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.