At a meeting in Delhi recently, the Union Cabinet approved provisions to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012. A key revision states that children below 14 cannot be employed anywhere, except in non-hazardous family enterprises or the entertainment industry. But if you state this differently, it becomes clear that the amendment allows children below 14 to be employed in carpet-weaving, beedi-rolling and gem-polishing, to name a few industries, where only adults should be engaged. The fine print of the amendment promises protection for children against exploitation, but activists say this is the time to work towards complete abolishment of child labour and facilitate a complete and inviolable right to childhood.
The Bill, they say, has legitimised child labour and cite India’s dismal record in implementation and enforcement of labour laws. Who will ensure that children will be engaged by safe, family-run enterprises only after school hours?
We spoke to a few child right activists and they shared their concerns over the new amendments.
Nina P Nayak has invested more than 30 years in child rights protection. She has been the chairperson of the Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the driving force behind the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act and the Protection of Children Against Sexual Offenses Act.
Critiquing the new developments, she says, “This is a very sad development for all those who have fought a hard battle for child rights. Children are the most valuable assets of a nation and also the most vulnerable. Who are we appeasing by opening this huge window for their exploitation? Instead of earmarking more money for their welfare, ensuring that every child’s right to education is respected, we are sending them back to work with provisos.”
Nina is incredulous that the justification being cited for the amendment is that if the children do not pick up traditional skills, they will fade away. If children must be custodians of the crafts, maybe educated and affluent families should ensure that their children work after school hours? That won’t happen, she points out, because children living in acute poverty are treated like liabilities and exploited. “So many times, parents living in debt push their kids into bonded labour and other exploitative situations where they are abused, sometimes even sexually. Many employers present false affidavits about the children they employ and make false promises that they will put them in schools,” she explains.
What was the need to put in black-and-white, an amendment so conducive to misuse, she asks. She recalls meetings with labour inspectors who say monitoring child labourers is not a priority because there are so many industries to monitor.
“There is no synergy between labour and education,” she says, and suggests that apprenticeships for older children would have helped generate income for their families without compromising their well-being.
Maitreyee Kumar, founding director of Dream School Foundation (DSF), has worked with CRY (Child Rights and You) for over eight years. She started DSF with the intention of bettering the lives of ‘underserved’ children through education, along with Sabu Joseph, who has a master’s degree in social work.
Says Maitreyee, “The Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in 1992 put the onus on the government of India to ensure that every child has access to all the rights mentioned. While as a nation, we progressively brought in the Right to Education (RTE) Act which we are still trying hard to implement effectively, this proposed amendment is highly contradictory and regressive. All the efforts to fight child labour over the years are in jeopardy now. One can certainly doubt the government’s intentions as this amendment might lead to large-scale child labour especially in the rural areas under the guise of family enterprises.”
Sabu adds, “The term ‘family enterprise’ could be interpreted to anyone’s advantage. We should not forget that a majority of this sort of work happens in the unorganised sector and ensuring that the child attends school after working is next to impossible. RTE data is also fudged. What kind of development can be expected if the RTE Act and the Child Labour Prohibition Act do not complement each other?”
“The term ‘family enterprise’ though made to sound like a well-defined business is certainly not one in reality. The parents themselves are a small part of the huge supply chain machinery and children from vulnerable socio-economic conditions follow their parents instead of going to school,’’ he adds.
Father George P S, executive director, Bangalore Oniyavara Seva Coota (BOSCO), suspects children of adults who have worked as child labourers will find it tough to walk out of the circle of exploitation.
He says, “It was time to break the chains that stifle children rather than legitimising them. Why bring in an amendment when we know their well-being cannot be regulated?”
Like many activists, he says the Labour Department has ‘zero interest’ in children’s welfare and in many cases, protects employers rather than children.
“We need more good schools for underprivileged children. We need effective helplines to take children off streets and away from forced employment. And do you think the fine of a few thousand rupees imposed on erring employers will deter them?” he asks.
Vasudeva Sharma is Executive Director, Child Rights Trust (CRT), a resource organisation. He was member, Karnataka State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (2009-12) and Chairperson of the Child Welfare Committee (2007-09).
Recipient of the Karnataka State Child Welfare Award and Karnataka Bala Vikasa Academy Award, he offers his perspective: “An amendment that children can be engaged in non-hazardous work in family enterprises is not a sufficient ground to violate the Constitution and the RTE Act. With terms like ‘family enterprise,’ you are just trying to hoodwink the ILO and UN provisions.”
He appreciates children learning family skills alongside exposure to full-time schooling. But an amendment will only lead to the restriction of officials and NGOs and even the courts into not taking any action against either parents or an employer, says he. The label of domestic enterprise may be extended to any work location, as long as a parent is present, he fears.
“A person may say, ‘I am carrying out my family enterprise of construction, agriculture, washing clothes, road construction, tailoring…’ Who is to certify it is dangerous to the child?” he wonders.
In Sivakasi, he says, cracker manufacturing no longer happens in factories. It is sub-contracted to the head of the family, who is an ‘entrepreneur’.
“For him, it is the family business. He literally employs his own children. So it is a family enterprise! The proposed amendment may allow these exploitations, with the labour officers serving as mute spectators. The other repercussion is that a child can be pressured and punished by parents to work for them,” he says.
Pramod Acharya of Prerana, an NGO engaged in helping bright students from poor backgrounds, says over 450 students now benefit from its initiatives.
He also helms SATHI (Society for Assistance to Children in Difficult Situations) that works with children found on railway platforms. He has seen numerous instances of children running away from exploitative situations.
Even at 14, many cannot read or write. Such children need skills to help them in adulthood, but ideally, he says, all children should have access to education.
“Work environments harden children. They subject them to violence and damage them irreparably,” he says.
Most activists agree pushing children into labour is inexplicable in a country where the numbers of unemployed adults are alarming. But it will be some time before they can offer solutions to counter the amendment.