Covid-19 & Child Labour: No Country for Children

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With many migrants and informal workers losing their jobs, the likelihood of their children entering the workforce has increased. As many states relax labour laws, they risk greater exploitation and abuse

By Rahul Suresh Sapkal

On June 12, World Day against Child Labour was celebrated. In India, child labour still thrives and Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown have seen an increase in it. The country needs to have an effective policy to avert this.

The magnitude of this problem has disproportionately affected low and middle income countries, and especially the poor. As compared to developed countries, the multi-layered vulnerability and deprivation of poorer households with the least financial capacity and without access to work, income and food has induced distress in developing countries like India.

At this time of crisis, when economic activities have abruptly come to a standstill, the large section of migrant and informal workers has suffered the most when it comes to job losses and food insecurity. This has pushed them into acute poverty. In order to survive with limited access to employment opportunities and social security measures, the likelihood of their children assuming economic roles has increased. Thus, there are strong chances of more children entering the labour force and increased risk of exploitation for the ones already working.

According to ILO (2020), there are an estimated 152 million children in child labour, of whom 72 million are in hazardous work. These children are now at greater risk of being put in difficult circumstances and long working hours.

The promulgation of the national lockdown, though important for containment of the virus, has negatively affected the economy with a slower growth rate, increased unemployment rates and decline in consumption expenditure. It is estimated that by the end of May 2020, around 12.2 crore Indians were rendered jobless due to the lockdown, leading to a massive movement of migrant workers across the country.

The vacuum created by deficit labour supply in cities will put inadvertent pressure on poorer households to send their children to the workforce to aid survival at a time when there is inadequate credit or savings and no governmental support. Children from agricultural families and allied sectors will also be at a great risk due to the upcoming kharif season and the reopening of schools being uncertain. As government restrictions on movement and gatherings have been imposed during the harvesting time, children will be the fallback option to assist parents in the fields in the absence of other labour.

Children and their families from all these vulnerable communities would face severe distress in terms of access to food and nutrition, immunisation and health. They are at a high risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse and could, at a later stage, be vulnerable to trafficking.  In these difficult times, when poorer households need more fiscal stimuli and relief, many state governments are giving relaxation to the existing labour laws. This will have a strong bearing on child labour even if legislation in this regard remains unchanged.

With a view to boost production and attract foreign direct investments, states such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Assam have amended the Factories Act, 1948 through an ordinance that would allow companies to extend a factory worker’s daily shift to 12 hours. Most of these states also have a high burden of child and adolescent labour. In Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, labour laws have been relaxed so as to deregulate factories from their purview. This will intensify informality and lead to precarious employment. It will dilute existing enforcement mechanism that otherwise would assist in identifying and detecting child labourers. This will pose two sets of challenges: first for workers who are presently employed and may be unregulated after the changes in labour laws and secondly, those returning home.

This will exert undue upward pressure on the supply of labour, push down wages and create exploitative practices. Moreover, to give more flexibility for entry and existence of a new firm, it is likely to reduce the effectiveness of monitoring standards of the working conditions of hazardous industries, including those laid down in the Environment Protection Act of 1986. All these factors may result in an increase in demand for adolescent child workers, lower wages for them in hazardous and exploitative work conditions and lesser bargaining power compared to adults.

According to the annual report of the Directorate General, Factory Advice Service and Labour Institutes, there are 31,602 factory units registered under the hazardous industry category employing 1.97 million workers in 2013. This increased to 32,956 units employing 2.32 million in 2014. Due to the employee threshold criteria of the Factories Act, 1948, 169.3 million workers who legally may not be working in the scheduled hazardous industries but are engaged in hazardous processes are completely excluded from the purview of occupational safety and health laws. It is estimated that 2.7 million adolescent labourers are engaged in these industries.

The inspection rate carried out under the Factories Act, 1948, declined from 63.1% in 1985 to 8.1% in 2014 (See Figure), indicating that there has been a gradual de facto flexibility due to lapses in enforcement. As per the Child and Adolescent Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, 1986, the district magistrate/nodal officer is responsible to ensure the implementation of the Act, including supervision and monitoring to ensure no child is employed in hazardous occupations and processes as well as the working condition of adolescent workers. However, this enforcement mechanism is weak due to several factors—absence of updated state rules after the amendment of the child labour legislation, inadequate investment in prevention, rescue and rehabilitation efforts for child and adolescent labour, and most important, absence of accurate data on them across hazardous and non-hazardous occupations.

Hence, on the pretext of Covid-19, the suspension of mechanisms for monitoring and oversight might also prevent workers from reclaiming their labour rights. This could lead to increase in hazardous work and other worst forms of child labour, including forced labour and human trafficking.

In the original Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, the  prohibition was only limited to five notified occupations and 48 notified processes. This was extended to 13 occupations in Parts A and 51 notified processes in Part B in March 1994. The amendment to the Child Labour Act in 2016 prohibited employment of child and adolescent labour in the combined list of 38 hazardous occupations and process in the Part A of Schedule 1. In Part B of the Schedule, a total of 15  occupations and 54 processes are restrained from employing child labour. However, Part B permits the employment of adolescents under regulated work conditions.

As a result, one can infer that the earlier appended list in Part A and B combined to (18 occupations and 65 hazardous process) 83 occupations and processes amended until 2008 was reduced to only 38 hazardous processes after the amendment to the child labour legislation in 2016. This gradual reduction in the number of occupations and hazardous processes from Parts A and B of the said Act is likely to pose a serious problem in identifying the production processes that employ child labourers. Additionally, new industries and firms which use hazardous processes will be able to escape from the purview of the Child Labour Act. This could lead to an increase in overall numbers of child and adolescent labourers.

In a recent legal analysis by CRY (2019), it was observed that prior to the amendment of the Act, 83 hazardous occupations and processes were appended to Schedule 1 of the Act. Later on, the listed occupations were reduced to 38 in 2016. In comparison with the principal list of hazardous occupations as defined in the Environmental Protection Act of 1986, out of 104 listed occupations and processes, only 83 entries in 2008 and 38 occupations and processes are deemed as prohibited employment categories for child labourers. Moreover, it was observed that 38 core hazardous processes and occupations are prohibited for child labourers, but the remaining 66 hazardous processes and occupations still act as catchment areas for employing adolescent labour as they fall under peripheral industrial activities under the Environmental Protection Act of 1986 and Factories Act of 1948. 

With the child labour legislation allowing children to help in family-run enterprises, there is a probability of them being engaged to manage family enterprises or to help families. As industries reopen with labour law relaxations, small enterprises are likely to be critical contributors in the supply chain, thereby expanding the scope for employment of children, especially when the enforcement mechanism is weak.

Rahul Suresh Sapkal is Assistant Professor, Centre for Labour Studies, School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He would like to thank Priti Mahara (Director Policy and Advocacy) at Child Rights and You and Shreya Ghosh (Sr. Programme Manager) for their inputs. He is grateful to Child Rights and You for sharing their study with him

Lead picture: UNI

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