Reversing child labour caused by Covid poverty

By Jo Becker

When the Covid-19 pandemic first prompted lockdowns across Uganda, Maria* was a 12-year-old primary school student. But within weeks, she was working at a stone quarry, crushing rocks with a hammer for seven hours a day. Her school had shut down and her father’s wages as a night watchman were cut. Her family was struggling to buy food, and Maria felt she had no choice but to go to work to help her family survive.

Maria told researchers that she often injured her hands with the hammer and sometimes felt dizzy from working under the hot sun. Her salary was just $ 1.11 a week, but if her employer was unhappy with the size of the stones, he paid her even less.

The unprecedented economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, together with school closures affecting 1.4 billion children, has pushed countless children into exploitative and dangerous child labour. Parents have lost jobs when businesses shut down, lost access to markets due to transportation restrictions, and lost customers due to economic slowdowns, creating pressure to send their children to work.

Virtually every child described a drop in family income due to the pandemic, and many said their families struggled just to buy food. A 14-year-old girl in Ghana told us that her parents’ fishing business lost customers, and that once schools shut down, she and her siblings no longer had access to free school meals. “If I don’t work, life will be tough for all of us,” she said.

We talked to children working in brick kilns, carpet factories, gold mines, stone quarries, fisheries, and in agriculture. Some worked as mechanics, rickshaw drivers, or in construction, while others sold items on the street. Many described long hours and hazardous work. At gold mining sites, children carried heavy bags of ore, breathed in dust and fumes from processing machines, and handled toxic mercury to extract gold from the ore. At stone quarries, children reported injuries from flying stones, including sharp particles that got into their eyes. Some showed our researchers cuts from clearing fields with sharp tools or from the edges of sugarcane stalks.

Most of the children were paid very little, and some said their employer often paid them less than was promised. Nevertheless, many felt they had no choice but to continue working. One 15-year-old girl who worked 11 hours a day for less than $ 2 said: “I need the job, I need the money, however little.”

It’s time to scale up cash allowances

Despite these troubling findings, a rise in child labour is not an inevitable result of the pandemic. Over the last two decades, countries have made remarkable progress reducing child labour. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of children in child labour decreased by approximately 94 million – a drop of nearly 40%. In many of the countries that successfully reduced child labour, governments provided cash allowances to families with children, enabling families to meet their basic needs without resorting to child labour.

Cash allowances for families with children are a powerful policy tool. Research has shown they are very effective in reducing poverty rates, increasing school enrolment, improving children’s health, reducing child labour, and even reducing domestic violence. In many cases, even small allowances have yielded significant benefits. But despite their proven impact, approximately 1.3 billion children – mostly in Africa and Asia – are not covered.

The majority of countries have provided cash assistance to families with children as part of their emergency Covid-19 response. But in most cases, the assistance has been short term or consisted of a single payment. For many families, government assistance – if they received any at all – has been far too little to protect their children from dangerous and exploitative work.

Governments have obligations to guarantee children an adequate standard of living, fulfil their right to education, and protect them from child labour. By scaling up their use of child allowances, governments can improve protection of children and alleviate the immediate and long-term impacts of the pandemic on their rights.

Maria wants to leave the stone quarry, return to school, and become a nurse someday. If governments make smart policy choices, her dream may be possible.

*Note: Name changed to protect the identity of the individual.

(The writer is the Children’s Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, and author of ‘I Must Work to Eat: Covid-19, Poverty, and Child Labor in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda’)