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Over the last two decades, countries have made remarkable progress reducing child labor. Since 2000, the number of children in child labor has dropped by 94 million. 

In many countries, governments provided families with cash allowances, so that they could meet their needs without sending their children to work. 

But the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is reversing that progress.

Families have lost jobs and income, and schools have closed.

In countries like Nepal, Ghana, and Uganda, children have gone to work to help their families put food on the table.

Many work long, grueling hours for very little pay, if they are paid at all.

Some work under hazardous conditions, handling toxic mercury to process gold, or suffer injuries from working with dangerous tools.

Once working, many children will never return to school.

But child labor is not inevitable.

Before the pandemic, cash allowances for families helped many countries reduce poverty and child labor rates.

Now, governments should expand cash allowances to help support families hit hard by the pandemic, and to protect children’s rights to an adequate standard of living, to education, and to protection from child labor.

  • The unprecedented economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is pushing children into exploitative and dangerous child labor.
  • Many children feel they have no choice but to work to help their families survive, but a rise in child labor is not an inevitable consequence of the pandemic.
  • The Nepali government and international donors should expand Nepal’s relatively small cash transfer program to keep children out of exploitative and dangerous child labor.

(New York) – The unprecedented economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, together with school closures and insufficient government assistance, is pushing children into exploitative and dangerous child labor, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today ahead of the World Day against Child Labor on June 12, 2021. The second wave of Covid-19 cases in Nepal puts children at even greater risk of child labor in the wake of new lockdowns and rising illness and death rates among caregivers.

The 69-page report, “‘I Must Work to Eat’: Covid-19, Poverty, and Child labor in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda” was co-published by Human Rights Watch, Friends of the Nation (Ghana), and Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (Uganda). It examines the rise in child labor and poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the pandemic’s impact on children’s rights. Children described working long, grueling hours for little pay after their parents lost jobs or income. Some described hazardous working conditions.

“Many children feel they have no choice but to work to help their families survive, but a rise in child labor is not an inevitable consequence of the pandemic,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Nepali government and international donors should expand Nepal’s relatively small cash transfer program to keep children out of exploitative and dangerous child labor.”

The researchers interviewed 81 working children in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda. In Nepal, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 children between ages 8 and 16, who worked in brick kilns, carpet factories, in construction, as mechanics, rickshaw drivers, carpenters, and as vendors selling tea, cotton candy, masks, and other items.

Nearly all of the Nepali children interviewed said that the pandemic had a negative effect on their family income. A 12-year-old girl said her mother worked for a catering company and had no work during the lockdown. “We didn’t have any source of income for months,” she said. “We still haven’t paid eight months of rent.”

Many children entered the workforce for the first time to support their families. Some said they decided to work because their families didn’t have enough food. Even after lockdown restrictions were eased, children often kept working.

Many of the children described long working hours, particularly during school closures and lockdowns. In Nepal, one-third of the children interviewed worked at least twelve hours a day, some seven days a week. Children reported fatigue, dizziness, and pain in their backs, legs, knees, hands, fingers, and eyes from repetitive motions, sitting for extended periods, or carrying heavy loads. “My fingers hurt from knotting the threads,” said a 14-year-old girl who worked in a carpet factory for nearly 18 hours a day. “My eyes hurt from looking at the design map … and I sit down for hours so it really hurts my legs.”

A 14-year-old boy from Dolakha district at a brick kiln in Bholachhe, Bhaktapur, Nepal where he lives with his aunt’s family. He works as a carpenter’s apprentice in the day and helps his aunt’s family make bricks in the mornings and evenings. He dropped out of school four years ago and believes that he’s too old to resume schooling. © 2021 Nikita Tripathi for Human Rights Watch

Although Nepal’s minimum wage is 13,450 rupees per month (US$115.60), or 517 rupees per day ($4.44), the majority of children interviewed made far less. Several who worked in carpet factories and brick kilns said their employers paid their parents based on a piece rate instead of paying them.

School closures worldwide have also contributed to an increase in child labor. In Nepal, nationwide school closures began on March 18, 2020, affecting more than 8 million students. Although the Education Ministry provided distance learning programs through the internet, radio, and television, UNICEF reported that two-thirds of Nepal’s schoolchildren were unable to access them. “There was nothing to do at home since school shut down.” said a 14-year-old boy. “And with everybody at home, we started to run out of food quickly. I decided to go to work, because what else was I going to do?”

Human Rights Watch interviewed children in January and February 2021, after most schools had reopened. Most had returned to school, but also continued to work. Some said that their education suffered. One 14-year-old girl continued to work six hours a day in a carpet factory. “There’s no time to do any reading or homework,” she said. Others had not returned to school, saying that their family still needed their help or had fallen into debt, or had dropped out permanently.

A 9-year-old girl sells balloons in Durbar Square in Patan, Nepal. Her father had to close his tailoring shop because of lockdowns to slow the spread of Covid-19. She says her father had stopped drinking for years but the lockdown and subsequent financial burden drove him to start again, “He comes home drunk and my parents get into fights.” © 2021 Nikita Tripathi for Human Rights Watch

In April, the government closed schools again in many urban areas due to rising Covid-19 rates.

The researchers focused on Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda because they have made significant progress in reducing poverty and child labor, and as “pathfinder” countries, have committed to accelerate efforts to eradicate child labor by 2025 in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. However, each has lagged behind their regional peers in using cash allowances to address the Covid-19 crisis, spending less than neighboring countries and covering a smaller proportion of households with children.

Leading up to the pandemic, cash allowances to families with children contributed to a significant decrease in child labor globally. According to the International Labor Organization, the number of children in child labor decreased by approximately 94 million between 2000 and 2016, a drop of 38 percent. In Nepal, the number of children in child labor dropped from 1.6 million in 2008 to 1.1 million in 2018.

A Nepali child waits for customers as he sells vegetables in the early morning during lockdown amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Kathmandu, Nepal on June 12, 2020. © 2020 Sunil Sharma/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Nepal initiated a Child Grant program in 2009-2010 to provide monthly cash support for vulnerable families with children under age 5, but the program covers only 6 percent of Nepal’s children, and does not reach those most likely to enter child labor. Nepal has also not provided any additional cash allowances during the Covid-19 pandemic, though several of its neighbors, including Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, expanded cash allowances to cover millions of additional families.

“For many families with children, government assistance has been far too little to ensure their children can enjoy an adequate standard of living,” Becker said. “Cash allowances are smart investments that can keep children out of exploitative and dangerous work and help get them back into school.”

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