Worldwide 152 million children are in child labour; the majority of them, 108 million, work in agriculture. The agricultural sector includes fishing, forestry, livestock herding and aquaculture in both subsistence and commercial farming. How will COVID-19 impact efforts to end child labour in the sector, in line with SDG Target 8.7 and ILO conventions?
We see COVID-19 impacting child labour in three ways : (1) increasing the involvement of children in work ; (2) increasing the risk of involvement or relapse for those removed from child labour ; (3) increasing working poverty among youth (15-17 years) in decent work.
1. Increasing work participation of children
In addition to the threat to public health, the COVID-19 is causing economic and social disruption which threatens the long-term livelihoods and wellbeing of millions of farmers, informal rural food market traders, vendors and their children. In many countries in the Global South, the virus-induced restrictions to movement and gatherings are taking place during harvesting and marketing time. In the majority of cases, governments have not had the time to put in place measures to ensure that marketing can take place, least of all propose an economic bailout package for them. The seasonal nature of smallholder production and perishability of most agricultural products exacerbates the situation, as there is a small time-frame in which families can sell and get the bulk of their annual income.
We see economic distress for smallholder farmers increasing with each day of coronavirus-induced restrictions, creating situations that may lead to child labour. Furthermore, as adults face higher risk of coronavirus infection than children, children may also end up assuming greater responsibilities for family survival.
2. Increased participation of children in child labour
Governments around the world have shut down educational institutions in an effort to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. UNESCO estimates that these closures are impacting over 89% of the world’s student population in 188 countries. While necessary, these measures can have a disproportionate impact on children in agricultural communities in two ways.
First, experience shows that increasing access to education reduces child labour. However, since children in rural areas are now at home all the time and not learning, they are likely to be involved in child labour longer than if they were attending school. Also, children who had been removed from child labour are at heightened risk of relapsing. Second, without access to radio, internet, or electricity, children in rural communities cannot continue their education through remote learning like their urban counterparts. Thus, the COVID-19 will also increase education inequality.
3. Increasing working poverty among legally working children
The fall in economic activity due to the quarantine measures will disproportionately impact legal working youths (15-17 years) in agriculture because they are already close to or below the poverty line, are relatively inexperienced, have low savings and are involved in low-skilled jobs. While there may be increased demand for workers in the agricultural sector, wages are likely to be suppressed due to the high supply of low-skilled workers.
For further reading on the impact of the COVID-19, we recommend the following resources :
- International Labour Organization - “COVID- 19 and the world of work: Impact and policy responses“
- UNESCO – ‘Distance Learning Solutions’
- iDE Global – ‘Even remote farmers are threatened by COVID-19’
- Overseas Development Institute – ‘Blog series: the coronavirus outbreak’