Madhura Swaminathan

The additional curbs on child labour in specified hazardous occupations come into effect today. This is a welcome step but far from adequate. Ultimately, all forms of labour are hazardous to the well being of children.

IN RESPECT of child labour, India is an outlier in the modern world. As Myron Weiner has argued, "Modern states regard education as a legal duty," and, "compulsory primary education is the policy instrument by which the state effectively removed children from the work force." In India, child labour persists on a significant scale. Child labour is neither illegal nor is schooling compulsory. Attitudes to child labour among policy makers in India belie the modern progressive view of childhood being a period of learning through school, and not a period of employment.

Child labour usually refers to children up to the age of 14, following the ILO Convention. The International Labour Office (ILO) resolution on age of employment, Concerning Minimum Age for Admission to Employment (Convention No. 138), recommends that no person below 15 years be considered suitable for employment (on the grounds that a child should compulsorily complete a certain number of years of school). The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), however, refers to children as persons below the age of 18.

If we consider the age group 5-14, and the definition of worker as in the Census of India, then, in 2001, there were 12.6 million child workers in the country. We have more child workers than the entire population of Belgium. More than 50 per cent of child workers (6.7 million children) are concentrated in the five States of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh.

Child labour is predominantly a rural phenomenon. Rural areas account for 85 per cent of child workers and the incidence of child labour is higher in rural areas than in urban areas. Almost 80 per cent of estimated child workers are employed in the agricultural sector. Nevertheless, there are some urban pockets with a high incidence and visible concentration of child labour in specific industries such as gem polishing in Jaipur, slate making in Markapur, and silk weaving in Varanasi.

Although the incidence of child labour has declined over the years, clearly it remains a big problem. Furthermore, there are a large number of children who are not recorded as working but who are not attending school either, and can be viewed as potential child workers.

Hazardous work & legislation

The current legislation in India does not ban all forms of child labour. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, is concerned only with "the engagement of children in certain employment" and accordingly lists specific occupations (Part A) and processes (Part B) in which the employment of children is banned or is to be regulated. The occupations specified in the Act include work in the railways, ports, and the sale of fireworks, and the processes specified include bidi making, carpet weaving, and the manufacture of soaps, matches, and cement.

On August 1, 2006, the Ministry of Labour added the following occupations to the list of hazardous occupations: domestic servants, workers in dhabas, restaurants, hotels, motels, teashops, resorts, spas or other recreational centres. The notification will become effective on October 10, 2006, that is, today. This is a welcome step but far from adequate.

Implicit in the above legislation is the view that certain types of employment are hazardous and only child labour in those employments is to be prohibited or regulated. The ILO Convention (No. 182) on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, 1999, also attempts to make a distinction between hazardous and non-hazardous employment. The convention seeks the immediate elimination of certain types of child labour including slavery (sale of children, debt bondage etc.), prostitution, drug trafficking, and other hazardous activity (or "work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children").

There is no doubt that bonded labour and other extremely exploitative forms of child labour should be ended at once, and require priority attention. Nevertheless, there are problems with defining hazardous activity; ultimately, all forms of labour are hazardous to the well being of children.

We have detailed documentation of the specific types of labour done by children in different parts of India that reveals the exploitative contracts and abysmal conditions of work. As Neera Burra has shown, children work long hours (12-14 hours a day in the lock making industry of Aligarh) for low wages (a child's wage was one-tenth an adult wage in gem polishing in Jaipur) in dangerous work environments (close to hot furnaces in the glass factories of Firozabad). Literacy among child workers is very low, they suffer ailments at an early age, and their life expectancy is unlikely to be high. There is also a gender division of labour with girls engaged in specific jobs, generally at lower wages than boys.

There are obviously many gaps in the existing legislation as it excludes several dangerous processes. It is prohibited for a child to work in a sawmill but not in a carpenter's workshop. Working with agricultural machinery is prohibited but field labour using a sickle is permitted.

More important, all working children are exposed to a variety of hazards, only some of which are intrinsic to the work process. As shown by Neera Burra, hazards arise from the work environment, the exploitative conditions of work, and the intrinsic vulnerability of children.

The decision of the Government to ban child labour in teashops and hotels is based on the recommendations of a technical advisory committee headed by the Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research. This committee based its recommendations on the argument that children in the above listed occupations are subjected to physical violence, psychological traumas, and at times even sexual abuse. They also argued that working long hours affected their "health and psyche," and made them "easy prey to sex and drug abuse as they came in contact with all kinds of people." This incisive argument is, of course, applicable to children working in many other activities and industries. Is a child worker engaged in stitching buttons on to shirts in a tiny garment enterprise not subject to long hours of work and abuse by the employer? The line between hazardous and non-hazardous child labour is a thin one.

What needs to be done

Undoubtedly, poverty is the seed-bed for child labour. It is the children of the poor, and the socially and economically deprived sections of the population, who work. However, the persistence of child labour depends critically on the demand for it. This demand for child labour, as shown by C.P. Chandrasekhar, is either from employers who want to make larger profits by employing cheap workers or from small employers or household enterprises who use child labour to survive in low productivity activities.

It is commonly argued that child labour cannot be stopped (and may be even harmful to end) till such time as poverty is reduced, and, therefore, the main policy thrust should be towards the eradication of poverty. The grounds for this argument are usually two: one, a concern for the poor household that depends on the earnings of the child worker, and, secondly, the inability to enforce a ban on child labour in a situation of poverty.

Historical experience (of the now advanced countries) as well as the comparative development experience (of newly industrialised countries) clearly demonstrates that the achievement of universal school education and the abolition of child labour was not dependent on the level of per capita income or the level of industrialisation or the socio-economic status of families. Even in India, the experience of Kerala shows that near universal schooling and a very low incidence of child labour can be achieved at a relatively low level of per capita income.

Thus, rather than income growth preceding a reduction in child labour, the chronology was, in fact, that the spread of mass education and accompanying reduction in child labour preceded economic growth (and can be viewed as a precondition for economic development). The abolition of child labour does not have to wait for the ending of poverty.

It is time to end all forms of child labour, and to recognise that all children have a right to education and leisure and other means to develop their physical and mental capabilities during childhood.