LUCKNOW, India — A boy who cried out when he was beaten for complaining of stomach pains drew attention from a passerby, who alerted police in the central Indian city of Agra.
Officers broke a padlock on the gate of the illegal shoe factory where the boy was working and found a dozen children, aged 10-17.
With classrooms shut and parents losing their jobs in the pandemic, thousands of families are putting their children to work to get by, undoing decades of progress in curbing child labor and threatening the future of a generation of India’s children.
In rural India, a nationwide lockdown imposed in March pushed millions of people into poverty, encouraging trafficking of children from villages into cities for cheap labor. The pandemic is hampering enforcement of anti-child labor laws, with fewer workplace inspections and less vigorous pursuit of human traffickers.
“The situation is unprecedented,” said Dhananjay Tingal, executive director of the Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a children’s rights group whose founder, Kailash Satyarthi, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.
“These children are made to work 14-16 hours a day and if they refuse to work they are beaten. One beating sends the message down the group, which suits the owner,” said Tingal.
Tingal’s organization has rescued at least 1,197 children between April and September across India. In the same period last year, it helped 613.
Childline, a nationwide helpline for children in distress, received 192,000 distress calls between March and August, most of them related to cases of child labor. It handled 170,000 such calls in the same period of 2019.
The 13-year-old boy who was working in the illegal shoe factory in Agra cannot be identified by name because Indian law forbids naming suspected victims of child labor and trafficking.
He was working 12-14 hours a day attaching the rubber soles of shoes with glue in a small cramped room, with little food and water when police rescued him and other children in September.
He was sent home to Bahraich, a rural town in India’s heartland state of Uttar Pradesh, some 460 kilometers (285 miles) from Agra, with help from the Children’s Welfare Committee, a government body that provides care and protection for children in need.
But with schools closed and his father struggling to feed his four children, the boy went back to work, this time on a farm in his village.