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COVID - 19 and Child Labour: A Time of Crisis | Arpita Giri and Swati Singh

Friday 2 July 2021


by Arpita Giri and Swati Singh*


The onset of International Child Labour Day came as an oxymoron with the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it had on children. This is the first time in nearly two decades, the world has seen an increase in child labour. Millions of children were pushed into exploitative work conditions following the closure of the school, rising poverty and unemployment among the poor and vulnerable population. The situation became more alarming as many children lost either of their parents or both of their parents during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a long list of children’s suffering and how children are being exposed to various kinds of vulnerabilities, which needs immediate attention.

Child Labour in India 

According to data from Census 2011, the number of child labourers in India is 10.1 million of which 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls. According to the NCRB “Crime in India” 2019 report, in every eight-minute, a child goes missing in India. The report further states that many of these millions of missing children trapped in child trafficking and end up in forced labour, slavery, and sex work. Despite this, the issue has not received attention from the media and policymakers. The plight of migrant child workers rarely surfaced in the media, while focusing on the vulnerability of migrants. According to the 2011 Census, in India, there were 54 million inter-state migrants. For such a huge population of migrant workers in India, the Indian government declared the first sudden lockdown in March 2020 without considering the survival of the migrants in the States. This led to a huge gathering at various railways stations [1], walking miles and miles on foot for a desperate need to reach their humble abode [2], migrants travelling in hazardous conditions [3] and many faced accidents [4] etc. On one side, there were these disturbing narratives whereas on the ground the migrants faced severe human rights violations. The migrant workers were exposed to harmful chemical jet-spray in groups while squatting on roads whereas none of those travelling by air were exposed to this kind of treatment [5] which stigmatize the migrant population. These narratives focused more on migrant workers and their conditions rather than looking at children and their plight although they were clearly visible in these captured pictures. The issues of health, education and survival of children were rarely represented.

According to UNICEF (2020) across every fifth migrant is a child in India. Latest data available from Census 2011, there were 92.95 million internal child migrants dispersed across the country, with present-day figures likely to be much higher. Child Migrants are not a homogeneous group. While most children migrate with their parents to do household chores or for education. For adolescent girls marriage migration is common. For some children, migration opens up new opportunities and expands their social and economic sphere, but for many, it brings serious risks, including abuse and exploitation. There are 20 million child migrants under the age of 14 engaged in work mostly in hazardous work conditions. In India, children in the context of migration face multidimensional challenges. Some children who were left behind by their parents and depend on remittances face parental care issues, then some children who have migrated with their parents face marginalization in accessing basic facilities, health and education in destination states. Some children are trapped in human trafficking or working under vulnerable conditions, which is equivalent to the modern form of slavery. These groups form one of the most vulnerable categories affected by the pandemic.

Labour Laws (2020) and Child Labour 

The changes made in the labour laws had serious repercussions on children.On 8th May 2020, leading newspaper The Hindu informed that the working hours in Factories have been increased from 8 to 12 hours by M.P. Chief Minister. It also states that “the new units will be exempted from the entire section in the Act on ‘Right to Workers’ that empowers workers to obtain details of their health and safety at work. Further, the employer is not bound to provide to workers ventilation, lighting, toilets, sitting facilities, first aid boxes, protective equipment, canteens, creches, weekly holidays and interval of rest. Further, maintenance of a register of adult and child workers and allowing for advance payments will not apply to new units.” Gujarat, Maharashtra, Haryana, H.P., Rajasthan and Punjab also extended working hours from 8 to 12 hours without amending the Factories Act. States like M.P. and U.P. suspended labour laws for 1000 days.

Suspension of labour laws for 1000 days will be seen for few years and its effects will lead to bondage, trafficking and Child Labour. Dilution of the Labour Laws will not just put workers at risk but will also increase Child Labour. Many experts and activists suggest [6] that “the relaxation of labour laws across 11 States with the closure of schools and reverse migration to rural areas due to nationwide lockdown will force lakhs of children into Child Labour while those already employed will be forced to work longer hours for meagre wages and under hazardous conditions, warn activists and labour law experts”. It adds that India contributes to nearly 15% of the global child and adolescent labourers. There are over 10 million working children in the age group of 5 to 14 years and 22.87 million adolescents. ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder mentions, “as the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes, without support, many could resort to Child Labour” [7]. There was a decline of 94 million as Child Labour since 2000 which gains threat with COVID-19.

