By Tânia Mara Dornellas dos Santos, FNPETI, Brazil
It is without a doubt the world is going through a historical moment with the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 is already evident in various dimensions of social, political, economical and cultural life on a global scale. In Brazil, the restrictions and recommendations for social isolation are affecting the lives of people in different ways; validating the existence of inequality and social exclusion, the fragility of public policies, and the desperation of the federal government in adoption of measures which aim to ensure fundamental rights and social protection of its citizens.
It is worth highlighting the unrestricted support to social isolation measures from a significant share of the society, in order to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, a deeper reflection on the impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents is vital to assess, so that emergency protection measures are put in place immediately, for these are the most vulnerable social subjects in this chaotic scenario.
Social isolation is undeniably necessary; however it also brings challenges for all social and political actors involved in the delivery of fundamental rights, especially for the vulnerable children such as child laborers; who exist due to social inequality, high unemployment rates, poverty and social exclusion. Recent data revealed by the Brasilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) shows there are 2.4 million children and adolescents, between 5 and 17 years of age in child labor in Brazil, which represents about 6% of the population (40.1 million) as per the National Research by Continuous Residence Sample 2016. In this context, two central questions arise: how to ensure the protection of millions of children and teenagers who are toiling under child labor and how to prevent the possible increase of this child rights violation in the country?
Each and every answer to those questions must necessarily take into account that:
- Brazil is the second country with the biggest concentration of income in the world, and the seventh in social inequality, according to the Report of Human Development 2019, from the United Nations (the U.N.)². The document shows that “unequal societies are less effective in the reduction of poverty than those with smaller levels of inequality. They also grow more slowly and are less successful when it comes to a more sustainable economical development”.
- According to research data from “A Escalada da Desigualdade – Qual foi o Impacto da Crise sobre a Distribuição de Renda e Pobreza?”², i.e “The Escalation to Inequality – What was the Impact of the Crisis on the Distribution of Income and Poverty?”, published in August 2019 by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), about 10% of the richest in Brasil holds 41.9% of the income in the country, while 1% holds 28.3% of the income. FGV’s research further points out that inequality in the country has grown persistently for four years in a row;
- In 2018, Brazil had 13.5 million people in extreme poverty (6.5% of the population living with a monthly income of less than R$ 145), according to the Social Metrics Synthesis of 2019 by IBGE. Still according to the study, 52.5 million Brazilians lived above the poverty line in 2018, meaning they made less than R$ 420 per capita per month;
- As far as unemployment rates in the country are concerned, the International Labor Organization (ILO) recently published that Brazil closed 2019 with an unemployment rate of 12.1% and highlighted there is no expectation of accelerated improvement of this figure in the horizon;
- Regarding education, the National Research by Continuous Residence Sample (PnadC 2017), showed there are still 1.9 million children and teenagers outside school in Brazil. School exclusion affects mainly boys and girls in the more vulnerable layers of the population, already deprived off of other constitutional rights. Shown as potential “hosts” and “propagators” of the COVID-19 virus, boys and girls around the world were taken out of their privileged environment of social interaction and learning- the schools. According to a survery held by the United Nations (the U.N.), around 87% (over 1.5 billion) of the students from 165 countries are, at this moment, out of school, and this percentage will not stop growing². In Latin America and the Caribbean, UNICEF shows that over 154 million children and adolescents enrolled in public and private schools (Census 2018) are also in similar situation. One of the causes to be taken into account for scholar exclusion is child labor, and that in a scenario with closed schools for a prolonged period of time, the chances of children and teenagers not returning to schools are very high
- Finally, there is also the naturalisation of child labor by a significant share of Brazilian society, especially in the sector of informal work and agriculture. It is worth noting that those who defend child labor do so for children and adolescents of Brazilian poor families, black or mulatto, which goes to show that child labor has social class and color. It is a fact that arguments in favor of child labor (let’s just briefly say, for poor children and teenagers) find fertile soil in periods of economic recession, situation which has already been announced by international and national bodies.
