COVID-19 challenges us to understand child labour in a new and evolving context, while also adapting how we work

While the impact of COVID-19 on child vulnerability is not yet fully understood, the widespread closure of schools and worsening socio-economic conditions mean initiatives such as PACE are all the more crucial.

COVID-19 and child labour

A recent synthesis paper compiled by The Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action identified school closures and unequal access to remote education, worsening socio-economic conditions and risks to the health of caregivers as among the outcomes of COVID-19 contributing to an increase in the number of children engaged in child labour, including in its worst forms.

The paper drew, in part, on preliminary findings published by PACE exploring the impact of COVID-19 on the project’s target communities. The research, conducted by consortium partner the Care and Protection of Children (CPC) Learning Network at Columbia University, highlighted reports of children working longer hours, particularly in agricultural work or domestic activities.

Levels of child labour at mining sites was found to vary; in the project’s locations in the DRC, CPC Network researchers noted a reduction in the number of children working in mining due to an increased police presence to enforce COVID-19 restrictions. In the Central African Republic (CAR), where the central government has limited control in rural communities, the opposite was observed. In CAR, the decline in market value of minerals (for example gold which was found to have dropped by up to 35% in some locations) has seen more children working at mining sites to help families make ends meet.

An uptick in recruitment of children into armed groups was also observed, as well as the contrasting impact on boys and girls – girls being at much greater risk of sexual exploitation, boys spending more time doing manual work.

With the African continent so far avoiding the infection rates seen in other parts of the world, an optimistic forecast would see schools reopening, and a revival of supply chains as they adapt to measures put in place by governments in response to COVID-19. However this is far from assured, and in the meantime the drastic changes to the way children, families and communities interact with one another leaves already-vulnerable children facing an uncertain future.

How PACE is responding

Although the focus of PACE remains the worst forms of child labour, the project is necessarily adapting to respond to the increasing vulnerabilities faced by children resulting from COVID-19.

PACE in-country staff have begun training and awareness raising activities with rural communities on reducing the risk of infection, safe hygiene practices and social distancing precautions. The increased risk to children with schools closed is also being discussed with families, while hygiene kits are being distributed to those most in need.

PACE is launching two new areas of research to better inform the project’s work in a new and evolving context. The CPC Learning Network will investigate the direct changes in children’s lives due to COVID-19, and Fifty Eight will explore the significant disruption to trade and supply chains as a result of the pandemic, and whether supply chain due diligence models will require further adaptions as a result.

Across the board, COVID-19 provides a new lens through which we can understand and combat child exploitation.

Changing our ways of working

The COVID-19 pandemic is also affecting the way we work. Lockdowns and movement restrictions in all countries where PACE staff are based have required us to adapt to remote working, or introduce shift-based work patterns at offices. In-person engagement with children, families and communities is either postponed, or restricted to small groups with social distancing observed. International travel for PACE staff is suspended.

Where possible, PACE partners are making use of alternative technologies to keep the project moving forwards. Greater use of local radio for awareness raising work instead of community gatherings, or using online web platforms instead of in-person meetings. These adaptions are not without their challenges, however, in countries with some of the lowest levels of internet and mobile phone usage in the world.