Experts have been warning of increases in child labor during the COVID-19 outbreak, particularly in developing countries. While the attention has been focused on productive sectors such as agriculture and industry, there has been less notice paid to the increasing dynamics of child labor in the informal economy.
With an estimated 60% of the global population relying on the informal economy for their day-to-day livelihood, the policy response to COVID-19 adopted in many low-income countries has heavily disrupted the sector. As a result, millions of households have seen their livelihoods and sources of income upended abruptly.
Many countries in the Sub-Saharan Africa region have opted to take legislative action to address coronavirus, mostly in the form of executive orders, including declarations of a state of emergency, public health emergency, and national disaster. While these countries have successfully managed to pass these legislative actions, the implementation has been constrained by the countries’ socio-economic conditions, where higher rates of poverty and a lack of adequate sheltering and overcrowding make it difficult to enforce the measures over a long period of time.
Meanwhile, the concentration of enforcement and monitoring measures in the so-called “formal sector” have increased the risk and vulnerability of other segments of society, including the informal sector. Since practicing “social distancing” in such environments is somewhat challenging, children in this sector are at a higher risk of contracting and spreading the disease in their communities.
In 2017, one fifth of all African children were involved in child labor, according to a report from the International Labor Organization. With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening the livelihood and economic security of many communities across Africa, some families have been left with no choice but to use all of the available resources to sustain their daily livelihoods, including forcing children to sell merchandise in the streets across the city.
With concern mounting over the rates of COVID-19 infections in the global south, government agencies and stakeholders are fearing the worst, as these children are becoming more exposed to risk. In Mozambique, the Public Protection and Safety Department is working closely with Municipal Authorities to crack down on child labor and enforce the safety measures in the informal sector across the major urban areas. With over 660 confirmed cases across the country and more than 20,000 people tested so far, children under 14 years of age account for 11% of the total infection cases.
While these measures could have a significant impact on minimizing the exposure of children to the coronavirus, they do not fully address the problem and the challenges faced by many families and communities during this period. The case of Mozambique is not isolated; across Africa, many countries have proven that their social protection programs are not prepared to respond to shocks of the dimension of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the pressure increases for many countries to reopen their economies, the World Health Organization warns that infection rates are accelerating in Africa. Given the governmental inability to provide social assistance to the vulnerable communities, it is likely that child labor will only increase, as the most affected families are seeking to restore their incomes and livelihoods by all means after spending months under restrictive measures.
Obviously, it will take much longer to recover the full extent of the economic damage. However, there have been some signs of international commitment to help minimize the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The International Monetary Fund has approved close to US $10 billion of Emergency Financing for the Sub-Saharan Africa region through the Rapid Credit Facility and Rapid Financing Instrument.
Since many countries are at different points on the coronavirus timeline, the question is how the governments can prioritize giving assistance to the most vulnerable communities, including children who are at risk of being forced into child labor. Part of the answer is a tougher approach to the implementation of the public health measures, such as social distancing and mandatorily wearing masks. But when it comes to social distancing in the informal sector, not only policing measures should be considered. A more proactive approach rooted in public awareness and individual behavior would be effective as well.
As with providing social assistance and a safety net for the most vulnerable communities, there is a need for a comprehensive plan to minimize the health and economic implications of COVID-19 for these communities. Perhaps this will involve the expansion and improvement of testing capacity as well as direct assistance and cash transfers to these households.