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COVID pushes more children to labour; Kailash Satyarthi says 'shameful'

·Contributor
·6-min read

For the first time in two decades, the number of children being put to work worldwide has risen to 160 million, representing an increase of 8.4 million over four years - while millions of others are at risk due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new UN report launched recently.

The report, Child Labour: Global estimates 2020, Trends and the Road Forward, published by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and UNICEF, urges governments and international development banks, said UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, “to prioritise investments in programmes that can get children out of the workforce and back into school”.

Children belong in schools not workplaces. Child labour deprives children of their right to go to school and reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty.
Children belong in schools not workplaces. Child labour deprives children of their right to go to school and reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty.

Children belong in schools not workplaces. Child labour deprives children of their right to go to school and reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty.

As for India, the 2011 Census reported that there were 10.1 million working children in the age group of 5-14 years, of which 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls. The majority, 8.1 million, are in rural areas mainly engaged as cultivators (26%) and agricultural labourers (32.9%). Across India, child labourers can be found in a variety of industries: in brick kilns, carpet weaving, garment making, domestic service, food and refreshment services (such as tea stalls), agriculture, fisheries and mining. Children are also at risk of various other forms of exploitation including sexual exploitation and production of child pornography, including online.

How has Covid-19 aggravated the situation?

According to Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, a child rights NGO founded by Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, from January 2020 to date nearly 10,417 children across various Indian states were rescued in rescue operations conducted with various government agencies with Telangana (4334) and Uttar Pradesh (3110) accounting for the largest numbers. The Delhi HC also passed a landmark judgment for ensuring relief and protection of rescued children during COVID-19.

Kailash Satyarthi said, "It is shameful that we are seeing the first rise in child labour in 20 years! New and bold steps must be taken. It is time to create a Global Social Protection Fund and national social protection floors."

Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi started the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Child Movement) in 1980 and the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, a child rights NGO in 2004 
Photo credit: Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation
Nobel Peace Laureate Kailash Satyarthi started the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (Save the Child Movement) in 1980 and the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, a child rights NGO in 2004 Photo credit: Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation

As a result of COVID-19, many Indian parents have lost their jobs and have taken loans from money lenders to survive the lockdown. Due to the economic distress, they have become vulnerable and easy prey for child labour traffickers. In the second wave, many children were also orphaned because of COVID-19 which again has resulted in financial constraints for vulnerable families.

Additional economic shocks and school closures caused by COVID-19 mean that children already in child labour may be working longer hours or under worsening conditions. According to UNICEF India, the closure of 1.5 million schools due to the pandemic and lockdowns in India has impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools and added to the risk of them slipping into child labour and unsafe migration.

Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF India Representative said, “The pandemic has clearly emerged as a child rights crisis, aggravating the risk of child labour as many more families are likely to have fallen into extreme poverty. Children in poor and disadvantaged households in India are now at a greater risk of negative coping mechanisms such as dropping out of school and being forced into labour, marriage, and even falling victim to trafficking. We are also seeing children lose parents and caregivers to the virus - leaving them destitute, without parental care. These children are at extremely vulnerable to neglect, abuse and exploitation. We must act fast to prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from becoming a lasting crisis for children in India, especially those who are most vulnerable.”

The pandemic has clearly emerged as a child rights crisis, aggravating the risk of child labour as many more families are likely to have fallen into extreme poverty (Photo by Sushavan Nandy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
The pandemic has clearly emerged as a child rights crisis, aggravating the risk of child labour as many more families are likely to have fallen into extreme poverty (Photo by Sushavan Nandy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

During COVID-19, the Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) Helpline has been taking calls from all across India on children in distress. These calls were made by neighbours, teachers, relatives, volunteers etc. Once they receive the call, BBA’s state coordinators present in 20 states verify the information and share it with Child Welfare Committee (CWC) and District Child Protection Unit (DCPU). The child is then taken under care and protection - either sent to shelter homes or handed over to a guardian as per the CWC directions.

To prepare for the third wave of COVID-19, BBA has established a quarantine centre for girl children. A panel of psychologists has also been set up for trauma counselling. Capacity building of Child Care Institutes staff and caretakers has been initiated to monitor and mental and physical health of the children.

Team India for Child Labour

Bachpan Bachao Andolan is the sister organisation of Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation. Recently, on June 12 - World Day Against Child Labour, BBA in association with the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation organised a Consultation on Elimination of Child Labour amid COVID-19 Pandemic. The key speakers were Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Minister of State for Labour and Employment and Kailash Satyarthi.

Facilitation of community-focused grassroots efforts, including survivor-led interventions, to prevent child labour and to create a robust safety net around every child is needed
Facilitation of community-focused grassroots efforts, including survivor-led interventions, to prevent child labour and to create a robust safety net around every child is needed

A Plan of Action was recommended strengthening child labour related legal framework and its enforcement including strict punishment and fines, and mandatory registration and prosecution of cases of child labour in a time-bound manner.

Other major recommendations included:

  • Team India for Child Labour to build synergy in action and policies.

  • Facilitation of community-focused grassroots efforts, including survivor-led interventions, to prevent child labour and to create a robust safety net around every child.

  • Elimination of economic vulnerability of communities through comprehensive measures including digital access to social security benefits, and village-focussed skill development and employment generation measures for families of rescued child labourers.

  • Promoting access to education for all children.

  • Promoting access to health services for all children.

  • Empowerment and awareness generation through intensive flagship campaign for a grassroots movement against child labour and trafficking.

The Indian Government to take preventive steps like:

  • Allowing anonymous reporting of child labour through tech-based applications linked with authorities concerned.

  • Providing for mandatory reporting of cases of child labour; and time-bound rescue and rehabilitation of child labour.

  • Integration of child labour and child trafficking-related modules within training courses for agencies concerned;.

  • Incentivisation of excellent performance and innovative solutions to tackle challenges of child labour at the state, district and village level.

  • Enabling communities and businesses to ensure child labour-free supply chains through processes of certification, declarations, handholding and creation of ‘child labour free labelling brand for products.

  • Promoting child labour- free procurement in government.

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