Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Underage Breadwinners - Child Labor in India

(Source:National Geographic)

The Indian government-affiliated V.V. Giri Labour Institute estimates there are 12.5 million children younger than 14 working in India. UNICEF puts the figure at somewhere between 75 and 90 million. Why are so many of our children working?

It is obvious most children are working under some form of compulsion. The compulsion is most often related to economic necessity or expectations attached to their caste.

But the important aspect of child labor is to understand that without a market for it, it would not exist. The carpet and rug industry is known to be the major employer of children. Their employment tactic is based on the fallacy that children's fingers are more nimble and adept at making the fine furnishings. Other industries and households employ children for the ease with which they can be trained, admonished and controlled.

Every day parents introduce their children to the labor market where they are readily absorbed and recruited. In a recent news report the UK daily "The Observer" exposed to the world a sweatshop in south Delhi contracted by the global retailer "Gap". Children rescued from the shop told reporters of how they were aggressively recruited and ill-treated. One child described how his parents succumbed to the lure of higher returns from a working child; "The men came looking for us in July. They had loudspeakers in the back of a car and told my parents that, if they sent me to work in the city, they won't have to work in the farms. My father was paid a fee for me, and I was brought down with 40 other children."

With the kind of poverty seen in India, parents are often left with the heart wrenching choice of starving, loosing their dwellings or having their children work. The employers send paychecks to the parents and the children most often work for food and shelter. The economic necessity is far too great a defence of their action for them to see much wrong in it. Besides in a caste ridden country where lower castes are expected to live a life of labor and in a society that has traditionally employed children, child labor is not a clear wrongdoing.

The worst form of child labor that is unfortunately the most rampant is "bonded" child labor. The children work like slaves and the debt that binds them to their employer is incurred not by the children themselves, but by their relatives or guardians, usually a parent. Children work several hours without food or drink. They are given corporal punishment when they need to be disciplined and live in deplorable conditions.

India does not have an outright ban on child labor, Indian law only prohibits the employment of children under the age of 14 in occupations deemed hazardous. The list was recently expanded to includes domestic, hotel and restaurant work. When the government first moved to ban child labor, employers and even some children's rights activists pointed out that millions of children worked in order to survive. Out of work they would have no one to feed them and no where to go with the absence of facilities to absorb them. Some even conceded that at least some employers treated their child-workers better than their own parents could.

Unfortunately "this notion of benevolence often masks the exploitation and the long-term harm for children" as Shantha Sinha, an anti-child labor activist and 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award recipient rightly points out. It is true that the government has done little to provide for the rehabilitation of the children or alternatives for income the children bring in that parents heavily depend on.

But legislation is a necessary starting point that will lead to a change in mindsets, social policy and the availability of alternatives. These changes are not necessarily natural phenomenon, it will take a very proactive society and government to bring about.

Society's major role is to remedy the conditions that encourage subservience and subjugation, especially the caste system and to oppose and report all forms of child labor.

The Government has had legislation in place for years but without enforcement, success is a distant dream. There is a lack of recognition of consequence and respect for law that creates the absence of self-limitation and compliance. With stricter enforcement and punishment for the offense some of that compliance can be achieved. Financial incentives such as tax benefits for employers that do not employ children in sectors where child labor is common would also help. Right to education must not only be enforced but also shown to ultimately provide superior benefits. The availability of better paying and decent opportunities for the educated youth will be a compulsion for parents to send their children to school rather than off to work. As far as alternatives to work for the children are concerned there is some good news; India's Ministry of Labour reports that the number of children withdrawn from hazardous jobs and enrolled in special schools under the National Child Labour Project has more than doubled in the last three years.

As long as labor is equated with survival, no matter how deplorable the working conditions are parents and children will prefer employment to unemployment. They will support child labor employers and find ways to subvert the law. Pulling them out of this extreme economic necessity will require further bolstering of economic policies that are poor and rural driven. The National employment Garuntee scheme needs a massive overhaul to be rid of the corruption and the diversion of funds into the wrong hands.

The child labor situation in India is grim. We cannot allow our children to grow up under these circumstances. We have a responsibility to show them that they have been born in to a world that cares for them and one that is willing to protect them.

Resources and References:
Govt. Of India Ministry of Labour (PIB Press Release)
"Child sweatshop shame threatens Gap's ethical image" , The Observer
Save the Child Foundation (Bachpan Bachao Andolan) Pictures from National Geographic
International Labour Foundation - Statistics and Databases "India's latest move to stop child labor", Anuj Chopra, Christian Science Monitor
"Child slavery: India's perpetuating dilema", Natasa Kocevic, Harvard Interantionl Review


Anonymous said...

This is a complicated issue, thought it was simple solution to the problem, its sad. This article was a good read

A N said...

I liked your article on Child labour. Well compiled. Do you think it would have been a good idea if some statistics of what has been achieved over the last 10 to 15 years was provided? What did we inherit pre independence? Child labour is a direct result of over-population, resulting in poverty and illiteracy. There was total neglect. What have we achieved over the years? I believe progress should be measured by the overall improvement in the quality of life. I travel a bit in the rural areas and it is sad. Our population is the problem, I am not sure if it is easy to legislate laws related to population in a democracy. We need a very aggresive , dynamic set of laws, but how do you do it? it is easy to use words like political will. Sanjay Gandhi tried it and lost his job!
I can go on and on, but I need to stop.

vishwanath said...

it is really unfortunate that inspite of world's one of the fastest groving economy we have not been able to save our children's future, the future of any country. In my view at some level parents are responsible with the government. We have many laws agaist the child labor but you can have many instances where the concerned officers themselves have some children for doing their household works. We need to make sure that our children go to school and should not be forced to earn for some people or some institutions.