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According to a recent estimate of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), more than 120 million children between the ages of 5-14 are employed as full time labourers around the world. A good number of such children labour in the most hazardous and dangerous industries. In India itself, it is estimated that there are at least 44 million child labourers in the age group of 5-14. More than eighty percent of child labourers in India are employed in the agricultural and non-formal sectors and many are bonded labourers. Most of them are either illiterate or dropped out of school after two or three years.

 1. What is child labour?

Child labour is not child work. Child work can be beneficial and can enhance a child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development without interfering with schooling, recreation and rest. Helping parents in their household activities and business after school in their free time also contributes positively to the development of the child. When such work is truly part of the socialisation process and a means of transmitting skills from parents to child, it is not child labour. Through such work children can increase their status as family members and citizens and gain confidence and self-esteem.

 Child labour, however, is the opposite of child work. Child labour hampers the normal physical, intellectual, emotional and moral development of a child. Children who are in the growing process can permanently distort or disable their bodies when they carry heavy loads or are forced to adopt unnatural positions at work for long hours. Children are less resistant to diseases and suffer more readily from chemical hazards and radiation than adults. UNICEF classifies the hazards of child labour into three categories, namely (i) physical; (ii) cognitive; (iii) emotional, social and moral:

 I. Physical hazards

There are jobs that are hazardous in themselves and affect child labourers immediately. They affect the overall health, coordination, strength, vision and hearing of children. One study indicates that hard physical labour over a period of years stunts a child's physical stature by up to 30 percent of their biological potential. Working in mines, quarries, construction sites, and carrying heavy loads are some of the activities that put children directly at risk physically. Jobs in the glass and brassware industry in India, where children are exposed to high temperatures while rotating the wheel furnace and use heavy and sharp tools, are clearly physically hazardous to them.

 II. Cognitive hazards

Education helps a child to develop cognitively, emotionally and socially, and needless to say, education is often gravely reduced by child labour. Cognitive development includes literacy, numeracy and the acquisition of knowledge necessary to normal life. Work may take so much of a child’s time that it becomes impossible for them to attend school; even if they do attend, they may be too tired to be attentive and follow the lessons.

 III. Emotional, social and moral hazards

There are jobs that may jeopardise a child’s psychological and social growth more than physical growth. For example, a domestic job can involve relatively ‘light’ work. However, long hours of work, and the physical, psychological and sexual abuse to which the child domestic labourers are exposed make the work hazardous. Studies show that several domestic servants in India on average work for twenty hours a day with small intervals. According to a UNICEF survey, about 90 percent of employers of domestic workers in India preferred children of 12 to 15 years of age. This is mostly because they can be easily dominated and obliged to work for long hours and can be paid less than what would have to be paid to an adult worker. Moral hazards generally refer dangers arising for children in activities in which they are used for illegal activities, such as trafficking of drugs, the sex trade, and for the production of pornographic materials.

 2. The Extent and General Pattern of Child Labour and its Hazards in India

 Researchers give a range of incidence of child labour in India from about 14 million to about 100 million. Some studies show every fourth child in the age group of 5-15 is employed. It is estimated that over 20% of the country’s GNP is contributed by child labour. The figures released by the non-governmental agencies are much higher than those of the State. UNICEF cites figures from various resources that put child labour in India at between seventy-five to ninety million7. For some observers, the exact number of child labourers in India could be as high as 150 million. In brief, India is the largest producer of child labour and illiteracy on this earth. According to at least one study, a quarter of the world’s total number of child labourers are in India and every third household in that country has a child at work.

 Children in India are employed in almost all the activities of the non-formal sector. However, most of them are employed in the agricultural sector or in jobs closely related to agriculture, as is the pattern in many developing countries. A unique factor in India is that a significant number of these children are bonded labourers.

