The threat of Future on Migrant Workers and Their Children
By Arjoma Moulick, 1st Year, Post-Graduate (Politics: International and Area Studies) student at Jamia Millia Islamia
In the wake of the current pandemic #COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns resulting in huge economic and labour-market consequences, which have dismantled the system from within, affecting the lower- and middle-class Indian families severely. Children, in this case, are the first to suffer as they are being pushed to child labour, compromising on their years for education and learning. Among this segment, the most vulnerable group includes migrant workers, children, and their families who have lost the sole breadwinner in the second wave of COVID-19, which had left many children orphaned, marginalizing this segment further. An assessment conducted by Aide-et-Action revealed that about 50% of the migrant worker's children are engaged in work to increase their family income or help their parents. Migrant worker's children spend their lives away from their homes, often spending their time with their parents at job sites; this often causes problems in enrolment and their retention in schools; even though the schools now have shifted to online mode of education, migrant children are not able to afford or access the online classes because of technological/locational/financial difficulties.
If one studies, the condition of the Migrant Workers in this past year was extremely difficult and more so because the Indian government avoided the responsibility to take care of them. The Indian government response on safeguarding the Labor rights of daily wagers and migrant workers were disastrous where it looked towards increasing the investment to restart the economy, causing a human burden on the already distressed families. Governments in Gujrat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Punjab increased the maximum labour working hours from 8 to 12 hours. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh went a step ahead by introducing ordinances through which most of the labour laws concerning the workers under daily/weekly wage were suspended. These changes disregard the safety of the labourers under the pandemic. The labour laws fall under the concurrent list of the Indian Constitution, implying both the state and central government were at fault in adopting laws that were exploitative in the name of ‘increasing market investments and economy’ where laws should have been crafted in favour of protecting the workers.
There are three strands of a vulnerable group of children that one can identify: the first group which consists of children who are left behind as their parents who undertake employment elsewhere, these group of children are largely dependent on the remittances which are sent back home, money is a critical support to their nutritional need and healthcare expenditure. Approximately 10% of Indian households are dependent on remittances; any such reduction in the parent's wage directly impacts food intake and healthcare outcomes of children. The second group of children migrate with their parents to several parts of the country; their families often undertake seasonal migration. This kind of migration is common within Schedule Caste and Schedule Tribes. These children often are young, and they need the extended care of their mothers. The older ones are brought along to take care of the younger ones. Studies have shown that migrant children experience poor nutritional and health outcomes resulting from the poor condition of their parent's workplace. Conditions are worsened as they are often found living in hazardous, unhygienic conditions, which are the characteristics that shape the labour colonies. Job loss as well, pending wages, wage cuts encountered by the migrants exacerbated the children's experiences. In 2020, after the Centre relaxed the lockdown rules, migrants set out to reach home on foot, many unable to reach the destination. The third group includes those children who undertake migration for employment. In the 2011 census, 1 lakh children aged 10-14 years and nine lakhs aged 15-19 are engaged in the services and manufacturing work. They faced the issue of physical abuse, which child rights activists noted. The second and third groups encounter several forms of risks as they have long-lasting impacts on their well-being.
The pandemic has triggered a massive crisis where abuse, exploitation and violation faced by the children increased manifold. The working conditions and the forced bonded labour in the country have only worsened in light of the pandemic. The closure of educational institutions and the economic crisis faced by the families are pushing the families to the brink of poverty. UNICEF has recorded that 10 million Indian children are engaged in some form of servitude. With 1.5 million schools closed during the pandemic, the opportunity of the marginalized sector of students to engage in meaningful developmental activities also reduced significantly. The massive setback in terms of educational and nutritional well-being among children is likely to deteriorate child labour conditions further. Children within the age group of 15-18 years who have dropped out of schools due to the school shut down due to pandemic would never go back to schools. These children significantly compromised for their families. The local legislative actions and district planning at local levels need to ensure that these children go back to school while understanding their challenges. The pandemic already has brought the worst on everyone. Dirty, petty level politics should not be a part of it.