Evidence is gradually mounting that Child Labor is rising as schools close during the pandemic. According to National Sample Survey data for 2017-18, only 42 per cent of urban and 15 per cent of rural households had internet access, and only 34 per cent of urban and 11 per cent of rural persons had used the internet in the past 30 days. These data suggest that 2/3 of the children will be left out of the online education process. The worst affected, as always, will be the marginalised, rural and poor populations. 1 billion learners are affected in over 130 countries with temporary school closures [8]. Even if the classes restart most parents may no longer be able to afford to send their children to schools and also in many rural areas, online classes are not a viable option as many families can’t afford to buy smartphones. The report titled “State of Working India 2021: One Year of COVID- 19”, the rural poverty rate increased by 15 per cent and the urban poverty rate was up nearly 20 per cent further. Almost 1.5 crore workers remained out of work by the end of 2020. About 10 crore people lost jobs nationwide April- May 2020.

The wire reported that the closure of schools brought many problems associated with it. Firstly, it resulted in the adolescent girls dropping out and engage in not only gendered activities but also working in fields. These children were not used to physical work therefore they complain about body aches, wounds and heat strokes but they have nowhere to go. Secondly, parents fix arranged marriages for girls. In a response to the Right to Information Act (RTI), it was revealed that between June 2020 to October 2020, there had been an increase in the number of Child marriages as compared to 2019. Childline, a helpline, has reported a 17% increase in distress calls related to the early marriage of girls in June and July this year compared to 2019. Thirdly, mid-day meals encouraged students as they provided daily essentials like meals, stationery, books, toiletries etc which has become a problem with their parents’ meagre earnings. Fourthly, it had a negative impact on their health. The state government, education and labour department have no data on what is happening to children of all ages, their rights and needs and this inadequacy is reflected in the institutional framework which can’t protect children [9]. As a result of this, more children could be forced into exploitative and hazardous jobs. The Hindu [10] explains that there has been a significant increase in the proportion of working children from 28.2% to 76.6% out of 818 children who were surveyed mainly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Increasing cases of Orphaned and Abandoned Children / Child Trafficking: Thousands of children are also orphaned, abandoned by the COVID 19 Pandemic [11]. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), a statutory body, told the Supreme Court that more than 9,300 children in the country had lost parents or were abandoned during the COVID-19 pandemic [12]. The vulnerability of children become fertile ground for non-state actors and criminal groups. On May 17 the Ministry of Women and Child Development issued a public notice warning against fake messages being circulated on social media for the adoption of these children. An official said that there were concerns that this could lead to child trafficking. The ministry carried out investigations into a large number of these messages and have found all of them, fake [13].

