EVERY YEAR in June, the world community celebrates Anti-Child Labour Day. And in increasing combination, various specialised agencies and non-government organisations (NGOs) have in recent years placed child labour, especially its worst forms, high among their concerns. They also have begun to achieve some discernible progress.
But not nearly enough. According to the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) latest – though imperfect global estimate, approximately 246 million children between the age of five and 15 are engaged in “child labour”. The ILO further guesses that seven in 10 of them are in agriculture, followed by service businesses (22 per cent) and industry (nine per cent). Asia-Pacific claims the greatest share of child workers (122 million), then sub-Saharan Africa (49 million).
In India, the government itself in its most recent account estimates that 12.6 million children under the age of 14 are at work in various occupations including hazardous occupations. NGO estimates put the number of children employed in domestic work and roadside eateries alone at two million. Centre of Concern for Child Labour, a Delhi based NGO estimated that there are nearly 70 million school-age going children in India who are out of schools. So the total number of working children in India is much higher than the government estimates.
Child workers are engaged primarily in agriculture and allied activities in rural areas and in a variety of industries and informal sector activities in the urban areas. The most exploitative form of chid labour includes child prostitution and forced and bonded labour, which is found in some parts of the country. The situation of girl child labourers in the country would call for particular attention.
Children today often labour under extremely hazardous conditions, handling poisonous chemicals, inhaling noxious fumes, hauling excessive weights. They are usually overworked, underfed and underpaid- if they are paid at all. They toil so that their families can survive.
The painful voices of working children can be heard the world over and India is no exception.
Seema is barely nine-year-old but from morning till evening she is engaged in the fields of a cotton seed farm that process high tech cotton seeds genetically engineered to contain a natural pesticide. To get the seeds to breed true, the farmers have to cross-pollinate the plants, a laborious task that keeps a peak of a dozen workers busy for several months on just one acre. And to make a profit, the farmers have to use cheap labour. That means using kids like Seema. It is estimated that every year nearly 420,000 labourers under the age of 18 are employed in cotton seed farms in four states- Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat- across India. Of that total 54 per cent were under the age of 14 and illegally employed. The MV Foundation, an NGO in Andhra Pradesh backed by the Dutch non-profit Hivos campaigned against this practice.
With growing export, new areas of employing child labour are emerging. Garment units, embroidery units are now increasingly in news for violating child labours laws.
In Rajasthan, the stone quarries employ under-age workers. Further north, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, hand-knotted carpets are made and sent to showrooms in America informs NGO Rugmark. Child labour is rampant here.
Child labour has emerged as an increasingly important issue in the national context reflecting heightened sensitivity to the problem at all levels within the country. Important legislation on child labour includes the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 prohibiting the employment of children below 14 years of age in specified hazardous occupations and processes. Along with this, the December 1996 Supreme Court judgement directs the withdrawal of children from hazardous occupation and the creation of a welfare fund for them, besides regulating working conditions in non hazardous occupations. Government policy has also been pro active in the area of child labour since the mid 1980 with the formulation of national policy on Child Labour in August 1987 and subsequent implementation of National Child Labour Projects. The objective being of reducing the incident of child labour in high concentration areas through improved enforcement, rehabilitating and more integrated provisions of services.
Child labour is banned in 13 industrial sectors and 52 types of work listed in the Child Labour (Prohibition) Act. These sectors will not be able to employ children between 14 and 18 years if the law is amended. A 2006 amendment brought domestic work, work in the hospitality industry, under the ambit of the Act.
But NGOs have been saying that despite the under-14 ban, thousands of children are still employed in hazardous industries listed in the Act, thanks to poor implementation of the existing legislation. Save the children’s research on child domestic labour shows that 74 per cent of children in domestic work are between the ages of 12 and 16. This leaves a crucial gap in bringing a huge number of working children (aged between 14 and 18) under the protection of this Act.
Thousands of children work in roadside food stalls. Although India banned children under 14 from working as domestic servants or in food stalls, millions are continue to be employed, a study said. About 200,000 children below the age of 14 years are estimated to be working as domestic servants and in teashops, restaurants, spas, hotels, resorts and other recreational centres - the areas from where they were banned in 2006. Current child legislation is not effective
’Save the Children’ said that in Delhi alone, close to a million children are still employed at homes or in food stalls. Another 40,000 work in the southern city of Hyderabad and 50,000 more work in Calcutta. The study said that in Delhi 99 per cent of child domestic workers are girls and in a large number of cases they are open to sexual abuse.
Many parents say crippling poverty forces them to send their children, sometimes as young as five or six, to work in other people’s homes or in factories.
The Constitution of India and successive governments have targeted elimination of child labour and promoted universalisation of education. This task is not easy and the effectiveness of child labour elimination programme must be measured by real change in the situation of children and or by the number of projects funded and networks created or by the research, advocacy educational campaigns or workshops and seminar held or legislations introduced. As Kailash Satyarthi, chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour, has put it, “The real measure of success is the difference being made in the lives of vulnerable children.”
It is important to acknowledge here that since the adoption of the 1989 CRC and particularly the 1999 ILO Convention (No 182) concerning the ’prohibition and immediate elimination of the worst forms of child labour’ a commitment to the abolition of child labour as human rights imperative has taken hold and begun to spread.
There are number of NGOs working in this field. But whether all this NGOs activity has altered the situation of working children for better is not clear. Today most NGOs demand for legislation calling for compulsory primary education as a necessary prerequisite for child labour elimination. Reflecting on my own work for two and half decades in this field, I would not privilege education over income substitutions or generation scheme nor would I ignore critical issue in the quality and type of education being offered. Education is part of the child labour solution, but it is not the solution. The issue of poverty and need do not simply go away because a child is enrolled in the school. The project relevant to education is that , without systematic redress of income poverty concerns, there is continuing financial pressure on poor families.While this may seem to be stating obvious, it is something that often is sidelines in child labour prevention and elimination programme.
Advocates tend to focus on and privilege the application of legal instruments that relate to education but education legislation does not begin to address underlying economic causality. The moral high grounders claim that state provided education is the solution to child labour. There are number of activists that have been articulating for some time, insisting on one message to government, all children have the right to a full time education.
The first and key policy tenet in human rights (for children) approach to preventing and eliminating child labour is that achievement of quality universal primary education and elimination of poverty are interlinked in complex relationship. Successful sustainable elimination of child labour must face up to the connection between economic poverty and education. The question of child labour elimination is no longer whether or even how to cease the exploitation of children but how quickly.
The ground reality suggests that while it is good to be developing international and national standards, laws and programmes to combat child labour ( particularly the worst forms ) until and unless one comes to moral and political grips, with the reality of poverty and with the divide between rich and the poor, the struggle against child labour will fizzle out. One must, in other words, take holistic approach to child labour and not see it as a discrete problem that can be tackled without reference to the broader socio economic setting, in which it is rooted. The real social change takes places slowly.
By Ms.Bobby Aanand, Metropolitan Jury.
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