 I. Bonded child labour

Slave labour or bonded labour is one of the worst forms of labour not only for children but also for adults. In India, bonded labour has been illegal since 1976 when Parliament enacted the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act. However, the practice is still widespread. Even conservative estimates suggest that there are at least 10 million adult bonded labourers in India. 89 percent of adults in debt bondage belong to scheduled castes and tribes and 89 percent of those who control them are agricultural landlords. Most of the work carried out by bonded labourers is hard manual labour in the fields or brick kilns. Children or adults are bonded in order to pay off debts that they or members of their families have incurred. They toil all their lives and endure physical attacks that often amount to torture.

 There are thousands of bonded child labourers in India. They are also mostly the children of parents who belong to scheduled castes and tribes. Young children are sold to employers by their parents to pay back small loans that they have borrowed. Such children are made to work for many hours a day over several years. According to one study, there are about 10 million bonded child labourers working as house servants in Indian families. Varandani recently estimated that there were nearly 55 million children in India working as bonded labourers in agriculture, mining, brick-kilns, construction work, fishing activities, carpet weaving, fireworks, matches, glass moulding, bidi-making (cigarettes), gem-cutting and polishing work, electroplating, dyeing, washing and domestic work. About 20 percent of these bonded child labourers were sold to cover some small debts obtained by their parents, usually for some social celebration like a wedding in the family.

 One of the most notorious forms of bonded-labour is found in the carpet industry of India. A study undertaken in Kashmir shows that over 80 percent of child labourers in carpet making work as bonded labourers. These young labourers, many of them 8 or 9 years old, are made to work for 20 hours a day without a break. They have to crouch on their toes from dawn to dusk which stunts their physical growth. Some of the children start to work when they are only 5-6 years of age, and by the time they are 20 they are burnt out.. They are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted so that they are no longer able to work and are doomed to unemployment even in cases when employment is available. The vicious cycle restarts when they want their children to work for them.

 II. The agricultural sector

A recent ILO report states that in some developing countries nearly one third of the agricultural workforce is comprised of children. According to a survey of 1989, about 82 percent of the 6.1 million fully economically active children in Bangladesh worked in agriculture. Similarly, in India about 80 percent of child labourers are employed in agriculture and allied occupations. Studies also reveal that about 86 percent of bonded labour is found in India’s agricultural sector.

 III. Street work

There are thousands of children who live and work in the city streets of India. According to a study conducted among the street children in the city of Chennai (Madras), about 90% of them live with their parents in the streets. The same study also revealed that the largest group of street children in Chennai work as coolies (22%). About 10.4% of them work in hotels (small restaurants and snack bars), 9.6% do rag picking, 8% pull rickshaws, and 7.1% sell flowers. A smaller percentage of children are employed in other areas of work, including prostitution (0.3%). They work for 10-12 hours a day and at the end of the day what they earn is barely enough for their survival. About 32% of them receive less than 100 rupees (about 2.5 U.S. dollars) per month as wages.

 Contrary to the general conception that many street children are delinquents, the study revealed that only 6.6% of the total sample had served time in juvenile homes or correctional institutions. Studies in a few other Indian cities showed that the majority of the street children were doing rag picking for their living. Usually, these children are unable to submit references or pay deposits to their employers to obtain any work. They choose rag picking as it is the most convenient way of earning something for their living that does not require much experience and investment.

 Scavenging is the work that faces children with the most extreme risk. As many of them work with bare feet, they get cuts; they are also exposed to extreme weather conditions, sunstroke, pneumonia, influenza and malaria. They have to carry heavy loads, which stunts their physical growth. They face digestive disorders and food poisoning as they eat thrown away or left over food. A recent study conducted in Delhi found they were at risk of catching Aids, as they may accidentally come into contact with infected needles deposited in the refuse. Since animals scavenge in the same heaps of refuse, dog bites are quite common among these children.

 The local police and even the municipal cleaners create great difficulties for the street children in India. For any petty thefts, they are the first ones to be accused by the police. The local municipal cleaners, in turn, demand money and labour from them. If the children refuse to comply, they are threatened with the police, who will compel them to pay even more. A memorandum presented at a 'street children’s rally' in Bangalore alleged that the police extorted about half the earnings of the rag pickers as commission. The children also had to pay some staff members of the municipality to ease the way for rag picking.

