The ongoing pandemic has been and continues to be difficult for everybody all over the world. However, on the one hand, people with steady incomes can boast about being in a better place than most other people, and on the other hand, those who are marginalized, discriminated against, and destitute are at greater risk of exploitation than other people. This happens mainly due to power gaps and imbalances in society. Two of the very alarming problems are child labor and worker exploitation. COVID-19’s impact on the above-stated problems is a menace to whatever improvements have been made in their regard in the past two decades.
The closure of schools in most parts of the world has forced children out of schools and into farms and factories to work in the form of bonded labor for paying off debts or just for feeding their family. Child labor has been a raging problem in underdeveloped and developing countries for a very long time. The impact of COVID-19 has just aggravated the problem more.
When the entire economy came to a halt because of the world’s biggest lockdown, migrant workers in factories were out of work. Once the lockdown was lifted and normal manufacturing activities came back into force, factory owners looked for different ways to cover their financial losses by employing cheap labor.
Countries that have high rates of child labor and human trafficking during relatively stable times like most underdeveloped nations of Africa and Asia are more at risk during the pandemic. Children lacking access to the internet and technology, especially those from poor, backward, and rural communities, we’re unable to participate in remote self-instructed learning during this time. This immediate loss of learning may result in some students deciding to drop out of schools permanently and getting these children back into the education system will prove to be very difficult. Orphaned or highly vulnerable children who have lost one or both parents during the crisis lack resources and protection, making them almost defenseless in the face of child labor.
In countries like the Gulf, the threat regarding risks of infection among migrant workers living in densely packed, and often poorly sanitized labor camps is a very serious concern. Healthcare crises have pushed people towards risky labor market decisions that have made them susceptible to ‘modern slavery’, either because of the inability to pay for medical care or because they lost their jobs. This has heightened risks of enslavement. Legal restrictions on economic activities have increased risks of exploitation in other contexts. In Amsterdam, civic bodies have expressed concern for sex workers as nightclubs are shut down and sex work is pushed underground-making workers increasingly vulnerable to trafficking.
To combat the potential increase in child labor and worker exploitation, different human rights organizations have requested governments to strengthen their labor laws, educate households through civic and supportive bodies and support families and workers during this calamity – including the use of cash transfer programs. This requires direct cash payments to the impoverished sections of the society. Families that accept the money must promise to keep their children in school and not allow them to enter the labor market. Workers who get access to such transfers can at least save themselves from starvation and obtain much-needed healthcare provisions. Companies must support small-scale suppliers with cash and credit to facilitate workers’ continued employment, paid leaves, and flexible working arrangements during this period.
Although it is detrimental for businesses to make hard financial and practical decisions during economic crises, the moral and legal imperative to protect workers in company supply chains applies even more in these times of growing vulnerability. Companies must identify risks, sustain commitments to human rights, and address the different problems of workers and children who are employed at the bottom of supply chains.
These methods have proven effective in varying degrees in diminishing child labor and worker exploitation in many parts of the world but are they enough? What about the labor laws that have increased the working hours of daily wage workers from eight to twelve hours? Shouldn’t governments work on the introduction of more free meal programs, remote learning opportunities, and childcare facilities?
There always have been glaring discrepancies in the working of governments when it comes to tackling such problems. Incomplete solutions to serious problems only show carelessness and negligence on part of rule-makers. In the face of a pandemic, it is high time that concerned authorities look into such problems with the seriousness that directly impacts the world’s social and economic development.
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