The COVID-19 pandemic has not (to date) hit South Asia as badly in terms of infections and deaths as some other parts of the world (notably Europe). However, it is having a profound negative economic impact on the region. Experience of previous epidemics/financial crises suggests that the current crisis will lead to a rise in child labour across the developing world, including in South Asia. Loss of informal sector jobs, rising poverty and lack of social protection, coupled with widespread school closures, could force families to turn to child labour to survive. Children already working could face harsher conditions, with lower pay and longer hours. Agriculture and the garment industry are identified as two sectors that could see a rise in child labour, but otherwise there is a lack of disaggregated data.
This review drew on a mixture of academic papers, grey literature and media reports and blogs. Evidence on the impact of previous pandemics/crises on child labour in South Asia was limited, and hence the report looks at the Ebola epidemic in Africa and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic and global financial crisis of 2007/8. The literature details the pathways through which the current crisis could lead to increased child labour. However, precise data on impact on child labour is very limited, and does not disaggregate much by country, and even less by sector, gender or rural/urban location.
Key findings are as follows:
- South Asia already has among the highest prevalence of child labour in the world, with an estimated 16.7 million (5–17 year-old) children engaged in child labour in South Asia (ILO, 2014).
- While the full scale of the COVID-19 crisis in South Asia is still emerging, it is clear that the pandemic is having a significant negative impact on the region’s economies.
- Economic growth in the region is expected to be 1.8%-2.8% in 2020, down from a predicted 6.3%, and in a worst-case scenario, the entire region could face negative growth (World Bank, cited in Shaikh, 2020);
- The very high proportion of workers in the informal economy means South Asian countries are especially vulnerable to the economic and labour market shocks of the pandemic. Predicted job losses are: India 30-100 million jobs; Bangladesh 2.5-3 million jobs; Pakistan 4-18 million jobs (World Bank cited in Shaikh, 2020);
- Further negative economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis stem from reduced remittances from migrant workers. South Asia is heavily dependent on remittances. The experience of previous epidemics/financial crises suggests that the Coronavirus pandemic will lead to a rise in child labour:
- The Ebola epidemic in West Africa from 2014-2016 hit Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea especially hard. As well as the high death toll, the Ebola epidemic led to the reversal of development gains in the region, increased poverty and food insecurity, and halted livelihood activities. Large numbers of children were left vulnerable, and child labour (as well as child marriage) in affected areas increased. Children also reported
doing more household chores, such as collecting firewood and fetching water.
- The global HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s led to reduced economic growth in heavily affected countries (notably in Africa), in turn impacting children and youth. Many experienced the loss of one or both parents and, in the absence of social protection, found themselves head of households and providers for siblings or a sick parent. Youth in HIV/AIDS affected households were widely reported to be dropping out of school and starting work when too young, too unskilled or too inexperienced.
- The global financial crisis of 2007/8 had massive negative knock-on effects on developing countries’ economies. Studies in diverse countries found a rise in child labour, notably in agriculture and notably among girls (either working or taking on domestic responsibilities so their mothers could work).
The literature highlights the (potential) pathways in which the current COVID-19 pandemic could lead to increased enslavement and child labour in the developing world, including in South Asia:
- Loss of livelihoods and economic opportunities because of the crisis has increased the supply of workers vulnerable to exploitation;
- Employers have stronger incentives and perhaps greater latitude for exploitation. Those already in modern slavery could face harsher conditions;
- Greater discrimination against minorities and migrants could facilitate exploitation;
- Anti-slavery organisations and activities have been disrupted;
- School closures and heightened financial pressures on families could fuel child labour as well as child marriage. The longer the crisis goes on, the less chance of children returning to school – depriving them of opportunities for a better future.
Some literature was found on the likely impact of the crisis on child labour in individual countries in South Asia.
- A large proportion of the workforce is in the informal sector, where job losses are already huge. This and the lack of adequate social protection could fuel child labour;
- In rural households, restrictions on movement will reduce availability of agricultural labourers, forcing famers to use their children;
- Financial pressure on businesses and employers mean children could be exploited as a source of cheap labour, e.g. in the garment sector, in flour mills. Children already working could have to work longer hours and/or for lower wages;
- Recent erosion of labour rights in India has fuelled the increased use of unorganised labour, facilitating the use of child labour in the current crisis;
- Mortality among parents due to COVID-19 could force children to become breadwinners for their households. Orphaned children are also particularly vulnerable to trafficking;
- The nationwide school closure will disproportionately hamper the education of underprivileged children in government schools, with many ending up permanently out of school and in the workforce;
- India has tens of thousands of street children, whose vulnerability (e.g. to trafficking) will be greatly increased by loss of ‘traditional’ income opportunities (e.g. begging) coupled with loss of support from welfare organisations/NGOs.
- Bangladesh’s two major export sectors – garments and leather – have both been badly hit by the crisis, contributing to massive job losses and drop in income, especially for those in informal work;
- Coupled with school closures, this will fuel child labour as well as worsening conditions (lower pay, longer hours) for children in the informal sector;
- Children in street situations, traditionally working as rubbish collectors, street vendors and engaged in begging, can no longer do so. Such vulnerable children could be pushed further into poverty and/or end up in more exploitative situations.