 IV Some other of most hazardous form of child labour in the manufacturing sector of India

A. Glass factories

Firozabad, an administrative unit in Agra district of Uttar Pradesh is the home of glass bangle and glassware industry in India. It is estimated that about 50,000 children below the age of 14 work in this industry. This is one of the highest concentrations of child labour in the world. According to forecasts, if the child labour were eliminated, production in the glass and bangle industry would go down by 25 percent.

 Children are used in all the various phases of bangle making and glass blowing. About 85 percent of them are employed in carrying molten glass on a seven-foot iron rod called labya from the furnace to the adult worker and back to the furnace. They sit in front of furnaces where the temperature is said to be 700 degrees centigrade. Children, as they are small in stature have, to go close to the fire when they collect molten glass from the furnace. In her field research in the glass industry in India, Dr. Burra Neera notes that the children’s faces were only about six to eight inches away from furnaces that were burning at 1500-1800 centigrade.

 As they work with fire in these factories, accidents are also common. When children carry moulded glasses up and down, pieces fall on the floor and unless the children are very careful they can get burn injuries quite easily. In the long-term, the continuous exposure to high temperature harms their health permanently.

 B. Match factories

For more than seven decades, thousands of children have been working in the match factories at Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu. The total labour force in this industry is estimated to be 200,000, with about 35 percent being children. Some of these children are bonded child labourers. Factory owners send their vehicles to collect these children from villages. Many of them start their day as early as 4 a.m. and some even work until 10 p.m. At times they are made to work for 14 hours a day for a few more rupees on their wages; observers state that they work even during national holidays. Children are generally paid on a piece-rate basis. Payment for a piece is very low and thus they are indirectly forced to work faster and longer.

 Respiratory diseases, eye infection, and exposure to chemical agents are the major health hazards in the match and fireworks industries. Researchers accuse the employers of not taking any precaution for fire safety in such workshops where even a small crack could start a fire. They found several children with burn scars on their hands, thighs and legs and 80 percent of the children interviewed in such workshops reported cases of accident.

The Indian government has recognised that Sivakasi is an area with a high concentration of child labour and tries to implement some rehabilitative programmes there. However, child labour is still very much alive in this sector. Any attempt to remove child labour is met with stiff resistance by the interested parties. One study suggests that it would cost the employers Rs.32.8 million per annum if the children were to be replaced by adult workers. Unless and until the government acts with firmness, there is little possibility of ‘redeeming’ these children.

 C. Carpet industry

An ILO study estimates that there could be 420,000 child labourers in India employed in the carpet industry. According to some NGOs, between 1979 and 1993 the value of export earnings in the hand-knotted carpet industry in India grew tenfold. They also claim that the number of children working at the looms has increased from 100,000 in 1975 to 300,000 in 1990. The Indian ‘carpet belt’ is found mostly in Uttar Pradesh stretching over a vast area. There are usually about 20 or so loom sheds in each village. Some children work as bonded labourers; others are kidnapped from their poverty-stricken home villages, including villages in Bihar, the neighbouring state.

 Since the carpet industry is labour-intensive, entrepreneurs try to reduce labour costs by employing child labour. Under the pretext of getting practice, children are introduced into the sector as early as the age of five. Though initially the children find it difficult to sit in the particular posture required for weaving, they gradually adapt to it.

 There is a new awareness at present in the international media about child labour exploitation in the South Asian carpet industry. This is partly due to 12 year-old Iqbal Masi, a bonded carpet weaver in Pakistan who was later killed for his anti-child labour campaign. At present, genuine efforts are made by some humanitarian agencies in the carpet importing nations to reduce or eliminate child labour in the sector.

