Broken dreams

June 20, 2021

The economic downturn triggered by the pandemic has further exacerbated the problem of child labour in developing countries, including Pakistan

Fifteen-year-old Daniel describes his work at a construction site in Uganda carrying cement, bricks, and other materials up and down the stairs of a four-storey building for 10 hours each day. “Sometimes I feel drained,” he said, but “I have to finish the work and earn my pay.” (Human Rights Watch)

“The greatest pain is to be left alone. The last meal that mother had prepared was the last meal in the house. In the days after her death, no one even asked us whether there was anything to eat,” said a young girl from India whose parents died during the pandemic. (BBC report)

“Thirteen-year-old Abdur Rasheed is an informal worker in Islamabad. His source of income is washing windows of cars that stop at traffic signals. On a good day, Rasheed earned Rs 500 by doing this hazardous job. However, the outbreak of coronavirus in the country has led to his already meagre income falling to almost nothing.” (Deutsche Welle)

These are only some examples of how the pandemic is affecting children worldwide. Children face the worst impacts globally, from Africa to Latin America and Asia, including the subcontinent.

Reduction in child labour is one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Substantial results were achieved during the last few years as the number of child workers came down from 245 million to 152 million worldwide.

The organisation says the current pandemic crisis has pushed this achievement back, and many children, who should have been in schools, have started working to help their families.

As the most vulnerable part of our society, children seem to be at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole. There is something wrong with this picture.

In its World Day Against Child Labour (June 12) message, the United Nations elaborated on the hardships our children face:

“The Covid-19 health pandemic and the resulting economic and labour market shock are having a huge impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. Unfortunately, children are often the first to suffer. The crisis can push millions of vulnerable children into child labour.”

From the onset, governments and world organisations focused on adults, particularly the elderly since they were thought to be more vulnerable. Children, too, are severely affected by the pandemic. Although the effects are indirect, they are long-term. By ignoring this population, public and private institutions have increased hardships for children.

A recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) brief reveals that children face long-term and devastating effects of the Covid-19. They are joining the working class to support their families, and in some cases, they face the consequences of their parent’s illness or death directly.

The HRW surveyed working children in Ghana, Uganda and Nepal, showing adverse effects on them. It surveyed 81 children in these three countries working in brick kilns, carpet factories, gold and stone mines, fisheries, agriculture and service sectors to boost family income.

These children talked about their hardships, including long work hours, dangerous working conditions, low wages and violations of their human rights by the owners.

According to the surveyed children, the pandemic and lockdown have left adverse effects on their families’ financial status. As businesses closed, their parents were unemployed, markets were closed as no transportation was available and buyers disappeared. In several cases, children started working to help their families with the expectation that they will return to school one day, but the pandemic has not ended.

Children are working in dangerous environments in Uganda and Ghana. They lift heavy loads and work hard in the mines in unbearable conditions. On top of it, they do not get any health assistance when wounded at work.

They are working long hours in these three countries - in some cases 10 to 14 hours a day for seven days per week. Despite this hard work, they do not get paid enough.

About one-fourth of the surveyed children told the survey team that the owners either pay less then they pay adult workers or refuse to pay on different pretexts. They are hardly paid four dollars a day in Nepal and two dollars in Uganda for their hard labour.

Child workers also revealed that their parents’ deteriorating health, disabilities or death were frequently the other reasons for child labour; they were compelled to find work.

The devastating effects of the coronavirus are not limited to these three countries. South Asia is also one of the regions where the pandemic and poverty have brought new hardships to children.

From the onset, governments and world organisations focused on adults, particularly the elderly, who were thought to be more vulnerable. The children suffer effects that are indirect and long-term. By ignoring this population group, public and private institutions have increased hardships for children.

In South Asia, where children are already suffering because of lack of health resources, deepening poverty and rampant child labour, the pandemic crisis has added new dimensions.

India is one of the countries where the pandemic has created a nationwide emergency. Although India is one of the world’s largest centres to produce the vaccine, its distribution within the country is seriously hampered. Indians are buying expensive vaccines in the black market.

Bad administration and government inefficiency are also having adverse effects on children. According to a BBC report, the children whose parents have been affected or have passed away are in a pathetic situation.

Soni, a young girl from Bihar, had to bury her mother alone when she died as no one in the village would come to their assistance. Their neighbours cordoned off her home until they were cleared from the coronavirus. Consequently, they had to go through pain and hunger when even their friends refused to help her and her siblings.

“After the death of our parents, nobody wanted to touch them, so I had to dig my mother’s grave and bury her. I did all this alone,” she told the reporter.

