The pandemic has forced marginalised families to push their young and adolescents into the labour market
Last month, in the midst of the dreaded second wave, a video went viral showing children seated on the floor packing corona testing kits. None of them were wearing masks or gloves. While everyone, the media included, reacted to the unhygienic manner in which RT-PCR kits were being packed, very few commented on the out-of-school child labour being exploited to perform the task.
It has been rightly observed that children, specially those from marginalised communities, are part of the larger collateral damage caused by the pandemic.
The statistics of child labour in the country have always been alarming. Official figures dating back to the 2011 Census put the number of children and adolescents in the labour force at about 33 million.
But going merely by this data is unrealistic because the numbers have not only gone up over the last decade but has been further compounded by the pandemic and the relaxation of labour laws.
In fact, on World Day Against Child Labour, which falls on June 12, it is necessary to examine the situation that currently prevails vis-à-vis vulnerable children in this country. With schools closed, no mid-day meals and no access to online classes due to lack of smart phones, computers, or connectivity, the two waves of the pandemic have handed children a raw deal.
While the boys are nudged to do just about any work to add to the household income, large number of under-age girl children are shifted to domestic chores, sibling care or married off in a hurry. Under-age marriage brings with it the problem of sexual exploitation, unsafe motherhood, and unpaid labour in the husband’s home.
While factoring the children rendered vulnerable by the pandemic, let us not forget those whose parents are out-of-work migrant labourers, marginal farmers, and daily wagers.
They comprise nearly 80 per cent of the workforce in the unorganised sector with limited or no access to social security and unemployment benefits.
Most have been jobless since the past year and a half. It is their children we saw in TV footage last year trudging back to their villages along with their unemployed parents.
Puja Marwaha, CEO, CRY (Child Rights and You), who has been following the trajectory of child labour during the current pandemic, feels there is serious cause for concern. She points out that due to Covid-19, several states have amended their labour laws providing relaxations in inspections and monitoring by authorities.
Not just that there is restricted grievance redress mechanisms and collective bargaining through labour unions. Such loosening of the law favouring employers, she fears, encourages employment and exploitation of cheap adolescent labour as businesses look to boost production.
“Adolescents do not have the same bargaining power as adults, thus being a cheap source of labour. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy is yet to completely unfold hence it is difficult to estimate the magnitude. However, there might be a sharp rise in numbers across all age groups and occupations unless immediate and sustained efforts are made to protect the rights of children,” says Marwaha.
Unfortunately, online schooling of marginalised rural and urban children has not worked. A Ministry of Rural Development survey reveals that during the pandemic only eight per cent of households with children or adolescents had access to online content.
Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director of ActionAid Association, talks about a recent household survey of school children in 20 districts of Uttar Pradesh that found as many as 1,28,000 children out of school.
In November 2020, an ActionAid team conducted a study in 250 UP villages and identified 3,225 child labourers. Of these, 2,000 were enrolled in government schools.
Chachra adds that due to closure of schools during the pandemic, 2,000 trained volunteers from his organisation are currently running classes in safe spaces with social distancing to ensure that children don’t get completely disconnected from education.
Similarly, child labour-centric organisation, Work: No Child’s Business (WNCB) also conducted a scoping study during the pandemic in three northern States.
Its report ‘A Situation Analysis of Child Labour in India — Rajasthan, Delhi and Bihar & Alternate Livelihood Options’ revealed that the vulnerability of workers had increased many-fold during the pandemic.
Also, the root cause for increased child labour was common to the three states: the households were poor, the landless had low assets and little education, came from vulnerable groups, and were engaged in informal sector occupations.
Monica Banerjee, Country Lead, WNCB Alliance, says it is these causes that need redressal. “We are looking at alternative livelihoods for parents/caregivers. We are also engaging with governments and businesses to address child rights and business principles in supply chains of production.”
While this may be the way forward, it is crucial to immediately put in place pandemic-related safeguards to protect children from exploitation.
The most important among these would be to ensure that local administrations map vulnerable children in their constituencies and review their status periodically. They should engage out-of-school children in informal educational activity and provide food to them and their families during State shutdowns.
This will save children from being trafficked or pushed into labour. Businesses also need to be persuaded to ensure a child-free supply chain.
And once schools open, the effort to get all children back into the classroom must be undertaken on a war footing.