Child rights in a crisis: a forgotten casualty?

Stephen Birtwistle By Stephen Birtwistle


The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated systemic inequalities and this year, the World Day Against Child Labour is focusing on the impact of the crisis on child labourWorldwide, 55 percent of people lack social security and social care and national unemployment rates are on the rise across the globe. The UN estimates that between 42 and 66 million children could fall into extreme poverty in 2020. This dire situation may lead countless children into child labour to supplement family incomes. 

But how do we ensure their protection in a system designed to value profits and turnover above child rights, human rights and labour rights?  

In The Shock DoctrineNaomi Klein documents how the economic crises of the past 50 years have worked to create the perfect storm to erode these rightsWe must act to ensure this dynamic is not repeated in our current situation – and I would dare say we should use this crisis to push for better laws and public policies. Children should not be breadwinners and their rights need to be guaranteed and strengthenedBut I fear, this may not happen. 

During economic downturns, government spending cuts often translate into lower capacity to maintain social programmes that tackle child labour or enforce corresponding laws. Therefore, stimulus packages must support employment and social protection, not just the economy 

Additionally, the worst forms of child labour take place in the most vulnerable sections of society, so it is important to safeguard traditionally excluded communitiessuch asindigenous peoplemigrant workers, black communities and low castes in India 

Interventions can’t be left to the private and third sectors aloneWith national lockdowns hitting profits, the private sector may have limited capacity to monitor supply chains. Children workers will be pushed into the informal sector, with higher risks. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have been affected by COVID-19, through lower funding and diminished capacity to provide services to vulnerable populations (LINC, 2020). 

The key difference in this crisis will be in the kinds of policies and actions stakeholders develop and implement – and they will need to apply a gender, equity and inclusion (GEI) lens to safeguard vulnerable people and children. A number of experts have put forward possible actions for government and business. 

For example, experts are calling governments to: 

  • Design bailouts around peoples needsnot just the private sector, based on five principles: 1. Health for all people. 2. Economic relief directly to people. 3. Rescue workers and communities. 4. Make a down payment on a regenerative economy. 5. Protect democratic processes (People´s Bailouts, 2020). 

  • Create or strengthen social protection systems for families worst hit by the healtheconomic and social crises (ILO, 2020) 

  • Harness tools at their disposal such as cash transfer, public work programmes, unemployment assistance, wage and commodity price subsidies, targeted human development or service fee waivers, food and nutrition programmes, micro-finance and social fund programme(Koseleci & Rosati, 2009). 

The CSO Verité (Verité, 2020) also put forward a specific set of recommendations for companies, including:  

  • Carry out due diligence in their supply chains to identify and take action on human rights impacts of COVID-19. 

  • Collaborate with suppliers in high-risk countries to identify and address child labour and human trafficking and encourage suppliers to have child labour high on the agenda.  

  • Develop or strengthen policies such as sick and family leave for all categories of workers, health and safety protections, accommodations for remote work where possible, protections for laid off or furloughe d workers, and expanded worker grievance systems. 

As child labour issues intensify, CSOs will need more philanthropic support and liberty to monitor the situation, hold stakeholders accountable, develop solutions, and advocate for change.  

COVID-19 does not discriminate, but its effects do, and children will become more exposed if we do not take action now 

Stakeholders across government, business, civil society and citizens need to come together to reengineer a system that puts profit over rights and the wellbeing of some over the dignity of all. We need to redefine what we value most and build positive momentum as we head into 2021, the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour 

About the author

Stephen Birtwistle

By Stephen Birtwistle

Stephen Birtwistle is a Programme Consultant with Labour Rights at Laudes Foundation. He brings with him years of philanthropy experience and a passion for gender, equity and inclusion.