act also define 63 jobs as hazardous for children including working in mines, handloom industry, soap manufacturing among others. Besides agriculture, surveys by Save the Children Foundation, find that child labour is extensively employed in the garment industry, brick kilns, and fireworks. Each of these industries comes with dangerous exposure and have long-lasting impacts on their health.
One of the most jarring effects of Covid-19 is the loss of jobs across the world. In India, Covid-19 is said to have left 120 million without employment as of May 2020. Many of these job cuts have happened to the more marginalised communities without adequate social security nets, like migrant labourers. According to the World Bank, in India, 12 million people have a chance of slipping below the poverty line due to pandemic-related job losses. Poverty is correlated to child labour; previous research has indicated that one percentage point increase in poverty leads to about 0.7 percent percentage point increase in child labour. Studies have also concluded that there is a general trend of an increase in child labour and a decrease in children going to schools during prolonged periods of crisis. Furthermore, previous financial vulnerability push parents to send their children to work, as seen in India, and this pattern exists even in other developing countries like Guatemala and Tanzania. The sharp increase in child labour during the pandemic, especially in northern India is also evident from the increase in the number of calls to helplines.
Moreover, when schools eventually resume, many may not have enough money to send their children back. As a result of this, and the loss of jobs of their parents, children may have to continue working for the family’s survival. The NGO Child Rights and You (CRY) has pointed out that many children may even prefer to work and earn money to support their families through this crisis rather than go to school. One of the ways in which the Indian government provided incentives for children to go to school was by implementing the midday meal scheme in government schools since 1995. During the lockdown government had asked states to make sure that meals were delivered to students. Many states like Kerala and West Bengal opted to distribute raw materials and dry rations through the Anganwadi workers. However, there are reports of some states not serving midday meals to children. A survey conducted by Save the Children in June 2020 in 15 states in India, revealed that out of the sample of 7,235 families, two-fifths of the families did not receive midday meals-related compensation for their children. The failure of some of the states to adequately distribute meals has driven many children to be work as rag pickers during the lockdown to earn money to eat food.
With the return of migrant labourers to their rural communities, household poverty as a result of lack of income and remittances will also contribute to a rise in child labour. The exodus of the migrants has also led to a huge shortage of labour in the cities. The fundamental drivers of the economy including agricultural, automobile and construction sectors, and warehouses, which rely predominantly on migrants labourers, are the worst affected. Additionally, the FMCG sector and e-commerce businesses are also struggling to produce and deliver goods due to the shortage of labour. To mitigate the adverse effect of this, and to alleviate some of the effects of the economic slump, there have been changes made in some of the labour laws. States like Haryana, Gujarat, and Rajasthan, to name a few, have diluted their labour laws since the beginning of the pandemic. These include increased work hours, reducing social protection clauses that relate to the safety of employees, and doing away with certain inspection apparatuses. Civil society organisations like CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam India have come together to request the government to relook at the new legislation made by the government regarding these changes. While reviving the economy is very important and it should be a vital part of the government’s agenda, these changes in labour laws could have adverse effects on certain populations. For example, curtailment of the period site inspections may lead to a rampant rise in child labour. Since child labour is cheap and “cost-effective” — many employers may exploit these changes to hire children as they have lower bargaining power and are mostly unable to press for their rights. As per a survey undertaken by the ILO in 2007 in the northern regions of India, the wage differences between employing a child versus employing an adult varied significantly. While an adult was paid Rs. 95 whereas a child was paid only Rs. 43 for the same work, the survey revealed.
Statistics show that child labour in India is likely to increase post-pandemic. In a conference with the labour ministry, the director of ILO Dagmar Walter stressed that India has to provide basic social security that guarantees children’s protection. Labour minister Santosh Gangwar agreed that there is a possibility of more children engaging in child labour due to the loss of jobs during the pandemic.
Poverty is the root cause of child labour, which, despite being a priority for a succession of Indian governments, is yet to be eradicated. States and districts that employ high child labour must especially be monitored in the post-pandemic era. The implementation of various social security schemes will have to be stepped up and corruption in their rollout dealt with firmly to ensure income/rations for households so that children will not be forced to work. Above all, it is essential to remember that child labour leads to illiteracy and reinforces poverty and should be treated as a basic human rights issue.
The author is a research intern at ORF Mumbai.
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