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OPINION: We cannot let COVID-19 undo gains in fight to end child labor

by Nina Smith | GoodWeave International
Monday, 30 November 2020 10:32 GMT

Muskaan and Afsana pose for a photo in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, India. Handout photo provided by Goodweave International via The Studio M - thestudiom.com.

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Coronavirus has decimated earnings for workers at the bottom of global supply chains

Nina Smith is CEO of GoodWeave International, the leading organization working to stop child labor in global supply chains.

Days before the COVID-19 pandemic consumed the world, I arrived in a dusty village near the ancient city of Meerut, located about 60 miles northwest of New Delhi. Outside a small hut in a gated courtyard I met a 13-year-old girl, Muskaan, and her mother, Afsana. Afsana was hand-beading piecework jewelry likely destined for a European retailer, the family’s primary income source.

Theirs was one of our success stories. Muskaan was working as a child laborer when my organization, GoodWeave International initiated our Child Friendly Community program in her village. One of our community facilitators helped to enroll her in school and soon her parents saw the benefits. She hopes to be the first literate person in her family.  

Child Friendly Communities bring rights and visibility to hidden workers, and ensure children are in school and not working for pennies to make the goods we purchase in the West. Similar efforts by NGOs and other stakeholders have helped to reduce child labor by 40% over the past 20 years, from 240 million down to 152 million. When I left Muskaan’s village to fly home to the U.S., those hard-won humanitarian gains were suddenly imperiled. COVID-19 was unleashed, and governments were scrambling to control infection rates with national lockdowns. Retail stores shuttered, people isolated in their homes, consumers stopped buying, factories closed, and the orders flowing to workers like Muskaan’s parents evaporated.

We all witnessed the catastrophic images. Millions of migrant workers flooded the roads across Northern India to walk hundreds of kilometers home, as public transport was closed by government mandate. They could not pay for food and shelter without work, and a humanitarian crisis arose.

Our new report, “Hidden and Vulnerable: The Impact of COVID-19 on Child, Forced and Bonded Labor,” details what happened after those chaotic early weeks of the pandemic to workers at the bottom of global supply chains. Data collected directly from informal workers in India and Nepal paint a startling picture: incomes of the most impoverished workers have declined precipitously or completely vanished; conditions of forced labor are on the rise with nearly 1 in 4 workers surveyed owing debt of at least three months’ salary to labor brokers and employers; 100% of workers’ children are out of school and some are now entering the workforce to help families meet their most basic needs for food and shelter.

These challenges have hit women and girls the hardest. According to one mother in Kathmandu, “I am the only earner in my family … I am staying with my two children…I have just started to work, since the lockdown and orders are (much fewer). I am worried about how I and my family can survive.”

What does the future hold for this mother and her children, and for Muskaan’s community? In the midst of the upheaval, we have an opportunity to rebuild a market that cares about people. We can prevent families from falling deeper into poverty, debt and starvation. This is the conversation we need to have, and I hope that the findings and recommendations in “Hidden and Vulnerable,” will contribute.

We recommend to address vital needs through relief aid (cash, food and transportation subsidies) and child protection by facilitating online learning and child care.

In the longer-term, companies must acknowledge all workers in their supply chains, including those hidden in communities like Muskaan’s, sometimes hundreds of miles from the export manufacturers who consolidate their orders.

As part of a COVID-19 relief package, the European Union announced a mandatory due diligence law which is now taking shape. This and other laws could support a worker-centered, economic model that drives change from consumers to companies to the workers themselves. And when workers make a living wage, their children can go to school and break the inter-generational cycle of poverty, illiteracy and child labor. We have seen it happen; shopkeepers, social workers, pharmacists, and teachers were once child laborers rescued by GoodWeave. For the first time, their literacy enables them to read a work agreement, negotiate wage payments and advocate for their rights.

In this global economy we all benefit from the hard work of strangers, possibly Muskaan or her mother, whose hands never stopped beading while she chatted with us that early March day. Let us now return those benefits in the form of recognition, living wages, security and education. We must preserve the generation of gains for women and children made before COVID-19, and redouble efforts in the fight against child labor and for workers’ rights.

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