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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 35, New Delhi, August 15, 2020

Child Labour in the context of Covid -19 Pandemic and Natural Disasters: Implications for Prevention and Response | Kingshuk Sarkar & Helen R. Sekar

Friday 14 August 2020


by Kingshuk Sarkar*& Helen R. Sekar**

There is an apprehension that incidences of child labour may increase in the post lockdown period in the context of COVID-19 pandemic. Lack of livelihood opportunities and sluggish aggregate demand will make children vulnerable for exploitation. Certain natural disasters are also adding to the already existing precarity.


Pandemic and natural disasters have a disproportionate adverse impact on children as compared to adults. Depending on the socio-economic-cultural conditions and other realities the impact may vary across geographical regions. Negative effects of pandemic and natural disasters are generally greater for the poor children and adolescents especially when they constitute a much larger share of the population. As per the Census of India 2011, children below the age of 18 years constituted 36.7% of the total population (44,41,53,330) and there were over 10 million children reported to be at work in the age group of 5 to 14 years. While research studies, field-level interventions and experience have significantly increased our knowledge about the magnitude, dimensions, incidence, determinants and deterrents of child labour the focus has been primarily on socio-economic-cultural aspects. In this paper, we discuss the possible effects of Covid-19 Pandemic Disaster and natural disasters like Amphan and Nisarga on child labour and the need to identify and locate children vulnerable to labour exploitation for prevention and mainstreaming into education with a lot of urgency.

International Conventions and Constitutional Mandates

There are many definitions of the term ‘child’, it mostly veers around the concept of ‘age’ which has a historical time-frame and socio-cultural frame. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) 1989 defines child as "a human being below the age of 18 years". India Ratified UNCRC in the year 1992. Article 32 of the UNCRC seeks to protect the right of the child from economic exploitation, from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s physical and mental health.

The subject ’minimum age for admission to employment’ is discussed in different ILO Conventions. ILO, Minimum Age Convention 138 of 1973 specifies minimum age for entry into work as 15 years and into hazardous work as 18 years and it permits light work for children in the age group of 13 to 15 years. Light work is to be understood as the work that does not harm health or school work of children. ILO Convention 182 of 1999 requires immediate elimination of worst forms of labour among children below 18 years. Both the ILO Conventions 138 and 182 have been ratified by India in the year 2017.

The Constitution of India has powerful and progressive provisions against child labour expressed in Article 21 A, article 24, Article 39 E and F stating that no child below the age of 14 shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous occupations; health and strength of workers and the tender age of the children are not abused; children are not forced by any economic necessity to enter a vocation unsuited to their age or strength. The UNCRC, ILO Conventions and Constitutional mandates taken together provides most comprehensive protection and grounds for elimination of all forms of child labour and formulating legislation and programmes accordingly. The Child and Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 (CLPR Act) has been comprehensively amended in the year 2016 and it is renamed as Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, (CALPAR Act). Employment of children below 14 years in any form in any occupation and process is prohibited in the amended version of the Act.

Impact of Pandemic and Natural Disaster

Disasters like the Covid-19 pandemic crisis have the potential of economic slowdown that may push children all the more into different forms of work. The temporary closing down of most of the small manufacturing units/shops/construction work/ hotels and restaurants, etc. resulted in the loss of income and livelihoods for many. Workers in informal economy who were working as daily-wage, or “per piece” rated basis, casual labourers, unskilled workers, migrant workers, those who are self-employed, workers in out-sourced manufacturing, garment making; pavement and street vendors were the worst affected due to the lock downs, social distancing and community quarantines. When there are uncertainties about their livelihoods and the once employed members of the household lost their jobs, their household income gets affected and there is reduction in the funds meant for incurring expenditure on medical care, and other vital and basic needs of family and children.

