– Malleshwar Rao, 27, spent his early years as a child labourer in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. Soon after finishing school at a local ashram, where the children of poor parents, sex workers and orphans studied, the 9-year-old would rush to a local construction site to join his parents who would be toiling in the harsh tropical sun to construct buildings as daily wage earners. The supervisor would assign Rao simpler tasks and his extra income would help his parents feed him and his younger brother.
“Those were really tough days,” recalls Rao, now an engineering graduate and an entrepreneur who also runs a non-profit `Don’t Waste Food’ to feed the needy. “There was never enough food in the house. I used to study in the morning, then work as a labourer, go back home to do my homework and then get up early the next day to rush to school again. Life was blur; there was no time to play even,” Rao tells IPS.
At the beginning of 2020, 160 million children – 63 million girls and 97 million boys – like the 9-year-old Rao, were working everyday.
According to a global report by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) released today, Jun. 10, the world is at a “critical juncture in the worldwide drive to stop child labour”, as the number of children in child labour has increased by 8.4 million children over the last four years.
“Global progress has ground to a halt over the last four years after slowing considerably in the four years before that. COVID-19 threatens to further erode past gains,” the report cautions.
New analysis suggests a further 8.9 million children will be in child labour by the end of 2022 as a result of rising poverty driven by the pandemic, the report states.
It also notes that while the global picture showed that while child labour in Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean was decreasing, progress in Sub-saharan Africa had “proven elusive” with child labour increasing.
In addition to working as construction labourer, Rao also took up random jobs at local eateries to earn 10 cents daily for three to four hours of work – dishwashing and organising groceries. “The added incentive was the leftover food which the eatery owner kindly gave to me. I’d eat some and bring the rest back for my family,” says Rao.
Rao’s story is a microcosm of the larger story of child labour in the world that shows that involvement in child labour is higher for boys than girls. However, when girls’ household chores are included as child labour, the gap reduces.
“Among all boys, 11.2 per cent are in child labour compared to 7.8 per cent of all girls. In absolute numbers, boys in child labour outnumber girls by 34 million. When the definition of child labour expands to include household chores for 21 hours or more each week, the gender gap in prevalence among boys and girls aged 5 to 14 is reduced by almost half,” today’s report notes.
The report also shows that more than one third of all children in child labour are excluded from school and that “hazardous child labour constitutes an even greater barrier to school attendance.”
“For every child in child labour who has reached a compulsory age for education but is excluded from school, another two struggle to balance the demands of school and work. They face compromises in education as a result and should not be forgotten in the discussion of child labour and education. Children who must combine child labour with schooling generally lag behind non-working peers in grade progression and learning achievement, and are more likely to drop out prematurely,” the report states.
Rao, however, was fortunate to have completed school. Thanks to the help of good Samaritans who paid his fees, Rao was able to turn his life around by graduating with an electronic engineering diploma from a local college.
He then got a job at a social media company as a content curator, earning $450 a month.
“My parents were thrilled that I was the first educated person in the family who also bagged a respectable job with a great salary,” Rao tells IPS.
“My mother couldn’t stop crying for days. However, tackling hunger was always important for me, so simultaneously I also launched my NGO which collects extra food from nearby restaurants to feed the poor. Apart from reducing food wastage in hotels and at social gatherings, the initiative has also prevented thousands in the city from not sleeping hungry.”
He has since left his job and started his own travel startup.
But during the pandemic, apart from ration kits, Rao has also been providing oxygen cylinders and cooked meals for those in quarantine. India has reported nearly 30 million COVID-19 cases and upwards of 350,000 deaths since the pandemic’s second wave began in March.
“I have 30 volunteers from the local community engaged in distributing food and helping people get in touch with blood donors as well hospitals who have COVID beds. Through our network, we’ve been able to provide groceries for around 70,000 families within this lockdown period since March,” says Rao.
The money is raised through crowdsourcing on social media and through individual donors. The NGO has also started supplying masks and sanitary pads for construction workers. His volunteers have also helped cremate 180 dead bodies of deceased who were shunned by families for fear of catching COVID-19.
Having known what it is like to be hungry and struggle for a square meal, Rao says he often encounters poor children during his donation drives who remind him of his past.
According to the ILO, there are around 12.9 million Indian children engaged in work between the ages of 7 to 17 years old, the majority who are between 12 and 17 years old, who work up to 16 hours a day to help their families make ends meet. An estimated 10.1 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 years old are engaged in work, says the organisation.
Much of the problem lies in tardy implementation of laws, say activists. According to Dr. Ranjana Kumari, Director, Centre for Social Research, a Delhi based think tank, even though India has strict laws against child labour, they are full of loopholes which allow poor families and unscrupulous agents to circumvent them and exploit the children.
“These poor kids work in hazardous industries like brick making, quarries, tobacco industry and glass making which not only puts an end to their education but also makes them vulnerable to prostitution and trafficking at a very young age. The implementation of the laws needs to be stricter,” says Kumari.
The report calls for extending social protection to mitigate poverty and economic uncertainty which underlie child labour.
It also calls for, among others:
- an evidenced-based policy roadmap;
- for every child to be registered at birth, which would allow them to access social services;
- the expansion of decent work; and
- free, good quality schooling which can “provide a viable alternative and open doors to a better future”.
Meanwhile, Rao’s story shows that with education, former child labourers can lead better lives. He has been recognised by local personalities and was also mentioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his monthly radio talk show ‘Mann ki Baat’ (Heart to heart talk). Rao has also received awards from local communities and organisations for his work.
“The pandemic has brought out the worst and the best in people. I’m now on lifelong mission to ensure that nobody goes hungry. My new startup isn’t yet profitable, but I’m earning enough to feed my family and also take care of the needy,” he says.
** Additional reporting by Nalisha Adams in Bonn, Germany
This is part of a series of features from across the globe on human trafficking. IPS coverage is supported by the Airways Aviation Group.
The Global Sustainability Network ( GSN ) is pursuing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal number 8 with a special emphasis on Goal 8.7 which ‘takes immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’.
The origins of the GSN come from the endeavours of the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders signed on 2 December 2014. Religious leaders of various faiths, gathered to work together “to defend the dignity and freedom of the human being against the extreme forms of the globalisation of indifference, such us exploitation, forced labour, prostitution, human trafficking” and so forth.