A lost childhood

Unorganised, unaware of their rights and underpaid, child domestic workers slog it out for many hours every day. Is there light at the end of their tunnel, asks SHWETHA E. GEORGE.

"AMMA, it would be better for you to hire my two daughters. I cannot vouch for the other girls with the same surety." This is Aruldas answering your query on whether he can "provide" young girls for permanent domestic employment. Because he is a "broker"' and this is what he does along with his marumakan (his nephew, you presume) in Andipatti.

So far, he says, he has "given" five girls to various houses in Kottayam, including his daughters Pooja and Radha "Their employers are very happy with them and, with my daughters, you won't have to worry about a thing."

In all probability, he could be right. After all, which work force is so readily available to do so much work for so little money than child labourers? Unorganised, unaware and under-paid, these children aged between nine and 14 work for about15 hours a day and get paid anything between Rs. 300 and Rs. 900 a month. Be it for peeling prawns in Cochin, rolling paper for crackers in Trichur or working at the innumerable workshops, restaurants, construction sites, these children are the invisible work force.

And what's most shocking is their increasing numbers in households. "The percentage of Child Domestic Workers (CDW) in Kerala could be as high as those in industrial sectors, if not more," says Celine Sunny, executive director, Research Institute of Rajagiri College of Social Sciences in Ernakulam that conducted a study called "Child Labour in Kerala" in collaboration with ILO and Labour Department, Kerala. Although official statistics may show that Kerala has a minimal percentage of children employed under the age of 14 (according to 1991 census, the total number in Kerala was 34,800), social workers strongly disagree.

The real number is much higher Only nobody seems willing to declare the real figures because of the problems they might have to face with the government authorities. "It's practically impossible to assess the magnitude of the problem," says Binaifer Unwalla-Braganza, communications coordinator with the National Domestic Workers' Movement. "Since the children work in the seclusion of private homes, access is limited."

"We had intended to include CDWs also in our survey but it was impossible to interview them," says Celine. "When we did manage to enter, interview was next to impossible. Some said the CDWs were distantly related to them."

For the average upper-class family in Kerala, it is easy to hire girls, because most child workers, especially domestic servants, are children of migrant labourers employed by private plantations in Wayanad, Idukki and Palakkad districts. Since the parent works in the plantation, it is a `safe' arrangement for the employer in terms of the quality of work and payment.

The trend is rampant in areas like Vandiperiyar, Andipatti, Usilampatti where Tamil population is higher. Says Remini who began working at the age of 10: "My parents could not feed all of us with their wages from the plantation. I must have worked in at least six homes in those six years but I was one mouth less to feed." Remini is grateful that none of her children had to work. Almost every adult member in her family has a job at the plantation now.

The parents of most of the girls Aruldas helped get employment are heavy-load workers, bonded labourers or part-time plantation workers. These girls cook, wash clothes, clean the rooms and look after their employer's children in their absence.

Twenty-two-year-old Radha also started working when she was 10. Eldest of three, she studied up to the fourth grade in a Tamil school. She was paid Rs. 100 a month for doing `kitchen' work. In the following years, she worked in at least six or more houses.

The National Domestic Workers' Movement in an article for NGO journal Humanscape says CDWs suffer from abuse and stunted intellectual and physical development. The most common types of violence include calling them names, shouting, using bad language and being burnt with hot spoons and rods.

But child labour, let alone the presence of child domestic workers, is hardly an issue for the average man in the State. "Since rate of literacy is high, every Malayali parent strives to send his kid to school, irrespective of financial constraints," says Celine. So, they depend heavily on children of migrants.

Most employers justify hiring children. "At least they get three meals a day," is the common refrain. "Such claims are a farce. No one benefits more than the employers," says Binaifer. "These children are not only vulnerable but also unorganised and without any bargaining power." There are laws to address the issue like The Child Labour Prohibition Act 1986. A Supreme Court judgment on December 10, 1996, gave directions for withdrawing children in hazardous occupations and also fixed a compensation amount of Rs. 20,000 to be imposed on the offending employer for every child employed.

However, in the non-hazardous sector, the Court directed that working conditions be regulated and improved upon. But Aruldas is clueless about the working conditions of his daughters or the other girls he helped employ.

"Our aim is to restore the rights of the child," says Binaifer. "Right to education, rest, leisure and to be able to live with one's own family." But above all, is education. Says Justice D. Sreedevi, former chairperson of State Women's Commission, "Legally, child labour inside homes is unjustifiable as long as you are denying them their elementary right to education." Legally also, it is the employer who is held accountable. The parents' consent does not make any difference because they are also the victims. Displacement of families owing to development projects, unemployment and landlessness force the migrant to sell his child for labour. So, the key cause is abject poverty.

And the situation in rural Kerala is no different. Says Sreedevi, "In pockets of tribal areas and the Central Kerala High Ranges, people live in acute poverty."

She recalls the villagers of Tirunelly (Wayanad District) whose children walk miles to attend school just for the one free noon-meal. "As long as poverty exists, so will child labour," says Justice Sreedevi who has visited many juvenile homes. "Would you rather have a child working 15 hours a day within the safe confines of an upper class home or would you want him to be free but without food, proper clothes and vulnerable to a life of crime?"

The most idealistic stand, however, would be to remove the children from their workplace and enrol them into mainstream education. But the practical solution seems to be alternative employment.

The Supreme Court directive also mentioned a rehabilitation-cum-welfare fund providing alternative income to an adult member of the family in lieu of the child withdrawn from hazardous work. Night schools are also an alternative according to some experts.

"In any case, the State has to intervene," says Sreedevi. "Because child labour is all about getting that one extra income." Or is it? Because, as one social worker put it, although poverty could be cited as a cause, if it were not for certain people who exploit the situation, there would be no child labour.

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