Center and State Response

Some measures have been taken to respond to the challenges. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights in its affidavit stated that the Commission is of the opinion that the children who have lost either of the parents to COVID-19 and have been placed with the surviving single parent are also in need of financial assistance and can be entitled to implement government schemes”. Followed by various welfare measures announced by various states. Among the various states, Financial Provision ranges from providing a fixed deposit to the monthly stipend for orphaned children belonging to families living below the poverty line. Andhra government announced Rs. 10 lakh in form of fixed deposit for orphaned children who belonged to families living below the poverty line. The guardians can utilise monthly interest of Rs 5,000 for their day to daycare and fixed deposit which will mature when the child turns 25, Assam government will provide Rs. 10 lakh to COVID-19 orphan children with institutional care. Chhattisgarh will provide monthly stipend Rs 500/- and Rs 1,000/- to children from class 1 to 8 and classes 9 to 12 respectively. The Delhi government will provide free education, monthly financial assistance, rehabilitate children and children who lost both their parents to COVID should be brought to the Child Welfare Committee (CWC) within 24 hours. Gujarat will provide Rs. 4,000/- monthly assistance till the child attains 18 years of age, the beneficiary from age 21 to 24 then Rs. 6,000/- along with free education and hospital facilities. Himachal Pradesh government will provide Rs, 2,500/- per month till 18 years of age. Kerala will provide Rs. 3 lakh to children as a lump sum in addition to Rs. 2,000/- per month till they reach 18 years of age, Madhya Pradesh government will provide Rs. 5,000/- along with free education and free ration. Punjab government will provide Rs. 1,500/- per month till the age of 21 years along with free education in state-run institutes. Rajasthan under the Palanhaar Yojana will provide Rs. 500/- to children below the age of 18. Uttarakhand government launched ‘Mukhyamantri Vatsalya Yojana’ to provide a monthly allowance of Rs. 3,000/- up to 21 years of age and the state government will take care of their education and reserve 5% of government jobs for them. Tamil Nadu will provide Rs 5 lakh fixed deposit for minor children when they turn 18 meanwhile free education till graduation and monthly financial aid Rs 3,000/- to guardians till the children turn 18. Along with the financial measures, some states have promised free education for the children orphaned by the Pandemic. States which provided welfare schemes and legal services to children who lost their parents to COVID-19 are Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. For example, Karnataka announced rehabilitation for children by establishing separate quarantine facilities as well as hostels for those who are up to 18 years of age. Secondly, they have set up a helpline number ‘1098’ to reach out to children in need. Andhra Pradesh government has also set up two helpline numbers - 181 and 1098, apart from this, they have set up child care institutions and residential schools in all 32 districts. Maharashtra will provide arrangements of shelter and supervise their adoption to ensure there is no trafficking and exploitation. They created a task force that will provide care facilities and assist in legal rights over their parents’ property. Odisha has helpline number 1098, OSCPSR helpline number 1800-345-4494 and State COVID helpline number 104 to track children in vulnerable situations and have created temporary homes in 30 districts in addition to free education and monthly allowances. The Uttar Pradesh government has set up a task force in each district to identify children and bring them into the legal adoption pool and under the State, Child Protection Society, under Section 6 of Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) Act, 2015, has formed shelters for rehabilitation of such children and to coordinate with various agencies for their long-term care. To keep vigilance on the trafficking of children, an online portal ‘Bal Swaraj’ has been created by the NCPCR wherein the district authorities could individually upload the figures of orphans and children in need of care and protection within their respective jurisdictions.

The Way Ahead 

The second wave of COVID -19 was catastrophic for some children, to make it worse, many experts suggest that the third wave will have a severe impact on children. Their COVID vaccination has not gained momentum yet. Hence, it becomes important for each institution to focus on children as there lies a greater challenge than the COVID-19 will pose in front of us. In India’s COVID responses children are still invisible. For example, during the migrant crisis of the first lockdown (March 2020- June 2020), there was little focus on the vulnerabilities, exploitation and rights of migrant children. The Supreme Court of India took suo moto case seeking for the protection of fundamental rights of migrant children amidst pandemic and also directed states to inform it about the number of such children in their territories and about their situation [14].

India has committed itself to safeguard the Rights of Children through various International and National conventions. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), The International Convention on the Rights of the Child (ICRC) recognise the right of every child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing work that is hazardous or harmful to their health. It further recognizes the Right to Education as a fundamental right of all children. The much ambitious Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also aims to end child labour in all it’s forms including child trafficking by end of 2025. India is part of all the major conventions with regard to the Rights of Children. Recently it has also ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and Convention 138 on the minimum age of employment, 2017. Along with this Indian Constitution guarantees certain rights for children to safeguard their childhood and provide holistic development.

Worldwide, COVID has reversed the gain we have made so far in preventing child labour. Mostly in developing and underdeveloped countries, child education, health status have been badly affected by the crisis. In India, online classes are not seen as a viable option of schooling hence provisions like Mohalla Schooling should be encouraged. A civil society with it’s wider reach can play an active role in these efforts. The steps taken by the Centre and State governments for the Children orphaned by a pandemic is a welcome step. However, state machinery should ensure that accessibility of such schemes should be easy for children and less confronted with bureaucratic procedures. Institutional Child care in India is itself struggling with fund crunches, corruption and lack of conducive environment for child care. We should invest in each institution so that children feel less traumatized and it caters to their emotional needs and protects them from exploitation. India needs to pay special attention to children and their rights, health, education etc. The problems associated with the second wave have badly impacted them hence we have to be prepared for the third wave and children affected by it.

(Authors: Arpita Giri is PhD (Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi and Swati Singh is PhD (TISS, Mumbai)


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