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‘I had to step up’: Child labour in poorest countries rose during Covid, says report | Global development

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Gopal Magar’s father has had a drinking problem for as long as he can remember, but when Kathmandu went into lockdown last spring, it got worse. With five members of his family confined to a small room in the south of the city, tempers frayed and the 14-year-old saw his father beat his mother again and again. One day Gopal could stand it no longer. He fought back, and then fled, leaving his parents, and his school, behind.

Gopal now lives with his older brother on the other side of the city, and has swapped his classroom for a construction site. “I have fewer problems now, but I need to work really hard,” he says. He starts work at six in the morning and for the next 12 hours hauls sand, loads bricks and mixes concrete. He earns about £7 a day and sends some of it to his mother to help her buy food and pay the rent.

Gopal does not know if he will ever go back to school: “I have no interest in study at the moment because of my family problems.”

His story is not unusual: the lockdowns in some of the world’s poorest countries have seen schools close, households lose their incomes, and, in some cases, a growth in domestic abuse. The result, according to a report, has been a rise in child labour, as children like Gopal have found themselves in often precarious and exploitative work, with long hours, low pay, and scant regard for safety.

Jo Becker, director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), which co-published the report with the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights in Uganda and Friends of the Nation in Ghana, said: “The key driver is the economic situation that so many families are facing because they have lost jobs, they have lost income. The lockdowns in many countries have really dealt a blow.”

“Some of the children we spoke to said their parents had been taking out loans, falling into debt, and so they have felt pressure to work to help their families meet their needs.”

Researchers interviewed 81 children between the ages of 8 and 17 in Ghana, Nepal, and Uganda. The vast majority said their family income had been hit by the pandemic and resulting lockdowns, and all of them described undertaking work ranging from rickshaw driving and gold mining to carpet weaving and brick making.

“I started working because we were so badly off,” says Florence, 13, in Uganda. “The hunger at home was too much for us to sit and wait.”

In each of the countries, more than one-third of the children interviewed worked at least 10 hours a day, in some cases every day. Some Nepali children recounted working 14 hours a day or more in carpet factories. Gita, 14, says that her family could “barely get by” on her mother’s salary and that she feels it is her duty to bring in some money to the home. “I couldn’t just sit back,” she says. “I had to step up.” So Gita worked at a loom from 4am until 10 pm each day, with an hour’s break. Once she returned to school she continued to weave for 13 hours a day – five hours before classes and eight hours after.

Gold panners, Kibi, Ghana. The report found children working in the county’s mines despite the practice being illegal.
Gold panners, Kibi, Ghana. The report found children working in the county’s mines despite the practice being illegal. Photograph: Cristina Aldehuela/AFP/Getty

Some of the most shocking testimony in the report is from Ghana, where children detailed their work in goldmines, carrying heavy loads, crushing ore with hammers, breathing dust from processing machines, and handling mercury. Ibrahim, 14, says crushing ore is the most difficult part of the work: “I get really exhausted whenever I do that.” For his after-school job – five hours at the mine – he is paid 20 cedis (£2.40).

It is illegal for children to work in Ghana’s goldmines and the government has identified child labour as a “rapidly growing concern”. But, Becker said, in many places enforcement of such laws has suffered as a result of the pandemic.

“Most of the countries that we’ve looked at have good child labour laws that are in line with international standards, but because of Covid-19 restrictions labour inspections are down and without enforcement and monitoring employers are going to feel less pressure to apply the law,” she said.

According to the International Labour Organization, the number of children worldwide in some form of child labour decreased by about 38% between 2000 and 2016, partly it is thought as a result of the strategic use of child benefit payments to families with children.

Becker said that progress had been sent into reverse by the pandemic. She urged governments to re-commit to child benefit payments to “[relieve] the financial pressure on families so that they can buy food, pay for their housing without resorting to child labour”.

National back-to-school campaigns were also needed to make sure that children return to the classroom once schools reopen, the report said. Unicef warned last month that an estimated 800 million children around the world were still not fully back in school and that the longer closures continued the less likely it was that pupils would return.

HRW has called on governments to embark on mass outreach programmes to persuade communities that children – especially girls and migrants – should come back “as soon as it is safe”.

Such efforts would be welcome news to one of Gopal’s teachers, Sagendra Shrestha. Gopal, he said, “was improving so much. Without the pandemic I’m sure he’d still be in school”. Most schools in Kathmandu have been closed for 11 of the past 14 months. Shrestha said many parents had no internet access and did not know how to support children’s learning. “They have to go out to work, so they take their children with them,” he said. “I see lots of children on construction sites nowadays.”

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Covid-19: Italian and Spanish PMs meet in Madrid ahead of EU recovery fund summit | International

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Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, was in Madrid on Wednesday for a meeting with his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE), to discuss their countries’ joint strategy for an upcoming summit on the European Union’s coronavirus recovery fund.

Spain and Italy, the two European countries to be hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, are joining forces against the so-called “frugal” countries – Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark – which oppose the idea of a €750 billion fund, of which €500 billion would be non-recoverable grants and the rest made up of loans.

Sánchez and Conte have shared interests, as their countries stand to benefit the most from the fund, according to Italian and Spanish sources who added that Germany and France back this position as well.

“This time Italy, Spain, France and Germany are clearly in sync. We all support the European Commission’s proposal,” said Spanish sources.

