South Asian countries experience substantial variations in child labour. In absolute terms, child labour at 5-17 years of age is the highest in India (5.8 million), followed by Bangladesh (5.0 million), Pakistan (3.4 million) and Nepal (2.0 million).
Within the region, child labour is affected by multitudinous factors. According to experts, long periods of unemployment, economic deprivation, and poverty are the prime reasons behind the emergence of child labour.
Access to basic education, especially for girls, is one of the leading causes of child labour and gender inequality. Furthermore, the scarcity of agricultural technology has led the agricultural sector to host the highest percentage of children in labour, with 56% of India's child labourers employed in this sector. Moreover, migration, high fertility rate, and inadequate law and enforcement are notable factors that significantly induce children to work.
Decennially, the region has been persistently suffering from poverty crisis. To tackle unemployment, parents often send their children to work in exploitative and hazardous conditions, thereby, snatching their untapped potential.
Studies conducted by UNICEF and ILO indicate that child labour has staggering effects on children's health. Children involved in child labour suffer from various forms of abuse, including economic and sexual exploitation, deprivation from education and adequate healthcare, child trafficking, recruitment to armed groups in conflict situations and bonded slavery.
Furthermore, child labour inflicts severe bodily and psychological harm. It increases gender inequality, as girls also run the risk of being burdened by increased domestic chores (ILO, 2020).
Significantly, over 24 million in the 7-14 years' age group in three countries are out of school due to child labour: India (12.3 million), Pakistan (7.3 million) and Bangladesh (4.5 million) (ILO, 2015).
Various studies indicate that adults who were previously child labourers continue to work in low paid jobs in informal markets, hence being unable to reach their potential they are trapped in a cycle of poverty. Thus, child labour not only robs children from their childhood but also a better future.
Additionally, child labour adversely affects the economy. Child labourers presumably work in informal markets, unregulated by the government. Employers in informal sectors often substitute adult workers for child labourers, to minimize their expenses by lower wages. The availability of child labour creates an abundance of unskilled workers, thus impeding economic growth and development.
Embedded in generational cultural tradition, complete eradication poses a challenge as underprivileged families depend on children to bear the burden of household income.
Due to Covid-19, the factors contributing to child labour stand stronger than ever, for widespread unemployment and parental mortality further encourage children to financially resort to labour, as low-income families lack the credit or savings to depend on during this economic struggle (HRW, 2020).
Cockayane and Smith (2020) identified the increasing demand for medical instruments as an incentive to meet rising demand with cheap labour, allowing companies to invest the bare minimum for supplies-capitalising on exploitative labour. Another factor is the school closure, which has now been shifted virtually but inaccessible by many. The opportunity cost leans towards the family and income, rather than the long-term investment of education.
The war against child labour has been supported by the 2015 SDG commitment to eliminate all forms of child labour. Yet, when this commitment was made, Covid-19 was not in the picture- so what now? The ILO and UNICEF have warned a rapid and sharp increase in child labour, approximately by 15% to 672 million by the end of 2020 (The ASEAN Post).
Nevertheless, certain measures can be taken to increase protection for children and gradually decrease child labour in the region. It is crucial that the regional governments work together with both domestic and international right groups and address the key reasons behind child labour i.e. poverty.
To eradicate poverty, regional governments must strengthen the social welfare system and simultaneously devise an effective monitoring strategy to ensure that aids for poverty eradication are being properly utilised. They must create employment opportunities for the underprivileged class to prevent child labour from complementing family income.
Additionally, existing laws must be strictly implemented, particularly in regards to occupational health and safety to protect children from hazardous conditions or being overworked.
Multiple studies suggest that there is a correlation between child labour and illiteracy. Children who remain in school are less likely to be involved in child labour. Governments must provide free education to unprivileged children and improve the quality of learning, cover additional costs for attending school (i.e. transport) and eliminate corporal punishments in schools. Similarly, NGOs must also work to raise awareness through community meetings and seminars at schools.
In the case of Bangladesh, child labour has always been an unrelenting issue; something we have failed to tackle over the years. To tackle the economic crisis in Covid-19, many children are forced into child labour, where usually these children are made to work in the RMG factories on a "no work, no pay" basis.
The ILO had a significant breakthrough, with all 187-member states universally ratifying Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour –confirming that all children now have legal protection against the worst forms of child labour (UN News). This global commitment is crucial at this moment, where the Covid-19 pandemic has forced even more children into harsh labour to fend for their livelihood.
Passing a universal document with no implementation makes it just another worthless document. We hope to see the elimination of all forms of child labour, with proper enactment of this act. To conclude the article, let us all acknowledge that children should not be working on fields, but on dreams.
Maisha Zaman is a final year student of University of London (LLB).
Mehbeez Binte Matiur is an Honours 3rd year student at Department of Criminology, University of Dhaka.
Arin Rahman is pursuing B.Sc in Information and Communication Engineering from Bangladesh University of Professionals.
Alaikah Ahmed is an LLB student of BPP University, UK.
Arafat Reza is employed as a Teaching Assistant at LCLS (South).