Toothless laws leave child labour a `weak' offence

CHENNAI OCT. 22. Outdated legislation, low damages and the absence of follow-up measures are threatening to thwart the State Government's efforts at eliminating child labour within a time frame. Employing children in shops and establishments is at present a "weak offence," say voluntary organisations.

"These Acts are a one-time, one-stop solution which offer no follow-up mechanism," says Vidya Shankar, Chairperson, Juvenile Welfare Board. Without tough laws providing for punitive fines that make employment of children risky and unprofitable, the labourers will move from one shop to another, says Paul Baskar, Chairman, Peace Trust.

According to recent official statistics, there are more than 70,000 child labourers in the State, at least 1,000 of them in catering establishments and bakery houses.

Most of the child labour cases, involving canteens and catering establishments, are booked under the Tamil Nadu Shop and Establishments Act, 1947. The punitive damages to an employer, who is a first time offender under this Act, are a maximum of Rs. 25. The penalty may be extended to a maximum of Rs. 250 for a repeat offender.

Most often, employers do not have any problem paying the penalties, because they save a lot more by employing children. "None of the children is paid minimum wages. In fact, most of them are in debt bondage'', says Mr. Baskar.

Labour inspectors also admit that the fines are no deterrent. "The only expenditure for the employer is over frequent court cases."

Though the inspectors can also book employers under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, under which the damages are a maximum of Rs. 20,000, most of them do not do so, as the exercise involves close coordination with other government agencies. "Under the Child Labour Prohibition Act, a health official has to examine the child and assess its age. Getting the official to come with us is very difficult," says a labour inspector.

Now, under pressure to meet the deadline for elimination of child labour — 2005 for children employed in hazardous industries and 2007 for those working in non-hazardous industries — the Labour department has written to the Government recommending amendments to the Shops and Establishment Act. It sent a letter to the Government first in 2002 and again this year. The department is asking that damages be raised to Rs. 5,000 for a first-time offender and to Rs. 50,000 for a repeat offender. Now, there is a fresh proposal by Chennai Corporation health officials to cancel licences in any establishment which employs child labour.

Voluntary organisations are calling for apart from changes in legislation, a change in the attitude among officials dealing with child labour. The Labour department does not follow up on cases of employment of child labourers and gives no counselling because it is not under the scope of the inspectors' role.

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