“With the meeting held today with @GiuseppeConteIT we are relaunching relations between Spain and Italy. We agree that the good understanding between our countries must be taken to the political arena. We hope to hold a new Italian-Spanish summit in 2020,” tweeted Spain’s Sánchez on Wednesday.

Conte and Sánchez will be traveling separately in the coming days to the Netherlands and Germany, and the Spanish leader is also planning a stop in Sweden, whose government wants to replace some of the EU fund grants with loans, according to Spanish sources. The Spanish and Italian PMs are hoping to arrive at the July 17-18 summit in Brussels with a strong negotiated position that will leave little room for resistance from the “Frugal Four.”

Wednesday’s meeting also served to reinforce bilateral ties that had been weak for years. The last time that the leaders of both countries had come together was in 2014, when then-prime ministers Enrico Letta and Mariano Rajoy met in Rome.

English version by Susana Urra.



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‘Where should we go?’: thousands left homeless as Karachi clears waterways | Global development

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Maqsooda Bibi, 62, did not know the house she had lived in all her life would be demolished, forcing her whole family to become homeless. But on Monday, Pakistan’s supreme court backed the Sindh government in bulldozing her home and hundreds of others, legalising the eviction of thousands who live along narrow waterways – nullahs – that crisscross Karachi.

The verdict came as Bibi and hundreds of others held a protest outside the court. “We hoped that the court would ask the government not to make us homeless, but it did the opposite. Our children also protested on Sunday and urged the supreme court to stop demolition. It seems no one here cares for the future of the poor.”

At least 8,000 houses are being knocked down along the nullahs. The work, which began in February, is in response to the 2020 Karachi floods that saw choked up nullahs overflow and swamp the city. Improvements to Karachi’s water and sewage systems are being financed by the World Bank.

As people watched their homes being turned into rubble, civil society organisations approached the court to try to stop the evictions. They said the houses were not to blame for blocking the waterways.

But on Monday the supreme court rejected the petition.

While dozens of people told the Guardian they were renting their homes, the court said any leasing of land along the nullahs was illegal. Activists and writers have termed the decision “unjust”. Writer Fatima Bhutto, of the Bhutto political dynasty, tweeted: “The supreme court’s decision is a tragedy.”

Maqsooda Bibi, on right, attempts to keep cool during a protest in Karachi against the demolitions.
Maqsooda Bibi, on right, attempts to keep cool during a protest in Karachi against the demolitions. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch

In an editorial, Pakistan’s largest English-language daily, Dawn, said: “The demolition of houses situated within nine metres on either side of the Gujjar and Orangi nullahs will continue. When this exercise is completed (before this year’s monsoon, according to the plan), at least 100,000 people would perhaps have been rendered homeless. As many as 21,000 children would be out of school and living under the open sky.”

Bibi’s house was her family’s home for five decades. She shared it with four daughters and three sons-in-law. “We all started living on the lawn after they demolished our house but they will snatch the lawn now. At first, they took our shelter, now they will take our land,” she says.

Muhammad Shahid is a heart patient whose house was bulldozed a month ago. He expected justice from the court. He was at home when his house was bulldozed at around 11am one morning.

“We are helpless. Where should we go? We can’t die or live. I had my angiography done and now I can’t work. My children aren’t educated enough. My wife had a paralysis attack,” says Shahid. He says that even he has not got the 90,000 Pakistani rupees (£410) promised by the government.

Muhammad Shahid on the rubble where he used to have two rooms that were bulldozed.
Muhammad Shahid stands where two rooms belonging to him were bulldozed. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch

Muhammad Aslam did receive some compensation for the loss of his house. But he says it is not enough. He says: “I want to return the amount because it is of no use for four families.” He lives with 28 others in one room and a tent after his two-storey house was bulldozed. “We are troubled in all ways, there is no gas or electricity or even sanitation. This isn’t living,” says Aslam.

Architect and urban planner Arif Hasan says the government had no “proper plan”. “They are not doing it merely to stop the flood but to make long roads along the nullahs connecting the Lyari expressway with the northern bypass, displace poor and benefit the rich.” He says the World Bank should denounce the Sindh government, as forced evictions are against the bank’s policies.

Muhammad Abid Asghar was one of the first to lose his home, on 2 February. With others, he established Gujjar Nala victims committee and, with activists of Karachi Bachao Tehreek (Save Karachi Movement), went to the Sindh high court.

Bulldozed and damaged houses in Gujjar nullah as the demolitions progress.
Bulldozed and damaged houses in Gujjar nullah, Karachi, as the demolitions progress. Photograph: Shah Meer Baloch

After chalking slogans against the demolitions on walls around the city, the activists say they were called by the World Bank team for a meeting in April.

“We had believed the bank was funding the evictions, but the World Bank denied it. They assured us that no leased houses would be bulldozed.”

Sindh minister for information, Nasir Hussain Shah, also says the World Bank is not linked to the evictions. “The government will help residents in rehabilitation,” he says, adding that “not more than 5%” of residents were against the demolition works.

The World Bank did not respond to a request for comment.

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China calls Nato statement ‘slander’

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The Chinese mission to the EU denounced a Nato statement that declared Beijing a “security challenge,” saying China is actually a force for peace but will defend itself if threatened, AP reports. The Chinese news release said the Nato statement was a “slander on China’s peaceful development, a misjudgment of the international situation and (Nato’s) own role, and a continuation of the Cold War mentality and organisational political psychology.”

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