Children work at home, before and after school hours in fireworks units

Nearly 20 years of campaigning against child labour in the fireworks industry has only driven the practice underground, a fact-finding study in Sivakasi conduced by a group of non-governmental organisations has said.

Commissioned by Campaign Against Child Labour – Tamil Nadu, the study was jointly executed by members of Centre for Child Rights and Development (CCRD), NEED, Sivakasi, Human Rights Foundation, Indian Council for Child Welfare, Manitham of Sivaganga, and World Vision. The primary finding was that children were working at home, before and after school hours, during week ends and some children, even during school hours.

In Vijayakarisilkilam, Kothainachiyarpuram, Muthandipuram, Ammaiyarpatti, Kizhasalaiyapuram in Veempakottai block, clearly children below 14 years are involved in this work, at home. A review of the school records of these children confirmed their age, said S.Thenpandian, deputy director of CCRD. The manufacturers contract the work to agents who then sub-contract it to families known to them. “Very few factories now employ children as labourers. So it is difficult to pin the blame on the manufacturers by establishing the link in the chain of command that leads to them,” he added.

Even if an accident occurs, it is only traced as far as the sub contractor, who is dispensable. If he is arrested, then someone else takes his place, Mr. Thenpandian says.

However, it is essential to make manufacturers responsible to ensure that no child labour is used in the entire process of manufacturing fireworks sold by them. Only this is likely to have a lasting impact.

Though the Child Labour Act provides for children to help out with family businesses/work, the very fact that it is a hazardous industry would naturally exempt fireworks from this clause, pointed out Vana Rajan, CACL's southern district convener.

During the study, researchers found that filling aluminium powder into the crackers causes great health problems to the children, particularly adolescent girls who are involved in the work.

The powder causes wheezing, asthma, headaches, and the girls also suffer hormonal issues, Mr. Thenpandian added. Nose bleeds, stomach pain, back and hip pain, and tuberculosis are also common among children who are regularly involved in the work, and on a continuous basis. The reason for the numerous accidents is the explosive nature of the substance they are dealing with, and complete ignorance or facilities to handle these substances in a safe and scientific manner.

Despite exposure to gruelling conditions of labour, toxins and compensation for accidents and injuries, the people of the region take to fireworks and matches making because very few livelihood options are available to them.

Rajagopal of NEED explained, “If you look at the region, the only options for the poor are the matchwork industry, fireworks or printing. Several generations of people are involved in the work, indentured by the loans that they have borrowed from the contractors over the years.” This bonds even youngsters to take up the task, if not to pay up the loans, then to supplement the meagre income.

Repealing the existing Child Labour Act, and re-drafting a new law to prohibit employment of children up to the age of 18 years is the need of the hour, according to Thomas Jeyaraj, director, CCRD. The current law is not implemented properly and has no teeth to bring offenders to book.

After 1986 (when the Act was passed, an approximate 1.50 lakh inspections have been conducted in the fireworks belt and only 1500 cases have been registered, charged Victor Joseph Raj, state convenor, CACL. Very few have actually been prosecuted, he added.

Implementing the Education for All programme is the need of the hour, Mr.Jeyaraj insisted. Unless all children are sent to school compulsorily, and receive good quality education within the schools, it will be impossible to retrieve them from labour. The state government must also strictly enforce safety norms to prevent accidents from taking place.

Even as a new law is being formed, the provisions of the current Child Labour laws should be implemented stringently to prevent employment of children in the hazardous industry, Mr. Thenpandian added.