 D. Brass industry

According to the researcher Burra Neera, about 40,000-45,000 children are employed in the brass industry in India. Children in the brass industry are employed in different sectors. Moulding is one of the activities, which is very hazardous and dangerous both to adults and children. More than 15000 children are employed in this sector. If the child is a new recruit, he is given the work of rotating the wheel that fans the underground furnace. Other children in the moulding section must heat the oblong ingot on top of the furnace, break it into small pieces with a hammer and then melt the required amount of brass. When the molten brass is ready, they have to pass the graphite crucible with the raw material to an adult worker holding it with long tongs. Sometimes they themselves have to pour the brass into the moulds and replace the crucible into the furnace. At times, children have to rotate the fan, remove the crucible and replace it in the furnace. They also may be asked to grind a hot black mixture into a fine powder with their hands and help the adult worker to remove the hot moulded metal from the moulds. These activities have to be done continuously and children in the moulding section would always be engaged in one or other of these activities. They may not receive any breaks in a ten-hour working day, even though a slight distraction or lapse of concentration may cause the child life-long injuries. The temperature in the furnace is about 1100 centigrade. If a drop of molten metal falls on the child’s foot, it will create an immediate hole.

 Neera observes in her study that the life span of children employed in the brass industry is quite brief. During her fieldwork she visited about 600 box furnace workshops, and noticed that all moulders were less than 30 years of age. She was told that children who work in such workshops either do not survive as adults or become too ill to work. Tuberculosis seems to be an unavoidable consequence for child labourers in the brass industry.

 Even though these children work sacrificing their own lives for the brass industrialists, what they get in return is very little. In her research Burra Neera noticed that no child under 14 was paid more than 200 rupees per month, irrespective of the type and duration of the work.

 E. Lock industry

The lock industry is mostly concentrated in the Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh. Studies reveal that more than 60 percent of the workers in this sector are children under 14 years of age. Children do polishing, electroplating, spray painting and working on hand presses. They cut different components of locks for nearly 12-14 hours a day with hand presses. Exhaustion causes accidents; many lose the tips of their fingers, which get caught in the machines.

The most hazardous job for children in the lock industry is polishing. The boys who do polishing stand close to the buffing machines. The buffing machines that run on electric power have emery powder coated on bobs. While polishing the locks, they inhale emery powder with metal dust and almost all polishers suffer from respiratory disorders and tuberculosis. In the small units, about 70 percent of the polishers are children.

 Similarly, electroplating is another extremely hazardous process in which more than 70 percent of workers are children below the age of 14 years. Children work with naked hands in dangerous chemicals such as potassium cyanide, sodium phosphate, sodium silicate, hydroelectric acid, sulphuric acid, sodium hydroxide, chromic acid, barium hydroxide, etc. Children, besides being affected by the usual consequences of chemical substances, are also at risk of shocks as these substances also produce electricity and the floors are usually wet. The children have their hands in these solutions for the better part of the twelve-hour-day. Some cases of electrocution have been due to illegal electric connections obtained by some of these units from streetlights.

 About 50 per cent of the workforce in the spray-painting sector of the lock industry is comprised of children. While at work, these children inhale large quantities of paint and paint thinners, leading to severe chest disorders. They suffer from breathlessness, fever, tuberculosis, bronchitis, asthma, and pneumoconiosis and from such symptoms and diseases. Work in the lock industry is dangerous and very hazardous for all employees, but is especially so for children.

 Thus, in India children do all kinds activities, from household work to brick making, from stone breaking to selling in shops and on streets, from bike repairing to garbage collecting and rag-picking. Most children work on farms and plantations or houses, far from the media scrutiny and the reach of a labour inspector.

There is no product that has not been scented by the sweat of a child labourer. India today has earned the dubious distinction of having the highest child labour force in the world.


This article has only highlighted the plight of millions of children who are employed in various activities often as bonded labourers in India. Often, child labour is considered to be a "necessary evil" in poor countries such as India for the maintenance of the family. In that context, some consider it virtuous to give a job to a child. In fact, some academics and activists campaign not for the reduction of child labour but only for a reduction in the exploitation of children. However, the question has to be asked whether it is justifiable to allow children from poor families to undergo physical, cognitive, emotional and moral hazards because they must help their families. Is the joy of childhood reserved only for some, privileged, children?


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