Children play in piles of plastic wastes collected for recycling in Makassar, Indonesia on 11 February 2022. (Photo: Andri Saputra / AFP)

School Closures and Child Labour: The Pandemic’s Social Cost

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The disruption of face-to-face education and internet inaccessibility may cause children to drop out of school permanently. Children who leave school and start working face greater difficulty resuming their education in the future.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a universal call to promote economic, social and environmental development. All SDGs are set to be achieved by 2030, but the goal to end child labour has an earlier deadline of 2025. 

Most countries do not officially report child labour statistics, but the available data paints a sobering picture. UNICEF’s database, published by Save the Children, shows that child labour – defined as the proportion of the population aged 5 to 17 years involved in work – is significant in the ASEAN region. However, the problem varies in severity across countries. Between 2012 and 2019, child labour incidence was recorded at 28.2 per cent in Laos and 13.1 per cent in Vietnam. Cambodia’s rate of 12.6 per cent is identical to the global average. ASEAN countries have implemented excellent policies to reduce poverty and raise awareness about child development over the past years, but COVID-19 might have slowed down or even reversed the progress made.

Data from countries that have reported on child labour since the pandemic indicate negative trends in ASEAN. The Philippines’ progress toward its 2022 goal of removing 2 million children from risky labour practices has faltered, if not regressed. Indonesia estimated that 4.05 million children were working in 2020, of which 1.76 million are thought to be engaged in the worst forms of child labour, including dangerous jobs. 

Poverty and child labour are markedly correlated. For vulnerable families, who are at risk of falling into extreme poverty during the pandemic, children may need to work to support the family. Child labour is a coping mechanism. Many international organisations also find that temporary school closures may aggravate child labour, despite the vital role of such pandemic measures for preventing wider transmissions and overload of public healthcare systems. Depending on the pandemic situation and the progress of vaccinations, schools may be closed completely, partially or conditionally. Some countries implemented prolonged school closures. As of November 2021, UNESCO’s data show that Indonesian schools closed for 77 weeks, the Philippines for 61 weeks, Myanmar for 69 weeks and Vietnam for 31 weeks.

Suspension of education compels families to make hard choices, some of which make children more susceptible to exploitation, often in unreported circumstances. Vulnerable children are more likely to work when going to school is not a possible option. Parents and families also seek new ways to occupy their children’s time. Children are expected to work to help their families even in financially better-off households. Besides, more children might have to work alongside their parents because they do not want to leave them unsupervised at home during school closures. 

The negative impacts of school closures, compounded by child labour, can set children and their families on downward spirals. How can ASEAN countries mitigate the vicious cycle?

In this context, distance learning via the internet, TV, and radio is considered an urgent and effective approach to mitigate the consequences of school closures. However, several constraints exist. Many countries were unprepared to provide high-quality, wide-reach distance learning. The shortcomings are apparent: lack of suitable materials and trained teachers, inadequate quality and quantity of equipment, particularly for remote and rural communities, and children with disabilities. In an Indonesian survey conducted across 34 provinces and 247 districts, 57.3 per cent of households with children reported that access to reliable internet is a major concern. About a quarter of parents claimed they didn’t have the time or capacity to help their children with remote learning. In the Philippines, only 18 per cent of families have access to the internet at home and internet penetration is considerably lower in rural areas. As a result, the country saw an alarming reduction of school enrolment of 4.7 million, from 27.7 million in 2019 to 23.0 million in 2020.

The disruption of face-to-face education and internet inaccessibility may cause children to drop out of school permanently. Children who leave school and start working face greater difficulty resuming their education in the future. When schools reopen, low-income parents who are unemployed may not be able to afford school fees and supplies. More worryingly, they may perceive schooling as less advantageous than the immediate profits from work. 

Statistics or quantitative studies that directly relate to school enrolment and child labour are rare. However, a preliminary Radio Free Asia survey in Laos found that 30 per cent of children aged 5 to 17 are committed to work of various forms, while 25 per cent are unable to finish their basic education because they are holding a full-time job.

The negative impacts of school closures, compounded by child labour, can set children and their families on downward spirals. How can ASEAN countries mitigate the vicious cycle? Poverty reduction programmes are generally in place; direct cash assistance has proved helpful in the short-term by alleviating urgent economic pressures. Local and provincial governments can enhance these interventions by directing more cash transfers to families whose children stay in school. Digital equipment giveaways or subsidies to improve distance education can be another effective method rather than direct cash assistance. In addition, low-income and limited-capacity parents need help to guide their children with distance learning. 

Parents and children also must be educated about the child labour problem and the long-term benefits of completing schooling. Lastly, and most importantly, national child vaccination should be accelerated so that schools can reopen – and remain open – through continuing pandemic regulations. 

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