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India faces lost generation as virus pushes children to work

Shwetha Sunil, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing India's children out of school and into farms and factories to work, worsening a child-labor problem that was already one of the direst in the world.

Sixteen-year-old Maheshwari Munkalapally and her 15-year-old sister stopped attending lessons when virtually the entire economy was brought to a halt during the world's biggest lockdown. Munkalapally's mother and older sister lost their jobs as housemaids in Hyderabad, the capital of the southern Indian state of Telangana. The younger girls, who had been living with their grandmother in a nearby village, were forced to become farmhands along with their mother to survive.

"Working under the sun was difficult as we were never used to it," Munkalapally said. "But we have to work at least to buy rice and other groceries."

It's difficult to quantify the number of children affected since the pandemic erupted, but civil society groups are rescuing more of them from forced labor and warn that many others are being compelled to work in cities because of the migrant labor shortage there.

Even before the outbreak, India was struggling to keep children in school. A 2018 study by DHL International GmBH estimated that more than 56 million children were out of school in India -- more than double the combined number across Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The cost to India's economy, in terms of lost productivity, was projected at $6.79 billion, or 0.3% of gross domestic product.

Of those children not in school, 10.1 million are working, either as a 'main worker' or as a 'marginal worker,' according to the International Labour Organization.

 

Global trend

Global child labor had been gradually declining in the past two decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse that trend, according to the ILO. As many as 60 million people are expected to fall into poverty this year alone, and that inevitably drives families to send children out to work. A joint report by the ILO and United Nations Children's Fund estimates that a 1 percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 percentage point increase in child labor.

Indonesia, the world's fourth most-populous nation, is another country that will see large numbers of children from vulnerable families drop out of school and into the workforce. The ILO estimates about 11 million are at risk of being exploited as child laborers under current conditions, especially in the less-developed eastern parts of the country, like Sulawesi islands, Nusa Tenggara and Papua.

Economic loss

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