The world observes June 12 as the Anti Child Labour Day to bring focus to this inhuman practice of child labour. ‘COVID-19 – Protect children from child labour now, more than ever’is the theme for year 2020. It is a call for urgent action as there are over168 million children working as labour as per International Labour Organisation, more than ever in the world history.
COVID-19 has plunged the world into a crisis of unprecedented scope and scale, showing a recession and slower economic growth. Besides the threat to public health, the economic and social disruption threatens long-term livelihoods and wellbeing of millions. As the health and human toll grows, economic damage gets more severe, and it is becoming the largest economic shock the world has ever experienced. To combat the effects of the COVID outbreak and to build a safer, healthier, and human-centred future of work with social justice for all, the world has to find a new order.
The economic and social crisis will hit children particularly hard and about 42-66 million children could fall into extreme poverty because of the crisis this year, adding to the estimated 386 million children already in extreme poverty in 2019. The massive national disruption to education caused by confinement measures and the lack of distance-learning solutions could drive more children out of the education system and the number of children in labour will shoot up. Children belonging to marginalized and minority groups, disabled migrants, refugees, internally displaced persons, or from conflict or disaster-affected areas are already more vulnerable to child labour, and will be at particular risk in the current crisis.
Reports by UNICEF, ILO and World Bank show that 168 million children worldwide aged 5 to 17 years remain engaged in child labour and almost half of them work in a hazardous environment. Children are engaging in various forms of labour, in brick kilns, carpet weaving, garment making, domestic service, food and refreshment services (such as tea stalls), agriculture, fisheries and mining. As per estimate, 88 million boys (58 per cent) and 80 million girls (42 percent) are engaged in various forms of child labour, being primarily used in agriculture sector (71 percent), which includes fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture, and comprises both subsistence and commercial farming. 17 percent are in services, 12 percent in the Industrial sector, including mining. ILO report also hints at the fact that about 15.5 million, mostly girls, work as child domestic workers and their exploitation is of common occurrence. Increased domestic chores and care responsibilities might further burden the girl children from disadvantaged sections.
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.
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. Factors like poverty, social stigma, lack of decent work opportunities for adults, overpopulation, etc., force the children of vulnerable sections into child labour and the unorganized sector becomes the core of exploitation of an innocent population.
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.
33 million children are currently employed in various forms of child labour in India (Census 2011). Roughly, 10 per cent of children in India work to earn a living, and National Capital alone has one million child labourers. Despite attempts by various agencies, the rate of decline of child labour has been only 2.2 percent annually for the last 10 years, which is a matter of grave concern. But in absolute numbers, the number of children in labour is only increasing.
As the world fights COVID pandemic, a developing country like India faces several daunting challenges, including economic slowdown. Lockdown resulted in mass exodus of migrant labourers, who were not able to sustain in the cities where they worked. This migration will lead to children dropping out of the educational system. The massive economic and social shocks, quarantine, social distancing, lockdown would make children more vulnerable and manwould be forced to take up menial jobs or agricultural works.
Engaging children as labour isillegal in India.To overcome the exploitation and to make sure that children belong in schools and not workplaces, while Constitution (Article 24) prohibits child labour in India, RTE (Right to Education) Act gives a right to free and compulsory education up to the age of 14 to all children. National Child Labour Scheme provides for special schools for child labour to rehabilitate them. Child Labour Prohibition & Regulation Act, 1986 also prohibits employment of children under the age group of 14.
Child labour is a social menace. Despite having rigid policies, effective measures have not been taken by respective Governments to enforce and implement the laws, which have led to the spur of child labour in India. Call to protect children from child labour, now is more than ever. For a better India, it is now mandatory for the Government to act quickly to restore and increase the likelihood that the child returns to school and supports his or her family with age-appropriate work if at all required to support their families. Every Indian citizen should take a pledge to stop child labour in all its forms. Every Indian citizen should be vigilant to spot child labour, to report and to ensure action against those who engage children for labour.