There are approximately 10.2 million children working in India.
A new bill prohibits children under the age of 14 from working - but makes an exception for "family businesses", including extended family has come under criticism. The government says the law will help poor families earn a living and give children a chance to acquire skills. Activists say that the exemption that allows children to work for family businesses after school hours and during holidays clears the way for children to be employed in industries like diamond cutting, scavenging, brick kilns, slaughter-houses or as domestic help.
The Bill does not seek to justify routine family work, but the work that millions of children render in home-based units of beedi rolling, bindi and bangle production, agarbatti and papad making, zari and embroidery work, packing and sticking labels, chappal making, handicrafts and the manufacturing of several other products. This is the work that requires the entire family to participate in meeting the demands of contractors who supply them with the material and procure the finished product on a piece-rate basis. Such work is a form of hidden exploitation under unregulated labour conditions in which numerous children from deprived and marginalised communities are engaged. It is the kind of work in which poor landholders are tied to the creditors who provide them with seeds and fertilisers, often forcing them into a long-term contract on adverse terms and conditions which force the entire family to work as cheap labour on their own farms. Children get trapped in this vicious cycle of oppression and work as farm labour along with the entire family especially during peak seasons at the cost of education. It is the kind of work that starts before and after school hours until late in the night at the cost of children’s health until they can no longer concentrate in the classroom or participate in school and are branded as slow learners. Unable to straddle both school and work, these children are forced to give up the former. The pressure to incorporate a proviso that allows children to work after school hours is for those who benefit from this, the employers and contractors who make their profits over home-based units in the informal sector.
Such work incorporates children into the family occupation and thus somehow maintains the status quo and perpetuates caste hierarchy. Taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that it is best for the children to continue in their family profession – a potter’s child ends up as a potter, a weaver’s child a weaver and an agricultural labourer’s child a farm worker. Being insensitive to the challenges faced by the most deprived castes and communities, the amendment defeats its very purpose – enabling children to enjoy their right to education. By justifying in law the participation of children in work before and after school hours, the Bill denies them the time and space to develop and grow as citizens with similar choices and opportunities that children from affluent families enjoy. Such a proviso would only contribute towards fostering existing inequalities and discriminatory practices in society.
The amendment has also inserted a new section that prohibits the employment of adolescents – children in the age group of 14-18 years. The extension of age under the Act should be a viewed as a positive step. However, it prohibits child labour only in mines, in the production of inflammable substances or explosives and the hazardous processes assigned with it in clause of the Factories Act, 1948. Thus, it actually gives a legal sanction for the employment of adolescent children in all other sectors. It is totally oblivious to the extent of exploitation and suffering of innumerable adolescent children, who move from working on construction sites, to sweat shops and farms and so on, and who are trapped by the hardships of fulfilling their basic needs and struggle for survival. Such adolescent children are often unhealthy, yet continue to work till they become completely incapacitated. The burden of the state’s inability to provide social protection, food security, employment, universal health care, access to credit and financial support to their parents falls on adolescent children.
"Under the new Child Labour Act, some forms of child labour may become invisible and the most vulnerable and marginalised children may end up with irregular school attendance, lower levels of learning and could be forced to drop out of school," Unicef India's Chief of Education Euphrates Gobina said in a statement.
Indian Nobel peace prize winner Kailash Satyarti said the bill was a "missed opportunity" for India. "The definition of family and family enterprises is flawed. This Bill uses Indian family values to justify economic exploitation of children. It is misleading the society by blurring the lines between learning in a family and working in a family enterprise," he said in a statement, adding that the government had failed its children once again.
Ending child labour once and for all and making child labour part of India’s history still remains a mirage.
The World Socialist Party (India): 257 Baghajatin ‘E’ Block (East), Kolkata – 700086,