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2 August 2016

Indian government forgets children’s invisible work

Sarah Mount, South Asia Programme Manager, Anti-Slavery International

Child labourer in India

“I fear for my children. What if they become like us, without a house, without food, always desperate.”
– Mother and former bonded labourer, April 2016

Globally, 98 million children from the age of five to seventeen work in agriculture, the majority being unpaid family members, according to the ILO. Agriculture is one of the most dangerous sectors in the world, with high numbers of work-related fatalities, non-fatal accidents and occupational diseases. In relation to children working in this sector, the ILO note that there is a difference between light work outside of school hours that doesn’t harm children, and activities that are hazardous and impact on children’s health and education.

Whilst we recognise this distinction as well, the new Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, recently passed by the Parliament of India, creates a big risk that children under 14 years of age will end up working in hazardous or harmful work that negatively affects their education and health – in both agriculture and other sectors.

The new Bill begins by prohibiting the employment of children under 14 years of age in all occupations, a great step forward, but then carries on to exempt children that help their family or work in family enterprises after school hours.  Whilst the amended bill defines family and family enterprises, there is still significant concern among activists that these definitions are not robust enough. Crucially, the exemption clause seems extremely difficult for the government to monitor – how will they check to see that children are only helping with light work, or working in non-hazardous family enterprises after school hours? Children could easily be enlisted to work to help their family in sectors that are harmful to them, or for distant family members or people posing as family members. 

The BBC reported that one factory owner is delighted that he can now employ children under 14 years of age, who he will pay significantly less money to. He was not concerned about the provision that they must work for a family enterprise, implying that he could easily subvert this - "How long does it take to acquire a family?… It's not a big problem."

The Bill could have significant negative consequences, particularly for children from disadvantaged communities, who may be under pressure to return from school early, or to not attend at all, in order to help their families at work.  The communities who we work with are often caught up in slavery because of entrenched poverty, discrimination and social exclusion. With this exemption, it is likely that children from poor, low-caste and minority communities will be the ones whose education suffers – continuing the cycle of poverty, discrimination, exploitation and slavery.

Children may also end up working with the family in home-based work, including the stitching and beading work in the garment and sports equipment that is exported across the world. In agriculture, brick kilns and home-based work, often families are paid per piece/weight, creating an incentive for children to work to generate more pieces and therefore income.  The bill also reduces the number of industries considered to be hazardous, failing to comply with ILO Convention 138.

To limit potential negative consequences of the Bill, a well-resourced system of oversight needs to be in place that works with other pieces of legislation such as the anti-trafficking bill currently being developed, the Juvenile Justice Act and the labour laws. In particular, ensuring a robust labour inspection scheme which is properly implemented by labour officials is critical. Unfortunately, at the moment, such systems are not implemented. Our partners often struggle to get the authorities to inspect a worksite, even though we work in sectors where trafficking, forced labour and child labour are widespread. 

The Indian government has missed a key opportunity to comprehensively tackle child labour and exploitation. We hope that, in the future, it will reconsider this law and close the loopholes that exist – thereby ensuring education and health of children is prioritised.

Follow Sarah on twitter: @sarah_mount

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