Gomathi (name changed), a resident of a Semmenchery in Chennai, dropped out of school during COVID-19 lockdown and started working as a house maid in Vellore district. She was rescued by Non-Governmental Organisations and the district administration in September 2020 following information that she was harassed by the house owner.
Gomathi is one among the many children who was pushed into child labour during the pandemic.
A study released by Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL)-Tamil Nadu and Puducherry ‘Lost Gains - COVID-19 - Reversing the situation of child labour, A rapid survey’ points out that child labour, among vulnerable communities, has increased by nearly 280% in the State compared to the pre-COVID-19 situation.
The study conducted in 24 districts by child rights specialists R. Vidyasagar, adviser for CACL and K. Shyamalanachiar, coordinator, CACL, shows that the number of children, from vulnerable communities such as SC/ST, working increased from 231 to 650 compared to the pre-COVID-19 situation.
“There is a big jump in the proportion of working children from 28.2% to 79.6% because of the impact of COVID-19 and school closure. We interviewed a total of 818 children and out of them, 553 children were in school prior to the pandemic and 265 were not in school and most of them were working. After the schools were closed, 419 of the 553 children who were in school began working,“ explained Mr. Vidyasagar.
He said that while child labour had increased rapidly in North, South and West Zones, it is lower in Central and East Zones. “Nearly 30.8% of the children are working in the manufacturing sector, followed by 26.4% in the service sector. The other major sectors where children started working are agriculture and home-based cottage industry,” he said.
More than 94% of the children had stated that they started working due to the financial crisis in their house and family pressure. “These children are also not attending online classes due to various reasons, including non-conducive atmosphere at home, need to work, lack of smartphone among others,” he explained.
A. Devaneyan, CACL North Zone convener, said that high borrowings during the pandemic had pushed many families into the vicious cycle of poverty. “Hence, many children are forced to work even after the lockdown has been relaxed. There is also a need to find out about the condition of migrant children in the State. There is no data on them. Convergence of child protection mechanism with nodal departments, including education and health, is important to reduce child labour,” he said.
The study has also suggested various measures to address the issue, including minimum guaranteed employment for all, coverage of vulnerable families under social protection schemes, strict enforcement of labour laws among others.
“The village-level child protection committees should be activated. Teachers should check on the children who were studying in their school prior to the pandemic and ensure they come back to school. Rapid survey of vulnerable families should also be done,” said R. Karuppusamy, CACL convener for Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
Virgil D’Sami, Director of Arunodhaya, who spoke after receiving the copy of the study, said that in the last two decades, child labour had reduced and there was an increased enrolment in schools. “But the pandemic has reversed the gains achieved for children. There is an urgent need to protect the children,” she said.