The pressure of on girl child who is especially staying at home is often contributing to the household chores and care for young siblings. Thus they have often pulled away from studies. There is a looming danger of trafficking due to reverse migration. Children have returned to their villages with their parents. A livelihood crisis can be underway, especially those not tracked, especially those staying in quarantine camps and relief camps. Children of migrant labourers who returned to villages with their parents are detached from the education system, leading them to enter the workforce at a young age. School closure has caused a learning crisis as well as a crisis for those children who depend on schools for shelter and meals. Many children are likely to live under looming hunger and starvation, bringing nutrition levels are close hands. Young children among the group of 0-6 years are likely to suffer a negative socio-economic impact. System of "Anganwadi system", which takes care of early childhood development, are going to face the severe challenge of effective service delivery. This cause must be analyzed from the family dimension; the burden of lost income often incomes a catalyst for domestic violence and maltreatment of children and women; such shocks are often endured by those family members who have the limited autonomy of power. The adverse faces of patriarchy mixed with poverty and gender power are more clearly visible in traditional societies. Thus the chances are that children are often controlled and bonded within the family increases the chances for child marriage, and child marriages, a crime under IPCC of Indian constitution. Further, according to the UN Report of 16th April 2020, the global recession faced by the migrant labourers resulting from the pandemic caused additional child deaths, resulting in infant mortality. The gross violation fundamental rights of children have generated pre-existing vulnerabilities at multiple levels, and the pandemic has posed basic survival challenge for those who were at the margins of the society (Rural and Culturally Impoverished)
In such a situation, policy recommendations, as well as individual interventions, should be our main priority. The situation is grim, but in terms of policy, the efforts should focus upon those children living under the looming threat of being pushed into child labour, industrial effort to employ their parents back with proper labour laws in place, the government must be coerced into bringing economic policies in favour of the labour demand. This will act as an immediate cushion against children being pushed into the workforce and compromising on their education and child marriages. School authorities must ensure that students have free lunches until the schools reopen. This can be a coordinated effort of the administration, the legislature, and the authorities to deliver the same. Since the online mode of education is being seen as the light of the day, there must be coordinated efforts with those children who cannot afford the internet, priority of education should be the foremost target. This can be done by organizing students in groups, ensuring that the technological aid is available to all. The Anganwadi centres must reopen to cater to maternal, early-childhood care, immunization facilities. The panchayats and Anganwadi must act together to provide services to migrant workers and are not registered.
Community-led projects must be initiated to meet development and learning goals; this is where civil society can also intervene. Vulnerable communities must be targeted and be provided with the correct information to counsel caregivers, children, family members through digital access, and this is where private-public NGOs can come together; continuing support from frontline workers from ASHA, ANM, AWW need to provide guidance to overcome the gap of reaching out to communities in disadvantaged areas. Community-people cooperation is the need of the hour. Mental health care needs to be provided; a hostile environment is detrimental to the child's holistic development. Family-centred mental health services need to be provided through tele/online mode; private NGO interventions are most crucial here, thus being a lifesaver for few at the rise of family crisis. ECD (Early Childhood Development) Center's workers need to monitor the families closely, making them the vanguard of steering their children's development at home and coping with the negative impacts of COVID-19; however, families from the low-income groups may require cash transfers to support their essential requirements and make up for lost income, such initiative can also be done in terms of donation drives. Migrant workers, domestic help, others in the informal sector must be provided with skill development by public-private cooperation to allow them to develop new skills to sustain their families.
Thus, the mass exodus of the migrant workers in India from the cities has disturbed the everyday routine lives of those who were already marginalized and underprivileged; this is a disaster with how the policy recommendation and lockdowns were managed. The migrant crisis, which was induced in the country, witnessed morbidity and deaths within the initial two months. Many children are left without parents, orphaned, who are at the most significant risk. The impact of this pandemic was disproportionate, based on the economic stature. The shocks were absorbed mainly by those who lacked the privilege of autonomy within the society. Migrant workers children were the most vulnerable in this case as they are battling with psychological, social, economic shocks, exposing the insensitivity of the society towards children belonging from different strata of the society. The least we can do as citizens is being aware of incidents of child labour and being proactive in reporting such cases to the NGOs at the first instance or at the government helpline number at 1098 to register cases. Active awareness about adoption programs of adopting those children orphaned during the crisis, making sure community education programs to community participation reaches the lowest rung of the society are few such steps one can undertake at local levels.
(Disclaimer- The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Child Rights Centre.)