The state of the country’s child labour
What is child labour?
The International Labour Organization defines child labour as ‘work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development’. This kind of work may be mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children, with its schedule interfering with their ability to attend regular school, or work that affects in any manner their ability to focus or experience a healthy childhood.
Prevalence and predominance
It is no secret that India is home to one of the largest child labour populations in the world — almost 82 lakh children between of 5–14 years, according to Census 2011 data. Predominance of child labour is seen in rural India, where children work to help their parents earn and make ends meet at the expense of going to school and having a proper childhood. Given such prevailing conditions, child rights defenders have been constantly demanding for stricter action against child labour. In recent years, one of the prominent legislations to be passed was The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016
A landmark or loophole-prone legislation?
The central legislation in 2016 made significant changes to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, to ensure that the rights of children are taken care of well, one of these being prohibiting children below the age of 14 years from working in industries. Almost 63 industries, termed as ‘hazardous industries’, were banned from employing children. This was a punishable offence, which could place employers and parents/guardians behind bars for a term not less than six months, with a fine not less than INR 20,000 and up to INR 50,000 or both.
While this should have been welcomed as a positive step towards dignity of life for children, there were quite a few loopholes within this amendment that have been quite worrisome.
The escape clause
While the law prohibits anyone below the age of 14 to be employed in hazardous industries, it allows children to work in ‘family based industries’. This means that children can help their parents with their work, so long as it does not come within the purview of hazardous industries and takes place after school hours or during vacations.
Most people have lauded this as the stepping stone to the development of child laws, but there is a way to exploit this provision as well. Not only home-based work, home-based industries such as bidi making, zari and embroidery work, gem polishing, handloom can seriously exploit the aptitude of children, since the proviso explicitly allows them to do so. The line between family-based and industrial work is immensely blurry, since they are considered to be lineage based vocations, which need to be taken forward to the next generation. This often compels the children to work full-time, when they should rather be in school. While school enrolments are made in name, the children often never see the face of classrooms, engaged in hard work to make ends meet.
The agricultural sector is another field where child labour is rampant. One can argue that the labour here would help the children understand their family-based vocation from a young age. However, agricultural work is often gruelling, and exposes children to high temperatures for long hours, hazardous pesticides and insecticides. The amendment is silent on this matter as well, since agriculture it is not included in the 65 industries, letting children work in an unregulated environment.
A 2015 report mentioned how half a million Indian children are engaged in cottonseed production, used to make cotton garments. They worked 8–12 hours a day, with many of them hailing from poor communities and forced into this labour.
The Report of the Standing Committee on Labour has been quick to point out these ambiguities, highlighting how the amendment has not made an active attempt to find out which industries are seriously hampering child development, but have rather copied from the Factories Act, which was passed in 1984. Also, according to this Act, domestic work is not considered hazardous. This makes adolescents quite vulnerable, especially girls, who could easily be exploited or even sexually abused in the homes of their employers. There may be long working hours, and inadequate nutrition, which may seriously cause a hindrance to their development, both mental and physical. Other odd-jobs such as rag picking, can also cause serious mental and physical developmental issues, which is detrimental to children’s overall development.
The entertainment industry is yet another industry which is not considered ‘hazardous’. This is refuted by experts, however, who see this as a major roadblock to child rights. They fear that children are pushed into the entertainment or sporting world by over enthusiastic parents, regularly exposed to conditions which are not suitable for their ages and may be considered injurious to their overall wellbeing. Most of them are overworked and are under tremendous physical and mental stress. Daily soaps require actors to work for long hours at a stretch, even extending to 12 hours per day. Sadly, these woes are neatly hidden under the guise of glamour of this industry and hence, the labour laws are truly overlooked by the production houses as well as the actors’ parents or legal guardians.
Legislative reforms and strict monitoring are key
It is the need of the hour that these issues be addressed. Children and adolescents alike, have the right to a healthy and adequate life. They should be able to spend the most beautiful part of their life without any hassles or worries, and with no one taking undue advantage of their vulnerability. While certain regulations are in place to protect children, a lot more needs to be done. Additionally, monitoring mechanisms need to be stepped up as the existing ones are quite inadequate and ambiguous, and these loopholes are oftening costing many a childhood.
Eesha Godbole, Maharashtra National Law University, Intern — YUVA