We have five million children in the labour market, say official figures. Their actual numbers may be four times as many. As a nation, we have failed each one of them…
Millions of our children still labour today, in factories, farms, kilns, mines, homes and city waste dumps, when they should be in school or in a playground. We profoundly fail these children, collectively depriving them of education, play, rest, healthy growth and childhood. Despite democracy and glittering economic growth, it is unconscionable that we continue to tolerate child work, socially and legally.
The law in India treats much of child labour as legally permissible. For children up to 14 years, only a small set of vocations designated ‘hazardous' are prohibited. Only in 2006 was employing children as domestic help declared illegal, and just five years earlier, rag-picking was prohibited among children. There are weak penalties and few prosecutions, barely a few thousand in the whole country every year. There is no prohibition of any kind of work for children who cross the age of 14 years.
Latest official estimates report around five million children economically active in the labour market, which is two per cent of the total child population of India in the age group 5–14 years. Child rights activists, however, argue that the actual numbers of child workers are much larger, because children not in school are hidden child workers, rearing younger siblings, tending the home, or helping parents earn in the fields, home-based work or vending. Their numbers are four times as many as enumerated child workers.
There are encouraging reports of growing numbers of children in school, and declining child workers during the last decade. But we need to view these figures with caution, because there is growing evidence of the informalisation of the work force with rapid economic growth. Work is often sub-contracted to home-based workers by big companies to evade labour protection regulations and responsibilities, and work is transferred also to the children working from home; as a consequence, children may be inducted into labour sometimes as early as five or six years of age. Such child labour is often invisible to the census enumerator.
Legislation has been unsuccessful in stopping child labour, even in hazardous industries. A third of all acknowledged child workers are found to be in hazardous occupations. About 53 per cent of the total number of children working in hazardous occupations is employed in the pan, bidi, and cigarette industry, in construction, and as domestic help. Seventy-two per cent recorded child workers are in agriculture and constitute almost nine per cent of all agricultural workers. These children work long hours on farms and face the harmful effects of inhaling pesticides and other chemicals. Many girls are subject to hazards of physical and sexual abuse even at a young age of 10 or 12 years at work.
The official tolerance of child labour is grounded in the belief that child labour is an inevitable product of poverty. An official committee in 1981, headed by Gurupadaswamy, declared that ‘as long as poverty continued, it would be difficult to totally eliminate child labour and hence, any attempt to abolish it through legal recourse would not be a practical proposition'. This ‘pragmatism' continues to dominate government's stand on working children.
Poverty and child labour
There remains a live and important debate about whether poverty causes child labour, or is it also the other way round. Many poverty experts argue that for poor families, sending children out to work is the only way they can survive. Many children are also engaged in unpaid household work and as a result cannot go to school: on farms, taking care of cattle, cleaning and cooking, fetching water and fuel and caring for their younger siblings. Just providing full day child-care would result in the majority of older siblings entering school for the first time. Children also drop out and work instead because schools in many states are in bad shape. Children feel demoralised and learn little in these schools, and over time refuse to attend school. If laws guaranteeing minimum wages are enforced, with greater employment security for parents, child labour would decline and cease.
Many child rights activists, on the other hand, maintain that the only chance for a child to escape the poverty of her parents is to go to school. This alone opens new avenues for a child to advance economically and socially when she grows to adulthood. Child labour causes significant life-long and irreversible psychological and physiological damage. Since children's bodies, minds and judgment are still developing, even up to their late teens, entering the world of work at a young age causes early ageing, low energy, stunted and wasted growth, occupational diseases, the crushing of spirit, and the permanent loss of the joys of carefree childhood.
‘All contemporary experience has shown that when children are withdrawn from work and sent to schools, wages for adults, both male and female work goes up substantially', Shantha Sinha, who successfully led a movement to pull 50,000 child labourers out of work and into regular school, passionately argues. ‘One of the reasons for low adult wages is because child labour is rampant, especially in the informal sector. Child labour depresses adult wages. In most countries, early child-care got strengthened and institutionalised when girls were no longer available for domestic work. In a child rights perspective, children's rights must come first, and every right attained for children has profound economic, social and even cultural impacts on the larger economy and society'.
It is true that children work because of a variety of State failures — such as to combat poverty, to implement the rights of unorganised workers, to provide social protection, to provide day child-care services, and to provide quality and relevant education in schools. But this does not justify the legalisation of child work. The State would need to take a holistic approach in eliminating child labour: enforcing legal prohibitions are imperative but admittedly not enough. Governments would need to ensure quality, relevant and non-discriminatory education, enforce labour laws, provide child-care services and social protection, and above all, battle poverty in the household to which the child belongs.
Some government officials justify child labour because this gives the country a comparative advantage in trade and exports, because of the lower prices and alleged efficiencies of employing children (the ‘nimble fingers' theory). Even these alleged economic advantages are contested. But even if there are growth dividends, there can be no ethical justification to argue that we will continue to engage children in work which damages them physically, psychologically and deprives them of their future prospects of breaking out of poverty through mainstream education, for the sake of boosting economic growth.
Existing penalties for employing prohibited child labour is not deterrent: imprisonment for three months to two years and a fine between 10 and 20,000 rupees is a mere rap on the knuckles. These offences should be cognisable and non-bailable, with much more stringent punishments. But it is wrong to penalise or criminalise parents in any way for dealing with their difficult situations and sending their children to work. The penal provisions of the law should target only employers, and impose legal duties on governments.
Much greater sensitivity is also required in planning the rehabilitation of released child workers. Governments need to do more by way of creating mass awareness and influencing consumers. There could be campaigns to discourage people from buying products that use child labour, for instance, through certified declarations and labels. School children themselves would be most effective in a campaign against child labour, including as domestic help and in eateries.
The debate on child labour should have been settled with the Constitutional amendment recognising the right to education as a fundamental right of all children. If the law demands that a child must be in a mainstream school, she cannot simultaneously be at work. There need be no bar on children helping their families after school hours and in vacations, in fields, home-based work, forest gathering and vending, but none of this can be at the expense of schooling and the protection of the child.
Today, despite the legal right to education, many children who are the most vulnerable remain unreached by State efforts. These include children of migrant labour, children subjected to bondage and trafficking, and street children and child workers. To ensure their right to education and childhood remains a paramount unfinished agenda for freedom.