INDIA: Government might as well have legalised child labour

Misleading media headlines like “Govt. proposes complete ban on child labour till 14 years” notwithstanding, the Cabinet’s nod to amendments in the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012, is a hoodwink that will push more children into hazardous work, something the government claims it opposes. 

The Cabinet has decided to ban employment of children less than 14 years of age with the caveat that this will not apply to “family enterprises”. The further qualification offered is that these family enterprises should not involve hazardous work and should not employ children in a way that adversely affects their education. The Bill further seeks to ban employment of children between 14 and 18 years of age in hazardous industries. 

Firstly, how will a country that has categorically failed to stop child labour in outright hazardous industries, like the fireworks and carpet industries, manage to even find out which “family enterprises” are engaged in hazardous work? Is the State equipped and willing to go and check every house to find out the nature of the work being undertaken? Take some of the traditional (read: caste defined) work that the government of India is trying to pass off as “family enterprise”. Is carpentry, involving the use of sharp objects, hammers, nails, and so on, hazardous or not? What if a child helping his/her family gets injured while cutting wood?

Most parents put their children to work out of the compulsions of poverty and not out of their free will. Studies after studies, based on the testimonies of children rescued from all manners of industries, from carpet weaving to fireworks, have brought out this fact. Allowing children to work in “family enterprises” is no different from the State conceding that it is incapable of even rescuing children, never mind alleviating poverty. It is the duty of the state to rescue and rehabilitate these children and not abdicate its responsibility by legalising child labour through the backdoor. 

Secondly, how will the State authorities decide whether working in the family business upon returning from school is not affecting the child’s education? Children need also to rest, to play and to unwind. Ironically, the Bill is supposed to help align the law with the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, which, finally, after nearly 6 long decades since the framing of the Indian Constitution made elementary education a fundamental right. 

Thirdly, a fundamental problem with this nod to child labour in “family enterprises” is the state’s capacity to find out which family enterprises are, in fact, run by the family and which ones are mere sweatshops, contracted by big sharks feeding on their labour? 

As it is, most “family enterprises” are not owned by the families that are stuck in them. From the power-looms of Telengana to the bangle making dungeons in Firozabad, hardly any of the families engaged in such backbreaking work own the enterprises. Allowing child labour in the family enterprises operating in India will therefore be the end of hope and aspiration for a better future for these children. 

Lastly, such kind of child labour will perpetuate caste-based atrocities and scar the children for life. The very point of a cobbler, who was forced into his “work” due to his caste, sending his children to school is to find a way out of his drudgery for them. The Bill will force children back into the same line of work. 

The greater sham, greater than even this nod to allow this perpetuation of casteism, is the logic behind the decision: that a blanket ban on child labour ignores the socioeconomic realities in India. What is implied is that the poverty of the parents forces them to make their children work and ignoring this fact with a blanket ban would reinforce both the cycle of poverty and child labour even more.

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