School dropouts cycling long hours in the heat to promote a product seek less strenuous job. Their assignment started on Monday and they have been promised Rs. 300 a day.

Not many would have taken note of these children riding tricycles fitted with triangular banners offering ‘free’ lenses to students on behalf of a private company. And fewer still would have noticed that they are child workers.

For Vinayagam, Nirmal and Gouthaman, all school dropouts, this is no hobby.

It is a long ride, too. “We start at 9 a.m. from Mambalam and go to Adyar, Kotturpuram, Alwarpet, and Nandanam.

At 7 p.m., we come back to office to surrender the cycles and take a bus back home,” says Gouthaman, barely 11 and a class VI dropout.

Vinayagam, claiming to be 17, says Gouthaman can’t work like the others, but still insists on joining them at work.

“We have been sticking posters, carrying load and running errands for smaller companies. But this is the first time a big company has taken us in,” he says.

Their assignment started on Monday and they have been promised Rs. 300 a day. They hope to be paid on Saturday.

All are residents of S. M. Nagar on Pallavan Salai, and there are at least 30 other children who take up such jobs. Rajendra Kumar, who takes care of these children and arranges jobs for them, says, “No amount of persuasion seems to convince them to go to school. Some of them have also taken to stealing.”

Nirmal, son of a mason, often goes to Tindivanam, Villupuram and Puducherry for work and also cycles the ‘marketing vehicle’ for selling saris in T. Nagar during festival seasons.

“This time, a man on a bike is following us to ensure we don’t rest. He got us tea when we rode really fast and covered more areas. But it is difficult to keep riding without breaks.”

The company whose product they are advertising, Lawrence & Mayo, said it had no clue that children were hired.

It was unfortunate that the advertising agency had done it without informing the company.

Personnel from one of the ad agencies said: “We only wanted to help them with books or paying their tuition fees.”

However, the children say they have not been going to school for the past one year. “We want to work, not ride cycles in heat. It makes me faint after a while. Can you please arrange a factory job for us, where can pack goods or work sitting in one place,” asks Nirmal.

A Labour Department official said since ‘cycling to advertise a product’ was a new form of exploitation that does not come under the term ‘hazardous work’ it was difficult to take action.

However, many children from poor families might not have physical abilities appropriate to their age, and hiring them for jobs such as this is dangerous for them.

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