On Sunday, The Madras High Court took note of the increase in child labour during the COVID-19 pandemic while presiding over a haebus corpus plea involving six teenage girls aged between 13 and 15 years of age, who were also found working in the yarn spinning company. 32 girls and 3 boys were rescued in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu last week after a tip-off from a child helpline number. According to the district welfare committee, the children were forced to work 14 hours a day without leave.
Photograph by Thomas L. Kelly
In fact, this is not the first case of child labour that has surfaced during the pandemic. The Madhya Pradesh Commission for Protection of Child Rights has even expressed concern over children from the border districts being forced into child labour in the neighbouring states due to covid- induced unemployment and financial crisis.
In a joint report published in June, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have both expressed concerns over a potential rise in child labour, that may reverse the progress of previous years. The reports note that child labour is a consequence of social inequities and poverty, and that the number of people in extreme poverty could skyrocket by 40 million to 60 million this year alone compared to before the crisis. This will inevitably lead to a rise in child labour, as models show that a 1 percentage point rise in poverty can lead to at least a 0.7 percentage point increase in child labour. The closure of schools makes matters worse as nearly half the world doesn’t have access to the internet, much less online education. Besides education, schools also provide critical social security for the children and the parents. The ILO currently estimates 152 million children engaged in child labour, and 73 million of them working in hazardous sectors such as in mining or construction.
The government had previously implemented the mid-day meal scheme to encourage families to send their children to school. When schools were shut, the Central government asked states to ensure that mid-day meals were delivered. They could either deliver packaged meals to the children, give an equivalent amount of food grains or deposit a food allowance directly into the bank accounts of their parents. However, many states are yet to respond. A survey conducted by Save the Children in June 2020 in 15 states in India, has revealed that out of the sample of 7,235 families, two-fifths of the families did not receive midday meals-related compensation for their children. This has forced children into labour and rag picking to earn money for food.
States like Haryana, Gujarat and Rajasthan have actually diluted their labour laws during the pandemic, enabling longer working hours, reducing social protection for the employees, and most important dismantling inspection instruments. Several child rights NGOs have asked the government to review these laws, as a lack of period site inspection gives employers free reign to employ child labour to reduce costs. Child labour is not the only concern here as reports reveal that Jharkhand, West Bengal, Odisha and the Delhi-NCR region are at the risk of becoming child-trafficking hubs. In June, Bachpan Bachao Andolan, headed by Nobel laureate Kailash Satyarthi, filed a petition to the government saying that lifting the lockdown could cause an increase in child trafficking in the country.
“The dilution of labour laws by some states in the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown must be reviewed and rescinded immediately since doing away with crucial safeguards is likely to lead to a spike in the incidence of child labour and child trafficking while deepening exploitation and abuse of workers,” a Kailash Satyarthi Children's Foundation (KSCF) report based on a study conducted in some of India's rural areas has recommended.
Essentially, the measures we’re taking to kick-start the economy this way could potentially kick millions of children to the curb, and this reverses the decades of progress made. According to the 2011 census, there were 10 million children employed in labour. They were all between the ages of 5-14, and constituted 3.9% of the total child population. Excluding that, more than 42.7 million children were out of school. However, by the end of this lockdown, that number may very well increase if further steps are not taken to protect children from abuse.