Fortunately, after these reports made it to the media, some private organisations and public institutions come forward to help the children. According to the BBC, Women and Child Development Minister Simriti Irani has announced that help is available for children. She has said 577 similar cases were reported from all Indian states in April and May this year.

Several organisations in India are working to provide a home to children whose parents have died. Social media are being used as a source to collect data on these children. Social activists, however, say regulations and the red tape in government offices cause delays in adoption process.

Pakistan is another case in point. Germany’s international broadcasting organisation Deutsche Welle (DW) says on its website, “In South Asia nations like Pakistan, where child labour is rampant, Covid-19 has brought more hardship to underage workers. Meanwhile, the resulting economic crisis is pushing even more children into child labour.”

In Pakistan, the focus is on the elderly and the terminally ill when it comes to lockdown, social distancing, and controlling the effects of the pandemic crisis. Children are still out of these debates, and as a result, this vulnerable population is suffering in many ways.

Nevertheless, children are affected by the coronavirus. Although it needs further investigation, the experts say the coming third wave of coronavirus can infect children.

A national daily newspaper reported that there had been more cases in children compared to the last year. Additionally, there has been a surge in coronavirus cases in the 10- to 20-year-olds during the last seven months.

The crisis has also diverted attention from routine vaccinations for mothers and children. That means a large population of children and mothers are excluded from vaccination for diseases other than the pandemic.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) says an increase in poverty has been the significant reason behind children’s labour in Pakistan. The pandemic has significantly added hardships for the children who work in brick kilns, assist elders in agriculture, or work as domestic workers in the cities.

Asad Butt of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told DW, “In cities, most child labourers work in small shops, hotels and people’s houses. Many of them have lost their jobs due to the health crisis. Some welfare organisations are trying to help them, but they cannot do what the state can.” He is not so optimistic about improving conditions for children in Pakistan as this government only intends to protect the elite.

Over three million people have lost their lives worldwide as part of the pandemic crisis, forcing thousands of children to be the breadwinner for their families.

According to the United Nations, 152 million children are working worldwide, and 72 million are working hard in dangerous conditions. Not only do they work in a hazardous environment, but they also work for long hours.

The UNICEF and the International Labour Organisation have said in a recent brief that the coronavirus has been a significant factor in reduced family incomes, forcing children of low-income families to work and earn money for their families.

In these conditions, people would like to use every method to survive and support families. When income becomes more significant, child education takes a back seat. Even a one percent increase in poverty in some countries leads to a 0.7 percent rise in child labour.

As children are forced to work, stresses at home, economic downturn and lack of education add to hardships, leading to psychological complications. Government and private institutions must come forward to ease these burdens for children in every society.

Several countries provide social protection to low-income families to help them cope with health and economic stress. The UNICEF-ILO brief mentioned above also proposed several measures to meet the challenge of child labour, including:

“More comprehensive social protection, easier access to credit for poor households, the promotion of decent work for adults, measures to get children into school, including the elimination of school fees, and more resources for labour inspections and law enforcement.”

When schools are closed, children mainly bear the brunt of the crisis. According to an estimate, about one billion children are being affected in 130 countries. It is a daunting task to bring these young children back to school, but it is possible if national and international organisations join hands with a mission to send these children back to classes.

For UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore, “As poverty rises, schools close and the availability of social services decreases, more children are pushed into the workforce. As we re-imagine the world post-Covid, we need to make sure that children and their families have the tools, they need to weather similar storms in future. Quality education, social protection services and better economic opportunities can be game changers.”

Online education for school children has become the new teaching method, where schools provide instruction at home. However, only children with internet and computer facilities can avail these opportunities.

Although the internet has become an effective tool in providing education, other media are available to educate children. Radio and TV have spread literacy among adult populations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In Bhutan, radio is still an essential source of information, which can be used for literacy.

Unique curriculum and teaching methodologies are available for school dropouts. The General Education Diploma (GED) programme in the United States provides matriculation certificates to students who left formal education at one point.

GED can be a model programme in other countries, where many students are out of school. With good planning and modifying the curriculum according to local needs, these children can be educated and become a valuable part of their societies.

National plans should address long-term effects on children’s health impacted by the global pandemic crisis. The Indian Nobel laureate with a mission to end child labour, Kailash Satyarthi says, “We cannot afford to lose all the achievements and progress we have made over the last few decades. Children are not willing to listen to the rhetoric of good intent… they need action, and they need results.”

We live in a highly divided world where children, women and the poor are at the bottom of our social ladder. We must address inequalities within our global and national systems to create a better world that can face the challenges such as the Covid-19 in a more meaningful and practical way.

The author is an academic scholar and freelance journalist based in the United States. He recently coedited a book, From Terrorism to Television: Dynamics of Media, State, and Society (Routledge 2020).

Broken dreams