Three years ago I wrote about Atif, a child rag picker in Ambujwadi, Malwani, Mumbai. He was one of many children in the community denied a nourishing and safe childhood, forced to work from a young age. I highlighted how challenging it was to work with children such as Atif, and why we need an integrated approach to tackle this complex problem which is focused on ‘quality and sustainable education, healthcare, adequate living conditions, among other essential social indicators.’
Three years hence, on World Day Against Child Labour 2021, the challenges staring us in the face have only grown in many days. During the pandemic, the incidence of child labour and child marriage have only gone up, with more girls driven into child marriage and boys pushed into child labour as a gendered response, especially in urban and rural poor communities. More children have dropped out of schools, with families being unable to afford school fees and other constraints.
A recent joint publication by UNICEF and ILO, ‘Child Labour: Global Estimates 2020’ states that global progress on child labour has stagnated since 2016, and in fact, around 8 million more children have been pushed into labour as of 2020. In India, the increase in child labour can be attributed to multiple factors. The lack of implementation of the current child labour law, gaps in inter-agency coordination, and the absence of disaggregated data pertaining to child labour has made it very difficult to prevent and it, only leading to further perpetuation. But this needs to stop and a systemic and multi-stakeholder approach to eliminating child labour needs to be adopted!
The United Nations has declared 2021 as the year for the Elimination of Child labour. In keeping with this global call to Action, the National Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) launched the “Shram Nahi, Shiksha” campaign on 30 April 2022. As the State Convener of CACL Maharashtra, I am happy to share some of our recent state level efforts in this regard.
On 28 May, we held a Maharashtra state-level consultation with children engaged in work, formerly in work or at the risk of child labour, so that they could present their demands before State officials. 9 children who have been working in different sectors and from various districts of Maharashtra, such as Parbhani, Nashik, Pune, and Mumbai participated in this consultation. They shared their experiences of labour and articulated expectations from the authorities to amend the policies towards total eradication of child labour and to improve implementation of the laws. Most of the participating children were former or existing child labourers in agriculture, brick kilns, vegetable vending, domestic help and waste-picking sectors.
Many children felt compelled to work due to lack of access to online education, often being unable to afford internet/data recharges through the pandemic-induced lockdown. They demanded access to online education, continued schooling and quality education. One child engaged in waste-picking said, ‘We don’t have money to get education in private schools. I have many friends who are also not able to attend online classes as we do not have mobiles and internet access as well as money to recharge phones’. She added, ‘we want continued access to schooling and quality education’.
Children have also been increasingly accompanying their parents for work as a result of no school and no safe space to be at till their parents return from work. A child from Pune said, ‘Earlier I used to go to school from 6 am to 1.30 pm, but now due to the lockdown, school is shut. I accompany my mother during this time for waste picking because I can’t be at home alone; our area is not safe’.
Another child engaged in waste-picking said, ‘When I started accompanying my mother for work, I got away from my studies and got into work’. The children mentioned how once they start going to work, their interest and energy to study rapidly depletes. ‘I know how important it is to study. I advise all children to study. A didi from an NGO approached me and asked me why I’m not studying and told me that you must go to school. I started studying with their support and am pursuing my education now’, said another child.
The Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Action Amendment Act, 2016, allows for work in family enterprises provided the child goes to school but doesn’t mention any duration of work hours. One child from Mumbai who has experienced the increased burden of household chores said, ‘The burden of household chores has increased on girls. There is no time or energy left to study, play or rest. Even if we feel like going to play, our community is not very safe and so we avoid going’. Work done at home, particularly by girls, often goes unnoticed by the law and doesn’t even fall under the purview of child labour. But it definitely is, if it violates the child’s basic rights to education, rest and play, as well as safety and wellbeing.
Moreover, there are children who are even working in ‘hazardous occupations’ such as brick kilns. They work to support their families and many times also because their parents are out of work. Thus the children demanded for government welfare schemes to be effectively implemented and to reach their households. They also demanded that their parents have jobs so that they would not have to work.