The Brazilian setting is already presented with considerable challenges for the protection of children and adolescents, especially towards the elimination of child labor. However, under the new present reality, these challenges reach abominable proportions. Trying to measure the resulting impacts of the pandemics on fighting child labor is an exercise of futurology, but it is a real concern, seeing that economical, political, cultural and social circumstances point that determining conditions for child labor will be even more present in Brazilian society, result of a new post-pandemic scenario currently in place.
Fight against COVID-19 demands a set of initiatives and budgetary resources, however if no action is taken by the Brazilian State, it will not deliver on the pprevisions made under Federal Constitution of 1988 for full time protection and absolute priority of children and adolescents.
Based on this premise, and considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the articulation of efforts on the three levels of government and commited entities is urgent for a laborless childhood, as well as the accomplishment of integrated actions in the entirety of the Brazilian territory, which include the following:
- Strong political incidence in the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary bodies, in order to ensure actions to fight COVID-19, for the inclusion of children and teenagers in child labor under Professional Learning;
- Immediate adoption of a universal basic income policy for families under social vulnerability;
- Strengthening of school feeding policies in states and municipalities as a way of ensuring feeding and nutritional safety for children, teenagers and their families. Data from the United Nations for Food and Agriculture (FAO) show that approximately 85 million children and adolescents in Latin America and Caribbean benefit from those programs. It is worth highlighting that in many cases school feeding is one of the main, if not the only, guaranteed sources of daily food for about 10 million children and adolescents in the world. According to the Interunion Department for Statistics and Economical Studies (PNAE) continuing school feeding is strategic in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it allows for million of families to have guaranteed access to healthy and diversified eating, and at the same time create conditions so the farming Brazilian families are able to face the adversity to the crisis, ensuring the necessary income for the families and the production of food in Family Agriculture;
- Expansion of coverage and access to policies of social protection for families under social vulnerability;
- Implementation of governmental initiatives for food distribution, tax exemption and guaranteed income for workers, especially those in the informal sector;
- Wide dissemination of report channels to forward complaints to competent bodies on a national, state and municipal scale. It is vital to verify whether report channels are working, and if the flow of forwarding to able bodies are ocurring effectively, so the protection and defense of children’s and teenagers’ rights are ensured. Tutelage councils, rights councils, Public Labor Ministry, public defenders, and work inspectors are part of the system for ensuring rights, and have a key role in fighting violence against children and teenagers, including child labor;
- Monitoring of compulsory notice for labor accidents of children and adolescents by the health bodies.
Though tackling COVID-19 pandemic has become an international and national political priority and agenda, it is everyone’s commitment to defend and promote the right to a work-free childhood and a protected-work adolescence (if that is the option for teenagers 14 or up). It is also worthy to understand the impact of COVID-19 not only from the public health standpoint, but also from a view of forseeing the negative impact in the lives of millions of children and adolescents living in child labor conditions and their families.
The United Nations General Assembly also unanimously adopted a resolution declaring 2021 as the International Year for Child Labor Elimination, as a way to encourage countries to mobilize towards Sustainable Development Goal Target 8.7 that deals with the elimination of all kinds of child labor by 2025. Finally, it is worth remembering that, as far as already existing challenges are concerned, the commitments undertaken by the Brazilian State will not disappear due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will demand articulate and integrated efforts from the entire Brazilian society in order to face the violence against children and adolescents including child labor.
At this moment of angst and uncertainty, we shall move in the defense and promotion of children’s rights, having as an incentive the words of João Guimarães Rosa (Grande Sertão: Veredas):
“(…) O correr da vida embrulha tudo,
A vida é assim: esquenta e esfria,
Aperta e daí afrouxa, sossega e depois desinquieta.
O que ela quer da gente é coragem”
“(…) The pace of life bundles everything,
Life is like this: it warms and cools,
Tightens and then loosens, soothes and then unsettles.
What it wants from us is courage”