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Today is World Day Against Child Labour

Our numbers are good, that is, if you glance at them and move on. We are proud to acknowledge that we have some of the lowest rates of child labour in South Asia. However, a close reading of the data will show that the statistics (1% of children between 5 and 17 years of age are engaged in child labour with 90% of them in hazardous forms of child labour) barely reveal the full picture of children’s contribution to the economy. Due to differences in international and domestic legal definitions of child labour, a significant population of children in Sri Lanka – especially those who work less than 25 hours per week as well as children who suffer from some of the worst forms of child labour (e.g. bonded labour and commercial sexual exploitation) – are excluded from the numbers hence excluded from our line of sight. Together with how outdated the statistics are and the multiple crises that the world and the country have witnessed during the past three years, one might be compelled to dismiss the numbers altogether.

COVID-19: What happened to children?

As adults or as children we are all acutely aware of how the pandemic changed our lives and lives of others, communities and society has a whole. Much media attention was drawn to the heavy toll of the pandemic on economic stability, children’s education and children’s safety online. But perhaps what was not so much spoken about was the risks that started to emerge towards the end of the pandemic as a result of the impacts of COVID-19. Especially in the global south, the end of lockdowns witnessed an increase in child labour and trafficking for exploitation due to the phenomenal collapse of economies and increase in abject poverty. There haven’t been many attempts to understand this phenomenon in Sri Lanka but research concluded by civil society organisations in early 2022 point to how children have been pushed into employment, at times with tremendous risks to their health and safety, due to the economic vulnerabilities resulting from COVID-19 together with school closures and disruptions to education with some children starting full time work as early as the age of 11 years[1].

The impact of the current crisis on child labour

What does this situation imply for Sri Lanka, emerging out of a pandemic straight into multiple socioeconomic crises? Based on the correlational trajectories of poverty and child labour that have emerged in recent times, increased poverty will mean increased number of children leaving school and starting work well before they should. Families that no longer are able to afford to fulfill their basic needs will be pushed to take desperate measures for their survival. For those families who had to send their children to work to make ends meet during the pandemic, their hopes of sending children back to school may remain only as a hope.

We, as middle class society, do not share this reality. This is not our norm. We often look down on families and parents whose children are at work instead of going to school. Therefore, the middle class response to the social problem of child labour has focused primarily on zero tolerance. What does this imply and what will this stance achieve? Zero tolerance has effectively created many laws and policies prohibiting child labour. While these have been critical in articulating the country’s commitment to criminalise child labour and work towards its eradication, I would like to question the socioeconomic contextual relevance of these measures as an end in itself, especially from the perspective of the child and the family. It is becoming increasingly clear that in the prevailing context, most children take up employment primarily to survive. Then what effect would criminalising achieve?

Social protection agenda

There has been much global attention lately on the importance of remediation to tackle child labour. Simply criminalising the problem fails to recognise the realities faced by children and families that push and pull children into employment. It does not allow the space for understanding and responding with strategies to strengthen families so that children will no longer need to work. Remediation may be considered through several pathways but the most relevant for the Sri Lankan context would be through effective and holistic social protection strategies.

Social protection is commonly understood as state led strategies to provide financial support to low income families to enable them to enjoy an acceptable standard of living. In Sri Lanka, the samurdhi scheme is the main social protection mechanism of the state; its flaws are widely acknowledged with much criticism of discriminatory sociopolitical determinants of social security provision through the scheme. With the state unable to fulfill many of its financial commitments, it is extremely unlikely that social protection measures will be a priority in the foreseeable future. But what does this mean for children and families?

Towards an integrated approach

There has been a worldwide call for humanitarian aid for Sri Lanka amidst the present crisis to support food security, livelihoods, education and protection of both adults and children. Aid agencies can conceptualise social protection strategies to integrate these diverse supports so that financial support is provided for families to overcome economic and social issues such as child labour. But financial support alone will not strengthen families or build resilience. Often excluded in the standard approaches to social protection, psychosocial support for families and children to help them cope with shocks and stressors of the diverse impacts of the crisis, especially the losses experienced in terms of education, protection and family relationships will play a crucial role if we are serious in tackling child labour or any other social issue that families face as a result of this crisis.

Strengthening families and building their resilience through an integrated approach of financial support targeting food security and livelihoods with psychosocial support that addresses their vulnerabilities, risks and protection concerns will be the way forward to ensure children’s wellbeing and their rights to protection from all forms of exploitation.

Apart from aid agencies, the private sector has the power to protect their employees and their families from poverty and hardship by making social protection a priority. A recent child rights risk assessment in the Textile and Apparel sector by Save the Children identified that children of parents who work at various points of the supply chain engage in labour in shops and other informal sector settings to supplement the meagre income of the parents to make ends meet[2]. The private sector has a social responsibility to protect human rights, and in the present context companies can take proactive measures to support their employees and families to cope with the social and economic pressures they face. As the world marks 10 years since the inception of Child Rights and Business Principles, which member companies of the UN Global Compact have undertaken to uphold, we are reminded of the vital role of the private sector to support family economies, remediate child labour, and build resilience among children, families and communities.

[1] NACG (2022) Trends of Child Labour in the Changing Contexts of Sri Lanka: CSO Assessment Report. National Action and Coordination Group Sri Lanka to End Violence Against Children: Colombo

[2] Save the Children (2022) Child Rights Risk Assessment of the textile and apparel sector supply chain in Sri Lanka. Save the Children: Colombo

Buddhini Withana is a Senior Technical Advisor, Child Protection & Child Rights in Business at Save the Children