Disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to slowdown the economy that may push children all the more into different forms of work. Workers in the informal economy, who were working on a daily-wage, 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 lockdowns, social distancing and community quarantines.
Children have been forced into the labour market as a cheap source in such a context.
Why Employers Are Tempted To Hire More Child Workers Amid COVID
There is every reason to believe that post COVID-19 there is likely to be an increase in incidences of child labour across the country, particularly so in the poorer parts of the country. The reasons are manifold and there are both push and pull factors.
First, the country has witnessed an exodus of migrant workers from cities and urban agglomerates during the period of lockdown. Economic activities have resumed since June to a certain extent. 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 sections of the workforce might be used to fill such shortages in the labour market.
Suppose, the reservation wage is Rs 300 – and employers are looking at the possibilities of having workers below that level – they may end up employing children as they work for relatively less wages.
Second, even employers in the urban service sector are finding it difficult to sell their services as there is a perceivable lack of effective demand in the economy. Recession had occurred even before the pandemic struck, and the situation has only become worse. Employers across the board are desperately attempting to minimise costs. They would be tempted to employ child workers as the cost is almost half.
Schools Closed, Poor Children Can’t Access Online Classes – A Real Threat
Third, in rural areas where migrant workers have since returned, there is a 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. Wages tend to fall below subsistence levels 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 confined at home in a social context where their families are finding it difficult to manage the bare necessities. Livelihood compulsions and availability of children at home and without school to attend is a recipe for a spike in incidences of child labour.
Fifth, there are states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat which have announced relaxation of labour laws in the post-lockdown period. 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 CALPAR Act 1986. Incidences of child labour will flourish in such a context, as enforcement is far from strict.
Child Helplines Getting Calls More Often Since COVID
New incidences of child labour have already started to appear in the media. A report in The Hindu dated 24 July 2020, stated that in the city of Bhopal, children were 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 was a construction worker, could not find work in the post-lockdown period. The boy said he had to support his family in these trying times. They get free rations and survive on Rs 100-150 which the boy earns now.
In another report in The Times of India, Childline India was quoted saying that they were getting calls everyday from different sectors in Noida and Greater Noida, about children selling vegetables by the roadside. 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.
Why Do Authorities Find It Hard To Implement Child Protection Laws?
Even in normal times, the implementation of CALPAR Act is difficult. Inspectors and officers of the 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 phenomenon of child labour, and apathy.
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.
Thus, at the time of detection and rescue, people see it as the law enforcers trying to snatch the livelihood of the poor. They feel that poor child workers have no other option but to work at sub-optimal wages and contribute towards family earnings. Such mind-set makes the implementation of the law really difficult.
Why Marginalised Children Are More Vulnerable Today
Further, there is provision in the 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. 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 all the more vulnerable to exploitation.
In the 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 the near future. There is an urgent need to recognise this apprehension and act on this in a concerted and coordinated manner. Gains made in the last two decades should not be allowed to be reversed in the post COVID-19 context.
(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 VV Giri National Labour Institute, Noida and NIRD, Hyderabad. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Helen R Sekar, Senior Fellow (Faculty), VV 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 email@example.com.
This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)