Sudden climatic events in the recent months like extremely severe cyclone Amphan hitting West Bengal and severe cyclonic storm Nisarga ravaging coastal Maharashtra flowing off tin sheds, roof tops and roof tiles, kuccha houses and hutments that were the homes of the poor make the children stressful and frightening. They are all the affected by the eviction, displacement, distress migration, breaking up of social networks, social distancing of neighborhoods, etc. in addition to the damage caused to their possessions and school, Children had severe anxiety before the cyclone and experienced considerable stress in the aftermath.

In situation of a shortage of food in the family there is reduction in calorie-intake and also of vitamins and nutrients essential for children which may adversely affect growth at a crucial stage of physical development. When health and sanitation infrastructure get destroyed or become inaccessible, the children of the poor find it extremely difficult to treat illnesses, infectious diseases, or injuries. The fact that they are malnourished, living in ill-ventilated, ill-illuminated, unhygienic conditions without having access to potable drinking water make things further deplorable. And on top of it, children are forced into the labour market as a cheap source in the context of declining livelihood opportunities in the pandemic environment.

Possibilities of Increase in Incidences of Child Labour

There is every reason to believe that post COVID-19 period, there is likely increase in incidences of child labour across the country particularly so in the poorer parts of the country. Reasons are manifold and there are both push and pull factors.

First, country has witnessed exodus of migrant workers from cities and urban agglomerates during the period of lockdown. Economic activities have resumed since June to a certain extent. But urban manufacturing and informal service sector are already facing shortages of labour. Local available workers have a reservation wage and might not wish to work below a certain wage level. Rather, locally available children from the poorer section of the workforce might be used to fill such shortages in the labour market. Suppose, reservation wage is Rs. 300 and employers looking at the possibilities of having workers below that level, may end up employing children as they work for relatively less wages, suppose, Rs. 200.

Second, even employers in urban service sector are finding it difficult to sell their services as there is perceivable lack of effective demand in the economy. Recession was there even before the pandemic struck and situation has become worse after the pandemic. Employers of all kinds are desperately attempting to minimize cost. They would be lured to employ child workers as cost is almost half.

Third, in rural areas where migrant workers have since returned, there is huge livelihood crisis. There are not enough jobs to provide gainful employment to job-seekers in rural areas where migrant workers returned in large numbers. Wage tend to fall below subsistence level under such circumstances. This creates a very conducive atmosphere for engagement of child workers.

Fourth, public schools are still non-functional and children in poorer sections of the society are not in a position to access online classes. Such children are getting confined at home in a context where their families are finding it difficult to manage bare minimum necessities of life. Livelihood compulsions and availability of children at home and without school to attend is a disaster recipe for spike in incidences of child workers.
Fifth, there are States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujrat which have announced relaxation of labour laws in the post lockdown period. The apparent reason is attracting more investment. Relaxation is in the form of exemption from applicability of most of the labour legislation. In general, enforcement of labour laws are lax in our country. Such relaxations will further undermine the implementation of labour laws and that will include CALPR Act 1986. Incidences of child labour will flourish in such context as enforcement take a backseat.

New incidences of child labour have already started to appear in the media. A report in the Hindu dated July 24, 2020, stated that in the city of Bhopal children are going back to rag-picking activities. In a particular case, a 13-year-old boy had to get back to rag-picking as his father who is a construction worker, did not find work in post lockdown period. The boy said he had to support his families in these trying times. They get free rations and survive on Rs 100-150 that the boy earns now. In another report in Times of India, Childline India was quoted saying that they were getting calls every day from different sectors in Noida and Greater Noida informing about children selling vegetables at roadsides. SADRAG, an NGO working in Noida and Greater Noida, also corroborated the fact that there were new increases in incidences of child labour in the Gautam Budh Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh. In the Amphan affected Sundarbans in West Bengal, majority of households have lost their homes and livelihoods. Civil society organizations working in those areas expressed fear that in near future there might be increase in child-trafficking from Sunderbans given the vulnerable conditions of people there.

