Millions of Children Hard at Work in India

Millions of Children Hard at Work in IndiaMillions of Children Hard at Work in India

International Child Labor Day turns harsh spotlight on India, with the highest number of working children in the world.

Across the globe, more than 150 million children between age five and 14 are involved in child labor, while India is home to the highest number of working children in the world.

On International Day Against Child Labor on Friday, attempts were underway to put a stop to it. In India, more than 28 million children have jobs, according to UNICEF estimates. India’s current child labor law prohibits children under the age of 14 from being employed in hazardous jobs.

However, in May this year, rather than encouraging a complete abolition of child labor in the country, the Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved only amendments to the law, Gayatri Parameswaran and Felix Gaedtke wrote for Al Jazeera.

“We live in a country where it is very normal for a farmer’s son to help the farmer after school hours or for an artisan’s children to learn the craft. So we don’t want this form of work to be penalized as child labor,” a labor ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “That’s why we’ve clearly stated that this form of work won’t be punished. If a person breaks the law, the justice system is there.”

Although cabinet approval does not necessarily mean the bill will pass into law, it has prompted strong reactions in the country.

 Welcome Step

The Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), an NGO headed by 2014 Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi, welcomed approval of the amendment bill.

“Currently, as the law stands, children under the age of 14 are not allowed to work in only 18 occupations and 65 processes that are deemed to be hazardous,” explained Bhuwan Ribhu, an activist and lawyer with the BBA. “This amendment bill allows for all forms of child labor to be prohibited until the age of 14 years.”

Ribhu praised the law as a welcome step and said, “It is welcome because rehabilitation is an integral part of the law. Employment of children has been made a cognizable offence and repeat offence is also a non-bailable offense.”

However, Ribhu added a word of caution. “It is very important for the law to be worded in such a way that it is not open to misuse. There is a difference between children working in families and child labor in family enterprises. And that has not yet been made clear.

“Child labor needs to be defined clearly in the law so that children are not exploited in the name of family-based work.”

A recent UN report said nearly 300 million people still live under poverty in India. For a country with extreme inequalities, an abolitionist approach may not be a practical solution.

But Ribhu pointed out that poverty is perpetuated with the exploitation of children.

“Currently there are about as many unemployed adults in India as there are working children. So these jobs are being taken by children instead of adults in the name of cheap labor.

“Trafficking of children for forced labor has become one of the largest organized crimes in the world and I am afraid that it will continue in the name of family enterprises.”

 Efforts to Save Children

In the 35 years since its establishment, the BBA has rescued more than 83,500 working children from across 18 states in India. Just this week, the organization rescued 26 children from New Delhi and four from Bangalore.

Other organizations working in the field take a different approach to child labor. Nandana Reddy, co-founder of Concerned for Working Children (CWC), challenged the narrative of “saving childhood” that dominates discussions on the issue.

“There are moralists who believe that children have to enjoy this beautiful childhood, this utopian childhood, which doesn’t really exist. We have millions of working children in India. Now you can’t rescue all of them and put them in remand homes. That’s absolutely ridiculous. By putting them into remand homes, you are violating a whole set of rights. This approach has not changed in decades,” Reddy said.

She said she found the amendment to the bill alarming.

“Allowing children to work in family or family-based occupations can be a throwback to the Sivakasi days, where the match and firework industry was all run by family-based enterprises. It’s a way for the industry to use cheap labor and, what we call, invisible hands.”

 Government’s Role

Reddy said the government should provide jobs for children in the formal sector that can be monitored. The Bangalore-based CWC played an instrumental role in setting up Asia’s first working children’s union, called the Bhima Sangha, back in 1990. Twenty-five years later, the Bhima Sangha continues to help working children unionize and fight for their rights.

Sivraju, 13, is a member of Bhima Sangha. He works and attends school in Bangalore. Sivraju’s parents moved here from the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh in search of better job opportunities to help build a new house back in their village.

When Sivraju is not at school, he cleans water tanks and roads in his neighborhood.

“I work because I can make money. I get paid about 200 rupees ($3) for an hour’s work. I give most of the money to my parents. I keep about 30-40 rupees ($0.50) with me and I use it to buy food for my little sister. I like to work because it pays me money and I can give it to my parents,” Sivraju added.

Sivraju, who recently passed the seventh grade exams, wants to be a doctor when he grows up. For Sivraju, Bhima Sangha is an important place to meet other children.

“At the Bhima Sangha, we get to learn about our rights and we also find out about education and other things related to school,” he explained. But, the possibility of a law prohibiting children from working is problematic for Sivraju.

“I need money to buy books and pens and pencils, and to pay my fees. How can I stop working?”