Another demand that came from the children was that the sale of alcohol should be stopped as addiction causes parents (more often fathers) to stop going to work. One child expressed her concern saying, ‘My father is addicted to alcohol. As a result, my mother has to slog alone. To support her, I and my younger sibling go for domestic work and also to sell vegetables. Sale of alcohol should be stopped. Then he will go to work and we won’t have to work’. This will also result in a safe environment at home, she added.
To combat all these issues and also prevent the conditions that increase the incidence of child labour, the children demanded for Bal Panchayats and community centres at every village and ward level and also active CHILDLINE services for child protection. One of the children belonging to a children’s collective Bal Adhikar Sangharsh Sangathan shared the role that they as children play to tackle child labour in their community, including street play performances to increases awareness, referring cases of children in need to CHILDLINE and running campaigns in their community to ensure that all children are in school.
The children raised the following demands:
- Close down the sale of liquor so that we have a safe environment at home
- Initiate community centres/crèche facilities so that we can make use of this service, access a safe environment and are also able to receive online education
- Enable access to online education through devices, internet and mobile recharges, and financial support to continue education.
- Encourage the strengthening of child rights upholding bodies at the local levels, such as Bal Panchayats at every village/community level and schools to take up children’s issues. We need more awareness on the importance of education, especially with parents.
- Provide more job opportunities to parents and ensure that government schemes reach households in need.
Along with children’s demands, Campaign Against Child Labour also placed the following demands to the Government, industry and other stakeholders:
- Retract from the efforts to dilute the labour laws because that can put the families of workers into greater insecurities and further impoverishment, pushing more children into the labour market. The legal age of a Child as per the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) as ratified by India, is any person below the age of 18 years. All work for children upto the age of 18 years is hazardous as it violates child rights
- Abide by the commitments taken while being part of the formulation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. We need to re-strategize and start working towards achieving Target 8.7 which aims to ‘secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms’.
- Provide incentives to employers and investors to rebuild the economy, instead of allowing cheap labour and child labour, which is a counterproductive measure and puts the country on a back step.
- Provide free and compulsory quality education upto the age of 18 years.
- Enhance schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and plan an urban guarantee programme, and work towards better social security for informal workers, so that families are able to mainstream children into formal education.
- Follow and tap data points for migrating families to ensure that children have continued access to education and do not suffer due to migration
- Facilitate easier ways of enrolling children in schools that will automatically prevent potential child labourers.
The State consultation concluded on 28 May with a commitment to come together to tackle child labour with a strong and clear action plan. 99 people from civil society, community groups, children, media persons, government officials, among others, participated on Zoom. Child labour is a complex issue and needs the concerted efforts of diverse stakeholders for its abolition. The diverse stakeholder participation on a common platform helped discuss issues and find tangible solutions to converge our efforts and amplify our impact to uproot child labour in every form.
In addition to the state consultation, we organised a state-level webinar as CACL Maharashtra, inviting different stakeholders such as children, SCERT and Education Department officials, Labour Department officials, Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce representatives, former IAS and Principal Secretary of Women and Child Development Department, civil society representatives and CACL network representatives. We made a joint commitment to work together and play each of our roles as key stakeholders in a more convergent manner to end child labour and ensure child rights for every child, addressing the structural issues and also tackling the apathy of society towards child labourers and initiating action. Around 265 people participated in the webinar on Zoom and via Facebook.
Through collective efforts at the state level, we are taking ahead these demands at the national level, and we look forward to engaging with diverse stakeholders for the complete abolition of child labour. On 12th June, today, we come together as 15 states, committing to present the demands of children and co-create joint solutions to tackle child labour and uproot it completely.
About Campaign Against Child Labour
Campaign Against Child Labour (CACL) is a network of NGOs established in 1992 to combat child labour at the state and national levels. The network lays emphasis on ending child labour in all its forms and on free and compulsory education for children. Over the decades, the work of the network has included awareness-building, advocacy and research, and rescue and rehabilitation of children engaged in child labour. It brings together civil society organizations, state mechanisms, private sector players, academia, the media, community, citizens, and children to address child rights violations with innovative solutions.