How COVID-19 has Accelerated Child Labour in the Construction Sector

Coronavirus (Covid-19) forced child labour laws and law enforcers on a halt. As government announced a total lockdown, the construction sector was considered an essential service in Uganda so it was one of those that continued to operate in this period. However, other sectors which would have checked child labour in the construction sector were shut down. This promoted child labour.

Article | 12 June 2021
Circumstances that promoted child labour include:
  • Restricted movement. (Total closure of public and private transportation).
  • Migration of constructions labourers in fear of being affected by Covid-19.
  • Shortage of food in homesteads
  • Lack of money to buy even basics in life
  • Shortage of labour to work at construction site
  • Government focus on enforcing Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) above other services.
  • Child labour can be considered as cheap labour
In Uganda, there are laws, which prohibit child labour. The Employment Act 2006 and Regulation of 2012 supplements No. 11, 51, No. 7, Section 3, says:

“A child under the age of 14 years shall not be employed in any business, undertaking or workplace except for light work carried out under the supervision of an adult.”

Section 5-A says: “A child shall not be employed to do work which is injurious, dangerous, hazardous or the worst forms of child labour.”

However, it was difficult to enforce these laws during the lockdown.

Mr Moses Mutala, a labour officer in Kira Municipality, Wakiso District, said since he and his colleagues were not considered essential workers, their office was closed during the lockdown. “Our office is not directly linked with stopping Covid-19. Therefore, our offices were not operating normally. In short, children were left exposed to workplaces which were not observing occupational safety and health (OSH) procedures. They were exploited through, for instance low pay and they faced all sorts of abuses.

In Uganda, every village has Local Council One (LC I) where by its vice chairperson is in charge of children affairs. During the Covid-19 lockdown, these leaders were not easily accessible.
Much as the LCs were instrumental in food distribution donated by government to the community, their main concern was not children welfare and to make matters worse, the construction sites were not eligible for government food.

One of the children who was working at a construction site in Kireka, Wakiso District, whom I only identified as Obina, 10, said: “Working at a construction site is better than just staying home without food. This is an opportunity for me to provide my family with some food.”

Mr James Wasswa, one of the construction site managers, acknowledged employing children at his site, but denied giving them heavy work. He said due to scarcity of adult labourers at the time, he was forced to hire children. He, however, said he paid them for their sweat.

Some of the children I talked to said the highest paid child earned about $0.5 (Ushs2,000) per day. The children said they were just scrambling to get jobs at the construction sites. Any simple mistake could lead to dismissal. Those who were willing to work for longer and odd hours as determined by their supervisors were at an advantage.

At some sites, I discovered that the working conditions were horrible, harmful, exploitative. They did not observe child care or provide medical attention to those injured in the course of their work. The site had a lot of debris, cut wood, nails, and trimmed pieces of iron sheets, which made the work environment very dangerous for children. The children had no protective gears.

The main work done by children was loading and offloading materials, and preparations of meals. I saw children carrying 50kg-bags of cements and lime. Others carried bricks from where the lorry offloaded them to the builders from morning to evening.

Mr Mesilam Olaka, the general secretary of Uganda Wood Work and Construction Union, confirmed this. He said many children in and outside Kampala, during the Covid-19 lockdown, were forced to work at construction sites. He, however, could not give the exact number of the affected children because their offices were also closed during the period.

Some of the effects of child labour include:

 Parents consented and encouraged their children work since they were now contributing to the economic welfare of the homes.
 The morals of the children were corrupted since they were working with adults from different backgrounds, some of whom had negative influence on the children.

More than before, parents realized that schools were very essential in the lives of their children. Since the schools were also closed as one the measures to control the spread of the virus, it was difficult to keep children in homes.

Education has been an important solution to combat child labour.

Prior to the pandemic, data from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) and Uganda National Household Survey 2018 indicated that 2,048,000 children between 5-17 years were involved in child labour. It is believed the Covid-19 lockdown made matters worse.

Child labour is not limited to Uganda. The international estimates shows that it is prevalent across all continents. Children as a young as eight years are working in construction sites, factories, scavenging garbage dumps for recyclables, begging and forced into sex work.

All in all, Covid-19 has highlighted the problem of child labour. We need combined efforts to remedy the situation.

''Education has been an important solution to combat child labour''

Mr. John Irong Oprong
is a Journalist, and General Secretary of the Uganda Media Union, Organisation of Trade Union-Uganda. He is currently the Chairperson Elimination of Child Labour in Tobacco Growing in Uganda (ECLATU Trust).