Child labour is the age-old global menace, more so in poor and developing countries having meager resources. Societal and familial poverty, loss or incapacitation of parents, lack of social security and protection, and ignorance about the value of, or limited access to, education are among the myriad reasons for the involvement of children in the workforce. Child labour is a barrier to the development of, not only individual children, but also the society and economy. Global estimates indicate that 152 million children (64 million girls and 88 million boys) are working as child labour, making a count of one in 10 of all children worldwide.
Child labour in India is more prevalent than in many other countries, with approximately 10 million children actively engaged in, or seeking, work. And yet, the National Crime Records Bureau’s yearly publication Crime in India 2018 reveals that a total of only 464 cases were registered under The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendments Act 2016, (with 810 child victims) in 2018 across the entire country. This is a disturbing discrepancy.
As the whole world is grappling with COVID-19, data from India show that children continue to be exploited for child labour, even as the COVID-19 pandemic was followed by lockdown. Somewhat ironically, while the coronavirus pandemic forced India’s children out of school (as they were officially closed), many children were clandestinely relocated to farms and factories to work, worsening the child labour problem. In March (the national Indian lockdown came into effect on 25 March 2020) there were 2473 interventions related to child labour, dipping steeply to 446 in April, but starting to increase as lockdown restrictions eased, reaching 734 in May. However, this fall does not necessarily reflect the actual numbers of children working, merely those who have been identified. Thus, the lower numbers may merely reflect disruption of the normal reporting processes and investigation of cases caused by the pandemic.
Child labour is a complex problem that violates the fundamental rights of children and affects their psychophysical development. It deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development. It also deprives them of the opportunity to attend school, makes them leave school prematurely leading to drop out, or requires them both to study and to work to support their families leading to exhaustion and degradation of the health, especially girl children.
Another survey exposed the ugly face of health issues in children forced into child labour where their developmental wellbeing remained an enormous question. Children engaged in tobacco and other such industries are subject to serious health risks, including nicotine poisoning. In small-scale industries, like match and fireworks industries, children contribute to greater percentage of the workforce and recent episodes of agitation and protests that led to the ban of firework production happened because of death children below age 14 due to sudden fire accidents inside the factories. Children engaged in hazardous occupations such as waste-picking in garbage dumps become susceptible to diseases like, gastro disorders, vomiting, typhoid, diarrhoea, cholera, skin disorders, and respiratory allergies. Since they cannot afford costly treatments, children even succumb to untimely death. As most children are not experienced workers, about 22,000 children die each year because of hazardous environment.
The usual reason for a child working is the need for additional household income. This is particularly significant among migrant communities where parents themselves may be unemployed or only able to engage in the most menial and lowest-paid work. According to the theory of child labour as a contribution to the family, most children in developing countries work because they want to support their families. As children often value themselves as a part of the family unit, most agree to support the household, especially when family survival may depend upon it. Another reason is children get engaged in work because of family dynamics, where parental education and occupation are other important factors involved in child labour. The more education parents, particularly mothers, have, the less likely they are to let their children work. And the most common is where the child is escaping abuse at home, where he runs away from home to look for a job because of mistreatment.
Although UN is working towards the eradication of child labour by reinventing policies with SDG goals and marking the year 2021 as UN International Year for Elimination of Child Labour, the process seems to be far slower than required. The current pandemic has made it even worse to end the cycle of child labour even by 2025. Failure to reduce the numbers of children being exploited in work situations stems from the socio-cultural fabric that facilitates and condones the offence, the huge demand for cheap child workers in agriculture, mining, carpet-weaving, and garment, brick kiln, and other industries, and also the widespread poverty that continues to be both a cause and function of child labour.
The eradication of child labour is a necessary step to be taken to develop a free and equable society, but will only be possible with the co-operation of all sections of society and law enforcement agencies. The role of corporate industries in permitting the use of child workers needs to be evaluated further. Sensible global population growth and education of children are important facets of this process. In addition, there should be appropriate implementation of the existing laws relating to child labour that were summarized and outlined above. Governments and their monitoring departments have to play an effective role in this process.
In addition, existing legislation must be enforced and offences must carry appropriate fines and punishments. Along with this a strong awareness amongst public and reporting of cases of child labour must be encouraged to catch the culprits. It is necessary for the police and government agencies to fully investigate such cases, for prosecutors to seek maximum penalties and for courts to support these initiatives. It is only if these cases are being seen to be treated very seriously in medico legal environments that the point will be made that child labour is not being condoned by society.
The COVID-19 health pandemic has resulted in significant negative economic and employment consequences that have had, and continue to have, major impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods. It is an unfortunate fact that impoverished families and their children are often the first to suffer in times of economic crisis, which will likely lead to many more vulnerable children being forced into child labour situations.
As revealed by various data, a 1 per cent rise in poverty may be associated with at least a 0.7 per cent increase in numbers of children working. Already, newspaper articles are beginning to document increasing numbers of children in India being removed from their homes and trafficked for illegal labour and forced marriages following the nationwide lockdown with the return of migrant workers and their families to their villages. The COVID-19 lockdown and the second wave has exposed gaps in India’s child protection services and has demonstrated an urgent need for a collaborative, proactive approach. Policies are required specifically to protect children from the economic and other effects that may arise during pandemics such as that associated with COVID-19.