Millions of children may be pushed to work due to Covid-19

Studies in the past have found that a one percentage point increase in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 per cent percentage point increase in child labour, said the report titled Covid-19 and child labour: a time of crisis, a time to act.
Children of migrant workers wearing protective face masks wait to cross the border to their home state of Uttar Pradesh, during the Covid-19 pandemic in New Delhi.(Reuters File Photo)
Children of migrant workers wearing protective face masks wait to cross the border to their home state of Uttar Pradesh, during the Covid-19 pandemic in New Delhi.(Reuters File Photo)
Updated on Jun 13, 2020 04:30 AM IST
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Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By, New Delhi

Millions more children the world over risk being pushed into labour as a result of the crisis caused by the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic , which could lead to the first increase in child labour in 20 years, according to a new report released by UN agencies on Friday.

Child labour has declined by 94 million since 2000, but job losses and rising poverty because of the lockdown and sickness is likely to force more children to seek exploitative and hazardous jobs as families use every available means to earn some money and survive, said the joint report by Unicef the and International Labour Organization (ILO) released to mark the world day against child labour, June 12.

Studies in the past have found that a one percentage point increase in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 per cent percentage point increase in child labour, said the report titled Covid-19 and child labour: a time of crisis, a time to act. Temporary school closures to prevent the spread of the disease are currently affecting more than 1 billion students in at least 130 countries.

Even when classes restart, some parents may no longer be able to afford to send their children to school. Gender inequalities are likely to grow more acute, with girl children particularly vulnerable to exploitation in agriculture and domestic work.

“We need to make sure that children are kept in schools and use proactive approaches to get them back to school, particularly in the aftermath of the lockdown when schools were shut. Social protection and cash transfer programmes for families that have been affected the most is essential to help them provide for the basic needs of their families,” said Soledad Herrero, Unicef’s chief of child protection in India.

Around 10.1 million children, 3.9% of India’s 5-14 year-old population of 259.6 million, are employed either as the main worker or as marginal worker, according to the Census of India 2011, which recorded a 2.6 million decrease in child labour since 2001.

Rural areas accounted for most of the decline as the number of child workers increased in urban areas, indicating the growing demand for child workers in menial and underpaid jobs in the cities, according to ILO.

“Children are the worst impacted in any form of disaster. Covid-19 will be no different. If past trends are to repeat themselves,I believe that millions of children would be forced into child labour across the country. One prevailing perception that will go against children is that children are not being affected by this virus as compared to older people in the family. This will work as a push factor for children to be sent to work, whilst older people will remain at home with the fear of infection,” said Anindit Roy Choudhary, director of programmes and policy impact at the child rights organisation Save the Children (India).

Vulnerable population groups – such as those working in the informal economy and migrant workers – have suffered the most from a Covid-19-induced economic downturn, which has increased unemployment, caused a general decline in living standards amid insufficient social protection systems, among other pressures, the report said.

Financial distress also increases the risk of child trafficking. “Families, migrant or otherwise, have lost livelihood and economic deprivation has hit families majorly all across. This this will create opportunities for traffickers to recruit children into commercial sexual exploitation, child labour, etc,” said Roy Choudhary.

Social protection, easier access to credit, job creation, frequent labour inspections and tighter law enforcement, and measures to get children back into school, including the elimination of school fees, can help mitigate the crises.

“We need to work very closely with the family to support the integration of the children in school and some sort of vocational training. Families, communities and businesses have to be on board, including all levels in the private sector, so they feel the pressure to do the right thing, and work with customers to ensure the law is enforced,” said Herrero.

Social protection is vital in times of crisis because it helps those who are most vulnerable. Integrating child labour concerns across broader policies for education, social protection, justice, labour markets, and international human and labour rights makes a critical difference, ILO director-general Guy Ryder said in a statement.

Unicef and ILO are developing a simulation model to look at the impact of Covid-19 on child labour globally.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Sanchita is the health & science editor of the Hindustan Times. She has been reporting and writing on public health policy, health and nutrition for close to two decades. She is an International Reporting Project fellow from Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and was part of the expert group that drafted the Press Council of India’s media guidelines on health reporting, including reporting on people living with HIV.

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