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News & Blog > Blogs: "Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives" > Perspectives, Provocations & Initiatives: Covid-19 > Child labour in the pandemic response

Child labour in the pandemic response

Sanjana Kuruppu (MADev02) asks what are child labourers doing during this emergency/right now? Who is watching out for them, what needs to be done and how should it be done?
Photo By: Sanjana Kuruppu
Photo By: Sanjana Kuruppu

I don't know where to go now because of the lockdown. Most of us used to stay in the garage of our vehicles. I lost my parents a long time ago and many of my friends are just like me. Boy 13,working in the transport sector, Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 2020

This statement reflects one of the myriad ways in which children, specifically child labourers, have been affected by the ongoing global pandemic. Children, who are vulnerable and deprived face a double burden of being disconnected from even minimally functioning systems across education, health, protection, water, and sanitation etc. This has long term impacts on their ability to survive and develop. 

Why focus on child labour?

The ILO estimates that there are 152 million children engaged in harmful and exploitative work worldwide, including migratory child labourers, who can be away from home for years. A significant number of  working children, particularly in South Asia, are (were) engaged in what is technically defined as the worst forms of child labour and hazardous labour such as work in brick kilns, carpet weaving, indentured domestic labour, in industries such as quarrying and mining, in forced sex work and in the infamous sweatshops in the manufacturing sector. Globally, a bulk of child labourers are concentrated in the informal sector; the agricultural sector currently records the highest percentage of child labour though a shift is noted with the numbers increasing in industry and manufacture.

These child labourers are at a disadvantage and face greater vulnerability as they do not have the minimal rights, protection, agency, and visibility that adult workers in the same situation would have. Many have not been paid or have been summarily dismissed as a result of business downsizing and closures.

Impact of lockdown

During normal circumstances child labourers are under-paid, over-worked and work under inhumane conditions. Does the lockdown offer them temporary respite from at least some hazards whilst increasing rights violations and deprivations on other scales?

Many are unable to travel, do not have a continuous supply of food and water, and lack the minimal protection afforded by a closed workspace. For orphaned and homeless children who are engaged in child labour, work is also home and community. When this lifeline has been dismantled where do these children turn to? For such children the loss of guardianship of  employers ( sometimes violent and abusive themselves)  could increase their vulnerability to other perpetrators.

Whilst coping mechanisms used by child labourers across emergencies such as famines, droughts, armed conflict etc. have been studied, the coronavirus pandemic is a unique situation which has paralysed access to key recovery services across wide geographies.

For example, children might face competition from adults for jobs – poorly paid, risky jobs that adults in the same domain did not previously undertake. As with adults, child labourers will face job losses, reduction of salaries, and longer working hours. The impacts on child labourers will be magnified. The few who were attending school while working might be forced to drop out. Continued lack of access to schooling and skilling, nutrition and health care, protection and safety, results in low human capital and in turn constrains mobility.

Subsets within the broader group of child labourers or children with multiple overlapping vulnerabilities – for example, those between five and ten years of age, with disabilities, in conflict affected areas, belonging to ethnic minorities, and bonded and indentured labourers whose mobility is controlled (for example, those on plantations and children who head households) all warrant investigation.

Generic vulnerability and risk analyses will not capture the  particular situation of child labourers, the nuanced reasons why they have resorted to work and a) the heightened risks of (re) engagement for child labourers b) entry into the workforce by a new set of children who are at risk, i.e. those whose parents lose employment and those who drop out of school while school remains closed. As the lockdown eases, there is the risk that these children will be attracted to hazardous work, like ship breaking, for quick, above average financial gains which are characteristic of hazardous labour.

Policy and governance responses

At a time when social justice debates centre around the support mechanisms and rights of vulnerable workers, specific attention and investment is needed for this largely hidden group, unable to voice their concerns and not enumerated in higher level rapid assessments and evaluations. Response plans need a dedicated focus on areas and/or sectors with a high incidence of child labour and their families.

Gains and investments made by multiple governments and organisations to mitigate child labour are at risk of reversal. Improvements on the policy front and legal frameworks to arrest and mitigate child labour will stagnate as immediate and punitive enforcement will have to take a back seat to frontline operations addressing food and healthcare.

Poverty is frequently cited as a cause of child labour. In turn it also serves to impede movement of poverty. Child labour is a crutch that sustains local level economies and allows decentralised and national governments to absolve itself from some level of responsibility in the short term. This comes at cost to long term gains – child labourers grow up with little or no education, high levels of morbidity, and they perpetuate the same cycle. The fallout of not addressing child labour and ensuring that the rights of all children are respected is magnified in a time like this. While mounting an economic and humanitarian recovery of such unprecedented proportions, governments, donors and civil society may not prioritise of child labour.

Response assessments and plans therefore need to be cognizant of both the old and new enablers of child labour. To understand, particularly from the child’s perspective, what his or  her situation is, and to adopt a whole systems approach to address the problem.

Ensuring that children count

Child labour has traditionally been under the aegis of ministries of labour and/or women and child, with some peripheral functions performed by ministries of education and social welfare. The COVID-19 crisis commands the attention of a whole range of actors. Whilst field level coordination and interlinkages are challenging, all mandated agencies, in areas with a high incidence of child labour need to make sure that this group is on their radar and accounted for, in both emergency and recovery. Gathering data and evidence on child labour has always been a challenge – the numbers are not static, even in relatively short periods of time, employers and even parents and caregivers are complicit in ensuring that these children are not ‘seen and heard’, and they fall through the cracks of regulatory systems.

Child labourers are notoriously difficult to locate, in terms of data, enumeration, and programme implementation. There are multiple constraints to accessing these children and at a time when a considerable number of working children are not at work because of COVID-19 closures, access and information sharing should be easier to navigate.

Build back better

Many countries are now looking at disbursing a range of stimulus packages and social protection schemes and I’d like to see child labour considered in the response to COVID-19:
  • Scoping and preparatory measures use mobile telephony and other virtual platforms that do not require a one-on-one interface. This would be a useful modality to assess prevalence and magnitude of child labour to provide support that forms part of a larger response.
  • Inclusion of a child labour lens in needs/situational analyses on the impacts of COVID- 19, on health and healthcare systems, education, food security and nutrition, education, women, the elderly, and children will provide critical information on hotspots and specific vulnerabilities.
  • Assessments and impact evaluations conducted in waves will allow for some longitudinal analysis of emerging trends – how are children out of work coping, what support structures do they have access to? What do their families and wider communities need to withstand the shock and not resort to child labour in both the short and long term?
One of the themes of recovery from COVID-19 is ‘building back better’. For child labourers, this must support long term withdrawal (and reintegration), especially those engaged in the worst forms of child labour and in hazardous life-threatening tasks. We cannot afford to fail our children in such times of crisis.

Did you know that IDS has three major research programmes working on issues surrounding child labour?
Child Labour: Action-Research-Innovation in South and South-Eastern Asia (CLARISSA), Action on children’s harmful work in African Agriculture and Agricultural Policy Research in Africa (APRA)

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