Social Issues

Burden on children

Print edition : July 03, 2020

A child worker at a motorbike-cleaning shop in New Delhi, on June 12. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

A boy in the western suburbs of Mumbai selling plastic bags to make ends meet, on June 12. Photo: Paul Noronha

With the closure of schools, relaxation in labour laws and migration of adult workers, child labour and exploitation of children are expected to rise exponentially.

When stringent lockdown measures were announced in March to contain the pandemic, children living on the streets of Delhi took shelter in parks, under flyovers, around railway stations, and in slums. Some were allowed to sleep indoors by their employers. Most slept on half-empty stomachs.

Many children were also seen walking several kilometres with families. Some of them, it was feared, were taken along by child traffickers. In the absence of any agency—government or non-governmental—to keep a check on who went where, there was no way to track children's safety.

As the lockdown began to be lifted, children were back at the street signals, trying to sell pens and other wares. Desperate for money, one of them asked an activist who was out to make an assessment, “Where have all the people gone?” They were also confused about why people were not rolling down their car windows any more. The activist explained the pandemic situation to them and told them they would not be able to make a living selling pens any more. “But they were so desperate for money, I am worried they are easy prey for trafficking or sex work. Unless a concerted effort is made to reach out to them and take care of them, we might be staring at a very worrying situation,” said the activist on condition of anonymity. Some of the children bore marks of injuries which had been worsened in the absence of first aid.

The administration’s law and order priority has completely changed with the entire police force being diverted to the management of coronavirus cases. Even if one wanted to take a case of wrongdoing to the police, they were unlikely to attend to it, said Sanjay Gupta of Chetna, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) for street children. “Most of the labourers have left the cities, thereby creating a rise in demand for labour. Children would be easily available in slums as a replacement, and because of their poor bargaining capacity, would be hired as cheap or free labour. It could make them vulnerable to abuse and could lead to the creation of a new kind of modern slavery,” he told Frontline.

The Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), another NGO, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking protection for children who were at risk of becoming “hapless victims of human trafficking, in the wake of, and as an aftermath of, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant extended lockdown”. The BBA urged the government to frame a policy to prevent trafficking and ensure rescue and rehabilitation of affected children and said child trafficking resulted in child labour and sex trafficking. The number of street children pushed into begging is likely to spike. Considering the deepening agrarian crisis, child labour is likely to be sourced from agricultural households as well. The BBA has received information from multiple sources that traffickers have started approaching potential victims and their families and have even started handing out advance payments for the children.

On June 8, a three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde and Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy issued notices to the Central and State governments and sought guidelines from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to prevent child trafficking. The senior lawyer H.S. Phoolka and Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said in court that they would work together and come up with suggestions on how to curb child labour.

Ashok Kumar, convener at Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL), conducted a rapid assessment by interviewing 121 children from Chandauli in Uttar Pradesh. “Of these, 112 were in the labour net in home-based work, brick kilns and the garment industry. Forty-one per cent of them were getting an honorarium or maintenance and only four of them received food support from the employers. In the absence of any reporting mechanism, the children are especially vulnerable at this time. A new group of children are now in begging and petty delivery-based jobs,” he said.

The International Labour Organisation and UNICEF had warned that millions of children would be forced into child labour as family incomes dropped globally. The pandemic could reverse the gains made in the past 20 years to decrease child labour by 94 million, they said.

In April, child rights organisations Child Fund India, Plan India, Save the Children India, SOS Children’s Villages of India, Terre des hommes and World Vision India asked the government to provide uninterrupted access to critical services for the most vulnerable children and their families. “To overcome the immediate and long-term impact of the crisis, the government should ensure, on a priority basis, access to critical services such as health care, nutrition, food security, mental health and psychosocial support, protection against violence and ensure social protection and child-sensitive cash transfer initiatives to the most vulnerable children and poorest families,” they said.

Figures released by Childline 1098, the national helpline for children in India, gave an idea of the scale of the problem. Within the first week of the lockdown, it received 92,000 SOS calls concerning children in distress. Eleven per cent of the calls related to physical health, 8 per cent to child labour, 8 per cent to missing and runaway children and 5 per cent to homelessness. It was also called upon to intervene to prevent abuse, assist children in distress and provide emotional support. In two months, it answered over 10 lakh calls and carried out over 50,000 interventions. From March to April, it prevented 898 child marriages from the 6,04,274 calls it received concerning the problem.

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, founder of BBA, made a statement requesting two months’ amnesty from prosecution for traffickers and employers of child labour so that they could come forward and release children to the care of the State. Activists felt that such a move would potentially let human rights abusers off the hook and lead to a further increase in cases of trafficking which the State would not be able to control.

