Every evening on the Marina, 10-year-old Karunakaran is among the several who urge visitors to buy a packet of pattani sundal. Around 5 p.m., he returns home from school, picks up the basket of 50 sundal packets and rushes to the beach eagerly looking for a ‘certain anna' who lets him play snake game on his mobile phone. In Pudupet, another boy, Raj, struggles with bolts at an automotive spare-part manufacturing unit. ‘Fifteen' he says in a seemingly trained way, the moment you ask him anything about his age. Originally from Rajasthan, he really hopes to get out of the unit, and be employed in a house, “like my cousin, a 14-year-old who works in a house in George Town here.”

Anything that interferes with the development of the child – that is the UN definition of Child Labour. And by this standard there are innumerable children in and around the city, employed in various professions, some grappling to come out, and some with no control over the situation.

The Labour Department has been regularly sending teams to industrial units to rescue child labourers but sources feel there is a concerted effort against such drives from employers who often manage to get parents on their side. The mobile education drive started by the department to identify children on the street and take them into fold of education is no longer functional either.

A study by Karunalaya, an NGO, says hundreds of children work in hotels, sweet shops, lodges, mansions as well as brassware units and others. A total of 371 were rescued recently from industrial units in north Chennai. Sources at CRY say that 52 per cent of them are between 12 and 14 years of age and that they are often subjected to poor working conditions, long work hours of work and low pay.

“Child labour here is often seen as a socially accepted norm; for instance, children were always made to work in farms. Employers take advantage of this, and exploit families,” says Paul Sundersingh, secretary, Karunalaya.

In Tamil Nadu, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 prohibits the employment of children in hazardous occupations and regulates their employment in non-hazardous occupations. It forbids children below 14 from being employed. There were notifications issued by the Ministry of Labour in 2006 that added domestic and service sector in it. “There are mandatory regulations to ensure that working hours of the children in the non hazardous industries do not exceed 7 p.m., they get a break after 3 hours and there is proper ventilation, with drinking water and toilet facilities. All these are often ignored,” says Mr. Sundersingh.

In the construction sector, since there is no skill addition, there is not much increase in incomes. “We have to travel a lot now to work because major constructions use migrant workers who reside at the sites and demand less money. Only if two children work, we manage to run the family,” says Anbarasan (39), from Tiruvanamalai. A father of four, he works as a mason on Rajiv Gandhi Salai, along with his wife. An addition of Rs. 55, earned by his two children aged 12 and 16 who help in the laying of cement, besides the Rs 350 the couple earns, takes care of the family's travel expenses.

For migrant workers, the problem is also the shortage of schools teaching other languages for these children. “Parents feel it is safer they are with them, rather than loitering around,” says Elumalai, who runs Telugu schools on GST road. In Semmanchery alone, he says, there should be over 5,000 settlements where children are employed in the construction industry.

Some rice mills and brick kilns in Red Hills have started crèche and school facilities but there is a lot more to do, say activists.

“Child labour, over the years, has been on a decline in the State, but for the RTE Act to be implemented in its full spirit, we need area specific intervention now, especially in domestic and service sectors,” says R. Vidya Sagar, Child Protection specialist, UNICEF. Since you cannot visit houses to check, it gets very difficult to even identify and rescue child labourers,” he adds.

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