The recent surge in COVID-19 in India has had a terrible impact on rural areas. Agricultural workers, small and marginal farmers and their communities are faced with a neglected, under-funded and under-staffed rural health care infrastructure, and as a result suffer higher rates of illness and fatalities. Due to the role of union leaders and organizers as community leaders taking charge in this crisis and trying to ensure access to both health care and food security, they need to be physically present to represent, petition and demand on behalf of their members and their families. As is so common in villages and rural areas, access to livelihood programs, food rights and social protection must be negotiated with the authorities and the role of union leaders and organizers is vital. At the same time, this puts them on frontline in this pandemic, taking much greater risk.
As leaders they also play a vital role in promoting wearing masks, washing hands and distancing to slow the spread, and to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
In response, the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Organization is supporting women leaders and organizers in villages in several states in India. Through the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Solidarity Fund and the special contribution of the United Workers Union (UWU) in Australia, we are able to support thousands of women leaders and organizers in rural areas as frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19.
The IUF-affiliated Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) through their VimoSEWA co-operative provides COVID-19 health insurance for SEWA women organizers and leaders who are involved in COVID-19 safety awareness, livelihood protection and vaccine awareness. Under this scheme anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 receives immediate cash assistance. This helps to meet basic needs during quarantine, including food and medicine, and is crucial for them being able to support their members.
There is an urgent need to get members and their communities vaccinated as soon as vaccines are available. SEWA Madhya Pradesh is organizing COVID-19 safety and vaccine awareness programs to reach out to rural communities in 62 villages in three districts through mobile vans to give information on COVID-19 testing and vaccines that will benefit around 10,000 people. Since SEWA Madhya Pradesh is trusted in these villages, this campaign is proving effective against the fake news that was causing vaccine hesitancy or anti-vaccine sentiment. There is dramatic increase in the number of people in these villages signing up for vaccination.
Women in villages are often unable to reach vaccination centers due to the lack of safe public transport or dependence on male relatives for transport (where vaccine hesitancy among men effectively denies women access to vaccination). In response SEWA is also organizing free & safe transportation to vaccination centres. Initially this transportation will be provided for 1,600 women. By providing free & safe transportation, an important obstacle is removed and allows union leaders and organizers to finally break through vaccine hesitancy in rural areas.
In 2019 the United Nations General Assembly declared 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour (IYECL). The prospects of any progress towards this goal are extremely dim. As we have already witnessed, decades of neoliberal policies created extreme vulnerability among working people and turned the pandemic into a crisis. As we enter the worst global recession since the 1930s and the worst global food crisis in 50 years, there is a risk that child labour will increase over the next decade. What the UNCTAD Trade and Development Report 2020 calls “the lost decade” will also be a lost decade for children exploited in all forms of child labour.
The greatest exploitation is in agriculture where 108 million children work, constituting 70% of child labour. While poverty is the obvious context of child labour, we have worked with our members in agriculture and plantations to identify three key drivers of child labour:
- piece rate wage systems
- unfair crop prices
- denial of human rights and debt
There are of course other causes of child labour that need to be addressed. Identifying these three specific drivers helps to identify solutions.
- We must establish guaranteed minimum wages as a living wage throughout the year and stop wage theft and unfair deductions. Agricultural, farm and plantation workers can only do this through the right to organize (as defined under ILO Convention No.11) and through collective bargaining. This is also a critical issue in the supply chains of transnational companies that claim to be addressing child labour. By allowing suppliers to deny the right to freedom of association and impose piece-rate wage systems, these companies are perpetuating child labour.
- We must guarantee fair crop prices and collective bargaining to ensure this translates into better, more stable incomes throughout the year. This also requires government crop price support schemes. Again, transnational companies claiming to eliminate child labour in their supply chains need to ensure fair prices are paid. The premium should be paid to small and marginal farmers and farm workers, not layers of traders and “middlemen” or certification bodies.
- We need to recognize the causes of debt in the context of lack of access to human rights. (The report to the UNHCR on private debt and human rights in January 2020 provides a useful framework for this.) We must eliminate the causes of family debt and ensure free access to health care and education and access to affordable housing, food & nutrition. We need to extend social protection and livelihood assistance to all small and marginal farmers and farm workers. (ILO Recommendation No.202 is an important instrument in defining the scope of this social protection.) Social protection must be financed through corporate taxes. Transnational companies that claim to be eliminating child labour through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) schemes should also stop hiding in tax havens or demanding tax holidays.
Another aspect of our program is to incorporate the elimination of child labour into our work on climate change and climate justice. We are working with our affiliates to develop a better understanding of the link between child labour and climate crisis and climate migration, as well as biodiversity loss and environmental destruction. Climate change and biodiversity loss lead to debt, displacement, and climate migration. There is a higher incidence of child labour among climate migrants as they desperately seek work elsewhere. There is also a higher risk of trafficking in children. Our affiliates in several countries, particularly India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, have been campaigning for crop subsidies and livelihood assistance for farmers and farm workers affected by climate change. These demands should be seen as vital to the elimination of child labour.
Download higher resolution JPEG piece-rate wages [1MB] or PDF piece-rate wages [3MB]
Download higher resolution JPEG unfair crop prices [3MB] or PDF unfair crop prices [10MB]
Download higher resolution JPEG debt & human rights [1MB] or PDF debt & human rights [1MB]