According to the UNICEF and the International Labor Organisation, the Covid-19 pandemic threatens to push 9 million additional children into child labour by the end of 2022
“We are all in the same boat”, was a phrase often repeated in the discourse over Covid-19. We all are affected by a global pandemic that spares no one and holds no prisoners. It doesn’t discriminate in who it chooses to infect and how it affects them. The truth, however, is decidedly the opposite; Covid-19 may itself not discriminate in who it affects directly but the social, economic, cultural and political landscape it has birthed has affected everyone differently. A person’s economic stature, their political standing, their religious identity, their age, their gender and several other factors impact the severity of Covid-19’s effect on them. The socioeconomic impacts of Covid-19 have also significantly slowed down a plethora of humanitarian efforts around the world. The global fight against child labour has been severely hampered by Covid-19 and the status quo it has created. It is of paramount importance to understand the extent of the damage done to the cause as a whole, and what can be done to improve the situation.
In the past two decades, the fight against child labour has been a valiant effort. With gradual institutional changes around the globe and collective effort from the international community, child labour has been on the decline. There has even been an effort by some multi-national companies to adhere to laws created by the international community. Examples of international legislation include Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of Child and ILO convention 182, both of which sought to protect rights of children with regards to child labour. Closer to home, however, the situation is more staggered. While Article 25-A of the constitution does recognise every child’s right to free education till the age of 16, its implementation has left a lot to be desired.
Regardless of the individual pre-pandemic situation in each country, it is undeniable that the pandemic has thrown a wrench in the works. A recent statement by the UNICEF and the International Labor Organisation says the pandemic threatens to push 9 million additional children into child labour by the end of 2022. It is pertinent to note that this number signifies a break in the 20-year long downward trajectory in child labour trends worldwide. The report also states that the agriculture sector accounts for around 70 percent of children forced in child labour, through Covid-19 and otherwise.
There is an expectation from children to support their families economically during this pandemic. The pressure forces children to go to work against their will.
There are several reasons for this disturbing upward trend in child labour. Khalil Ahmed, a programme manager at the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC) discussed with TNS, the role of the pandemic in worsening child labour situation in Pakistan and abroad: “The pandemic has had long-standing global implications for the fight against child labour. Of course, the most important reason for this shift is the economic downfall caused by lockdowns and lowered business activities”, he continued, “an increasing unemployment rate has forced children to bear the burden of running the household and providing for it.” This pressure is not just economic. Other factors like societal norms and expectations also play a part in pushing children into child labour. There is an expectation from children to support their families economically during this pandemic. That pressure forces children to go to work against their will.
The education system in the Covid era hasn’t been entirely helpful in improving the status quo either. In an ideal world, all children would complete their education and become learned citizens. Because of the pandemic, education has become a luxury in Pakistan. Khalid Ahmed from the SPARC told TNS, “There have been mass dropouts in Pakistan, especially in rural areas. While education for the wealthy still continued through remote means, students who couldn’t afford internet and mobile devices were forced to drop out and work to provide.”
“When they go to work, they are usually forced to work in horrible conditions,” said Ahmed. While a lot has been said about the malnutrition caused by sub-par working conditions and unsustainable diets that these children are put through, the conditions are even worse since the pandemic spread. When asked about workplace conditions, Ahmed said: “The conditions are extremely poor, especially with regards to implementation of Covid safety protocols. There are no SOPs or any leave mechanism for those already infected.” The problem goes much deeper than a lack of SOPs. A lot of employers remain in denial about Covid-19, claiming that it is a hoax and denying anyone showing symptoms any leave or break. Of course, this means that working children are at a very high risk of contracting Covid-19 and facing an outbreak at their workstations.
Child labour, in its essence, is an intersectional issue. It is caused by economic downfall, high unemployment rates, high dropout rates, government inefficiency and societal norms/pressures. The pandemic was merely a catalyst that exposed the ineffectiveness of the systems set in place to reduce child labour in the first place. What is important now, is to acknowledge the wake-up call provided by the pandemic and use it to push for institutional change to the status quo.
The writer is a student at LUMS and a reporter for The LUMS Post