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India

No way out for South Asia's child laborers

Disowned by society and governments, they face a bleak future in a post-pandemic world

No way out for South Asia's child laborers

A child laborer works at a brick kiln on the outskirts of Jalandhar in the northern Indian state of Punjab. (Photo: AFP)

Agricultural technology is the next big thing happening in South Asia — the child labor hotspot of the world that employs most of its teenage workers in farms and allied sectors.

India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal have child labor populations of 5.8 million, 5 million, 3.4 million and 2 million respectively, a survey by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found in 2020.

Covering seven countries, South Asia has more than 16.7 million children eking out a living. On the subcontinent of 1.82 billion people, the agriculture sector hosts the largest number of child laborers, reveals the survey.

The region's most populous country, India, employs 56 percent of its child workers in the agriculture sector to cultivate cotton, rice, sugarcane, wheat, tobacco and other crops.

Child workers toil for long hours in a hazardous and exploitative environment, handling heavy loads of produce in the scorching heat and spraying toxic pesticides.

During the heavy work schedule, they often fall victim to freak mishaps like injury from sharp knives and other dangerous tools. Their "workstation" is harsh and violates their rights to health and education.

Of the 250 million children engaged in child labor in the world, 70 percent, or some 170 million, are working in the agriculture sector

Despite their astronomical numbers and the harmful nature of their work, children working in agriculture in South Asia receive little attention compared with child laborers in the manufacturing sector or children forced into the flesh trade.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has shown willingness to address the plight of child laborers in agriculture. The UN body held a two-day conclave with the theme “Acting Together to End Child Labor in Agriculture” in Rome this month.

Addressing the director of the Rome-based FAO, Pope Francis brought to his attention enslaved child laborers who are deprived of “a dignified and harmonious development.”

It is the mad rush for excessive profit that condemns children “to the brutal yoke of labor exploitation,” the pope said in his message.

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Of the 250 million children engaged in child labor in the world, 70 percent, or some 170 million, are working in the agriculture sector. They are working in "exhausting, precarious and demeaning conditions, suffering mistreatment, abuse and discrimination," Pope Francis observed.

Child labor in agriculture in South Asia goes beyond the economic status of parents. More than 87 percent of these destitute workers hail from lower castes, tending crops, herding cattle, going for errands and performing other tasks for their masters.

India has as many as 15 million bonded child laborers, most of them Dalits, former untouchables. In the bonded labor set-up, it is easy to abuse them physically.

Ethnicity, socioeconomic status and gender, migration, poverty, limited work opportunities and social norms force children to work in the agriculture sector in South Asia.

Exposure to pesticides is the greatest threat to their health and results in headaches, fever, dizziness, nausea, rashes and diarrhea. In some cases, the exposure leads to convulsions, comas and even death, while the long-term after-effects include cancer, brain damage, decreased fertility and birth defects.

As their organs are still developing, children are at high risk from pesticides. Due to their high breathing rate and thick skin surface, their bodies absorb higher concentrations of toxic chemicals.

Working in the hot sun with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, they often have inadequate drinking water or are given contaminated water to drink.

At large farms and mega food-processing factories, their weak bodies often have to put up with high rates of injuries.

Although child labor is more prevalent among boys and older children, girls are equally at risk

They have never been to school as their long working hours frequently make schooling next to impossible.  It is reported that more than 50 million are out of school in South Asia.

They also work for very low wages and are often paid less than their adult counterparts.

In the region, it is also a practice among parents to exchange the labor of their children with an employer to pay off debts. Due to high interest rates and abysmally low wages, these children work for years.

Although child labor is more prevalent among boys and older children, girls are equally at risk. They dominate certain sectors like garment making, cigarette rolling and hybrid seed production.

They also engage in unpaid domestic work and are vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor such as commercial sex work.

Internal migration is forcing children in South Asia to leave their homes to take up work in towns and cities. In an unfamiliar situation, they face language barriers and their schooling becomes a closed chapter. Their chances of escaping poverty through education become nil forever.

The loss of employment due to the Covid-19 pandemic will mainly take place in the informal sector. India and Bangladesh have large informal sectors. The loss of livelihoods, particularly for migrants, combined with school closures, will increase child labor in these countries.

But their plight has not prevented governments in South Asia from jumping onto the bandwagon of automation and digitalization

Laws are archaic in South Asia and focus on the formal sector while neglecting the informal sector.

The pandemic is having a significant negative impact on the region’s children and will lead to a rise in child labor. Due to the loss of livelihoods of their parents, they will be exposed to greater exploitation by employers.

But their plight has not prevented governments in South Asia from jumping onto the bandwagon of automation and digitalization. Agtech has already taken root in many South Asian nations with exciting new technologies like drones, sensors and intelligent robots.

The open banking system and the emergence of fintech companies have further empowered farmers with new financial technologies that promise easy access to credit and markets.

The new disruptive technologies are making big noises in South Asia with their mechanization, robotics and high-tech equipment like on-farm machinery, automation, drones, GPS or GIS systems, sensors, farm management software, the Internet of Things and big data analytics. 

Led by India, all seven countries in the region are putting into practice disruptive technologies in agriculture and food processing. New Delhi has, in fact, pieced together suitable legislation.

The less labor-intensive technological upgrade is going to show the door to millions of child laborers. Disowned by society and governments, they will knock on the doors which they know for sure to open — traffickers and the syndicates.

Due to governments’ indifference, the South Asian hotbed of child labor will witness a mass exodus of its teenage farmers in rags because of “this harmful technocratic mentality,” as Pope Francis termed it in his message to the FAO.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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