Sending them back to work

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Photo: Vijay Pandey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

The new amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012 state that the ban on child labour will not extend to those children who work with their parents in fields, forests and households after school hours or during vacations. The amended Act will further extend to the entertainment and sports industries, barring the circus, and also to family enterprises that are non-hazardous.

Certain ‘safeguards’ have been put in place in the form of stricter punishment to ensure that violations do not take place. For parents who employ a child in contravention of the Act, the first offence is excusable but the second offence would invite a penalty by way of a fine which may extend to Rs 10,000. For other employers who engage a child in contravention of the Act, the first offence is punishable with imprisonment of at least six months, extendable to two years or with a fine of at least Rs 20,000 extendable to Rs 50,000 or both. The second or subsequent offence will be punishable with imprisonment of at least one year which could be extended to three years.

In 2012, the Act had been amended by the upa government to ban child labour in all industries, instead of the 18 mentioned in the original Child Labour Act (1986). It stressed on the term ‘adolescent’ to include children between 14-18 years who could work in industries apart from the hazardous ones. The punishment under this Act was imprisonment of not less than three months, which could extend to a year or with a fine of not less than Rs 10,000, which could extend to Rs 20,000.

Prior to that, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) recorded the percentage of child labourers in the year 2009-2010 to be 35.62 in Uttarakhand, 11.07 in West Bengal, 8.14 in Rajasthan, 7.84 in Gujarat and 5.55 in Bihar. The new amendments are in direct contradiction to the Right to Education Act and could prove to be even more detrimental to the number of children last reported to be under employment (4.3 million as per the 2011 Census).

India was reported to have a child population (between 0-6 years of age) of 163 million in 2011 of which 26 per thousand males and 18 per thousand females are employed as child labourers. Simultaneously, Article 24 of the Constitution provides the right to equal opportunities to every Indian, which nullifies the very premise of child labour being legalised in the country. In this troubling state of affairs, Shamshad Khan, founder secretary of Centre for Rural Education and Development Action (CREDA), remarks, “Even though the amendments refer to household work, it will increase the problem of child labour in the country, creating an army of child labourers.”

The amendment will also fly in the face of the previous Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign. Girls will be increasingly pushed into the shadow of household work and pulled out of school, never mind the already alarmingly low level of female literacy in the country. Khan says, “The girl child will be made to get more and more involved in domestic work and school will again become a far-fetched notion, putting them in the background of our social heap in the form of unorganised labour.”

The new amendments facilitate the employment of children in two ambiguously defined areas; the ‘sports industry’ and ‘family enterprises.’ According to a case study of the football stitching industry in Meerut and Jalandhar by International Labour Organisation (ILO) in 2008, 27 percent of the total population of children in four villages of Meerut were involved in labour for the industry on a full-time basis. Of the 27 percent, two-thirds were girls, mirroring the structural biases against girls in these situations. Neither is this industry free from hazards. The issues include: puncturing of the children’s fingers by sharp needles, cuts from waxed silk threads used to stitch the material and dim lighting leading to “inevitable damage to the sight brought on by the long hours of arduous squinting.”

Dispelling the myth that ‘family enterprises’ are safer for children to be employed in, Khan explains, “Many hazardous industries come under family enterprises such as the carpet-weaving industry and the zari making industry.” The carpet-weaving industry incorporates toxins from dye pigments such as Bacillus anthracis and chromate chemicals, giving rise to contact dermatitis (itchy skin). There is a large exposure to cotton dust resulting in children developing acute respiratory diseases. With most of these domestic industries come long hours of sitting in awkward positions while working, which causes chronic carpal-tunnel syndrome (a painful nerve disorder) and pain in the shoulder, back and neck.

Glass works is another hazardous field clubbed under family enterprises. Documentary film director Meera Dewan states, “The glass factories in Ferozabad are outsourcing their work to villages. In village sheds, fathers and children sit and work without basic safety provisions. The factory owners are bereft of any sense of accountability. Even if the children have burn injuries, they are not provided minimal first aid. Upon being asked about their burn marks, the children say that they bring their own ‘Colgate’ for burn injuries as toothpaste is a cooling agent.” On the associated health risks that come with the job, she adds, “The process by which the children make the bangles is called ‘judaai’. It leads to the inhaling of toxic fumes that cause them harm while their adult parents sit at home, unemployed.”

As per a 2001 report by the ILO, beedi-rolling too poses health threats for women and children working with it. They suffer from constant dizziness from being exposed to tobacco dust. Anaemia, menstrual problems (excessive bleeding, irregularity and pains) and respiratory diseases like bronchitis and asthma are some common side-effects. Even though hazardous work, as a category, has been excluded from the new amendments, industries like beedi-rolling and cracker manufacturing have been almost entirely dependent on children. It remains to be seen how much of this reality can be changed by the new law.

“So are my locks and carpets going to be made by children?” asks Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, co-director of HAQ: Centre for Child Rights. Union Labour Minister Bandaru Dattatreya justifies the inclusion of children in family enterprises but Thukral contends that “the social and cultural fabric of India has always been singularly forced on the backs of women and children”. On one hand the Modi government has been trumpeting the “Make in India” campaign by rapidly opening inroads for public-private partnerships and on the other, Thukral points out, “economic gain is being made the responsibility of children when they should be allowed space for all-round developmental growth.”

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