Implementation and Coordination

Even in normal times, implementation of CALPAR Act is difficult. Inspectors and officers of labour department face considerable hostility at the field level at the time of detection and rescue of child workers. Such hostility emanates from social tolerance for the phenomena of child labour. There is a kind of social sanction in the sense that people in general see nothing seriously wrong with the incidences of child labour around them. People see it as a desperate livelihood option for the poorest segment of the population like child workers earning something and adding to the family income. This is seen as livelihood option and not something very bad.

Thus at the time of detection and rescue, people around see it as something like the enforcers have come to snatch the livelihoods of the poor. They feel that poor child workers have no other option but to work at sub-optimal wage and contribute towards family earnings. Such existing mindset makes implementation of laws really difficult. This kind of social tolerance is likely to increase further in the post lockdown COVID-19 situation as livelihood options will further dry up. It is a well-documented fact that in case of a crisis or economic recession, incidences of child workers are likely to go up.
Further, there is provision in the amended CALPAR Act 2016, which makes implementation more difficult. Under section 5(2) of the said Act, a child is allowed to help his/her family or family enterprise, which is other than any hazardous occupations or processes after his/her school hours or during vacations. Insertion of this provision makes enforcement difficult since it is difficult to distinguish whether the child is helping parents or actually working. More so because, in the present-day liberalized market, production relations have disintegrated and most of the productions happen in family enterprises in domestic space. In domestic space there is a thin line between a child working or helping parents in spare time. The words ‘family enterprise’ makes misuse of this provision very real as family enterprise is the primary building block of the global supply chain. That schools are now closed makes the situation further precarious and make children vulnerable to exploitation.

Also, prevention of child labour should not be seen as a responsibility of that of labour department alone. It should be collective responsibility as it involves multiple agencies and government departments. Apart from labour department, social welfare, school education, rehabilitation, police, women and child are few government departments that are associated with prevention of child labour. NGOs, civil society organizations are also actively associated with this activity. Childline, an NGO, is doing commendable in detection and rescue of child labourers. They have set up kiosks at strategic locations to keep a watch on child trafficking. Childline works in close association with labour departments in every State. For effective implementation of CALPAR Act and for overall prevention of child labour, greater coordination among the departments and non-government organizations are needed. We do have an eco-system but extent of coordination is less than adequate. A more holistic approach is needed.

Conclusions and Way Forward

There is an urgent need to provide protective environment in order to prevent children’s exploitation. To pre-empt new incidences of child labour there is a need to develop identification systems locating each child vulnerable to labour exploitation. It is also important to ensure that children who are in school-going age get access to quality education. Removing misconceptions and negative assumptions and thoughts prevailing in the society through advocacy and raising public awareness should be priority of the State. There is need to find ways of alternative schooling methodology.

Child labour should be treated as social curse. We need to get rid of this curse as soon as possible. For that, there needs to be a social consensus and concerted coordination among all the stakeholders. These are difficult times that we are passing through. Present situation is very conducive for the surge in incidences of child labour. Labour department, being the nodal department, needs to be alert and needs to work in close association with civil society organizations to pre-empt any such possibilities. We can’t claim that we live in a civilized society if we continue to have working children amidst us. Last two decades, India performed well in curbing the menace of child labour to a great extent. Post COVID-19, there is apprehension among stakeholders that incidences of child labour would go up in near future. There is an urgent need to recognize this apprehension and act on this in a concerted coordinated manner. Gains made in the last two decades should not be allowed to be reversed in the post COVID-19 context.

Views expressed here belong to that of the authors and not necessarily that of the organizations that they belong.

Key-words: Child Labour, Covid pandemic, Labour Law, Child Rights, Labour market


*Dr. Kingshuk Sarkar is an independent researcher and also works as a labour administrator with the Government of West Bengal. He earlier served as a faculty of the V V Giri National Labour Institute, Noida and NIRD, Hyderabad. He can be contacted at kingshuk71 at

** Dr. Helen R Sekar, Senior Fellow (Faculty), V. V. Giri National Labour Institute, Noida, is also the Coordinator, National Resource Centre on Child Labour (NRCCL) and Editor of the Newsletter ‘Child Hope’. She may be contacted at helensekar at

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