According to Census 2011, the total number of child labourers in India in the 5-14 age group was 10.11 million. Of these, 4.35 million were categorised as main workers and 5.76 million as marginal workers. Sixty-two per cent of child labourers were concentrated in agriculture, forestry and fishing, followed by industries and services. Children were also involved in “worst forms of child labour” including forced labour, bonded labour, prostitution, pornography and trafficking of drugs. The total number of adolescent labourers (15-18 years) was 22.87 million.

Dilution of labour laws

Child Rights and You (CRY) cautioned that the demand for children in the agricultural sector, home-based enterprises and small-scale businesses might increase in the following days. Instead of providing protection from exploitation to adult and child workers, 11 States made relaxations to the Factories Act, 1948, during the lockdown—Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Assam. Many of these States have a high burden of child and adolescent labour, according to CRY.

The relaxations include extension of a factory worker’s daily shift from eight to 12 hours a day, six-day week, limited time for rest, reduction in inspections and monitoring by authorities, restricted grievance redress mechanisms and limited collective bargaining through labour unions. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) expressed concern as these relaxations violate ILO Convention 144, which calls for tripartite consultations among government, employers and workers.

While this was bad news for all labour, it might lead to an increase in hazardous work, forced labour, debt bondage and human trafficking for children and adolescents working in factories and industrial setups, said Rahul Sapkal, Assistant Professor, Centre for Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). Adolescent workers would be especially vulnerable in the absence of adult labourers who had left for their home towns and villages. Many of them might be forced to work for long hours, in hazardous and often abusive environments, for little or no pay, and often far from home.

Rahul Sapkal said: “The changes in labour laws will weaken enforcement mechanism, which may further increase child labour amid this crisis. The child labour legislation needs to be revised as many aspects of climate change and hazardous industries are not yet incorporated into it. This revision must include revisiting the definition of what constitutes hazardous industries, keeping the developing capacities of children in mind.”

Speaking on a webinar organised by CRY, Priyank Kanoongo, chairperson of NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights), said that any organised sector industry that depended on the unorganised sector, such as the automobile manufacturing industry, undoubtedly employed child labour, if not directly then indirectly. He said unless and until the principal manufacturer was held accountable for the child labour employed in the unorganised sector linked to their industry, the chain of child labour “from Seelampur to Bawana to Moradabad” could not be abolished.

He stressed the need for civil society organisations to press for the registration of first information reports (FIRs) against employers. According to him, a family-centric approach would have to be adopted to deal with the problem of child labour as “a child-centric approach could only work in countries that had institutional support systems in place”. He suggested that civil society should use existing laws efficiently to address the issue of child labour. “We need to ensure that we are using the existing laws, not sitting and feeling helpless. The number of FIRs filed so far is extremely poor compared with the large number of child labourers in the country. Therefore, it is everyone’s responsibility to report and file FIRs on child labour,” he said.

Closure of schools

Sending children to school is considered an important preventive measure against child labour. But as schools remain closed for the foreseeable future, children are forced to stay at home, which increases their risk of getting pushed into the labour market. Given the loss of income for families, it is likely that they will be engaged in home-based or agricultural work. Moreover, out-of-school children are at greater risk of getting caught up in trafficking, begging, debt bondage and other indecent and exploitative work conditions.

While efforts were made to continue education for children through remote teaching options such as online classes, radio, television and so on, most children from poor families do not have access to these media. “Only 8 per cent children have access to computer and internet. 24 per cent have smartphones,” said Protiva Kundu, Additional Coordinator- Research, Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA). It is critical to ensure a continuation of education for all children, especially the ones from marginalised households at this juncture. Protiva Kundu that the situation would have a greater effect on girls and disabled children. Even if schools reopen, parents would not have the money to pay fees and would instead require the child to support the family.

She said that there was an urgent need to track the children who had gone back to their villages and connect them to community-level child protection mechanisms, including village child protection committees. Panchayati Raj institutions and school management committees must track every child in their village and ensure their safety, especially from trafficking, underage marriage and forced labour. “The government should expand the coverage of the National Child Labour Project in all districts which is currently operating in 323 districts and spend on survey of identifying child labour. Also, it is high time to address dropouts in schools, and the government should expand RTE [Right to Education] Act up to class 12,” Protiva Kundu said.

Puja Marwaha, Chief Executive Officer, CRY, said that sometimes educated people also justified employing child labour on the grounds that the child got some food, shelter or hourly education on the side. But the space of child labour itself was damaging and harmful for all of our future generations, she said. “I truly believe that only when all Indians start believing that children below 18 years should not have to work because they are poor or for any other reason will we actually start changing the situation. The advent of COVID-19 seems to be one major contributing factor in the undoing of all efforts made so far in reducing and ending child labour,” she said.

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