COVID-19 to undo decades of progress on child labour

Gulf Today|July 04, 2020

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COVID-19 to undo decades of progress on child labour
Experts warn that the COVID-19 pandemic could force millions of children in developing nations out of classrooms for good and into the workforce, reversing two decades of hardwon progress against underage labour
Shashank Bengali and Zulfiqar Ali

The boys struck out from their village in Pakistan’s rugged tribal belt and came to this frontier city to work at Maula Khan’s drink stand, a wooden cart shaded by an umbrella on a road bustling with migrants, war refugees and swerving rickshaws.

Umar Gul and Muhammad Siraj stood in the 108-degree heat, pouring freshly squeezed lemons mixed with jaggery into steel cups for 12 cents a serving. They were far from home, but when the coronavirus pandemic closed their elementary school in March, their families needed them to work.

“I decided to support my parents,” said Umar, a 14-year-old who was in the fourth grade. His 13-year-old cousin Muhammad, whose father owns the lemonade cart and demanded the boys join him, was in the grade below. Neither is counting on returning to school when classes resume.

“I’m not sure,” Umar shrugged, his shoulders slumped under a loose-fitting Shalwar Kameez. “My father doesn’t have enough money for my education.”

Experts warn that the COVID-19 pandemic could force millions of children in developing nations out of classrooms for good and into the workforce, reversing two decades of hard-won progress against underage labour and exposing vulnerable girls and boys to hazardous conditions, physical stress, emotional trauma and exploitation.

“In precarious households that are economically vulnerable, they have to make a decision every day, how to spend their income and how to generate income,” said Cornelius Williams, associate director of child protection at UNICEF.

“If these families go below the poverty line, they may have to make these ugly choices.”

Months long economic lockdowns and the threat of a prolonged global recession have worsened hardships for poor families, especially those who depend on informal jobs and lack social protections. In low- and middle-income countries, the number of children living in poverty could rise 15% by the end of 2020 to 672 million, according to UNICEF and Save the Children, an international charity.

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July 04, 2020