By Abhishek Jha:
The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 was a major step in the direction of ending child labour. However, there were problems in implementation of the act as it did not “apply to any workshop wherein any process is carried on by the occupier with the aid of his family“. This loophole allowed children to be absorbed in the work force of family run businesses.
Last month Bandaru Dattatreya, Minister of Labour and Employment, announced that the government might amend the law. One had hoped that this would plug the loophole. And why did one hope so? Because the earlier law was framed in an India perhaps not too keen on prohibiting child labour or giving them an education, the Right To Education Act only being passed as recently as 2009. But after that, one has seen that a lot of effort has been put in making children go to school and not to work, mid-day meals being one such example. Instead of working all day in a field to earn their meal, children had the incentive to come to school where they would get a meal for free. Some states even gave bicycles to girls to stop them from dropping out.
From the nature of these policies, one can see that the effort was to make those living at subsistence levels, who were either forced or even willingly put their children to work, to understand the benefit of keeping children away from it. But, as one might deduce, the conflict of RTE with the Child Labour Act would mean that children could still be put to work.
The Loophole In The Loophole
However, a caveat still landed in the amendment, which allows children to help their family after school hours or in “fields, home-based work, forest gathering” etc. And this amendment has now been approved by the Cabinet. The ministry had explained to the Standing Committee On Labour that “It cannot be denied that a large percentage of India’s population is working in the agriculture sector, and most of the children in agriculture are working with their families on family farms. The issue of prohibiting the children from working on their farms would, therefore, be a complex and delicate issue. Further there are many artisan families where traditional family skills are passed on from older generation to their progeny in their early age, and this helps them in their overall development and earning livelihood later in their lives.” Reports claim that a government official went so far as to say that they “want to encourage learning work at home as it leads to entrepreneurship.”
One conclusion that can be drawn from the reasons offered is that those who framed the Bill are either plain stupid or were inattentive while framing the law, which appears slightly unlikely as they took the extra trouble of replacing the previous clause, which explicitly allowed a “workshop” run by the family of the children to employ them, with a new one. One does not need to be an expert to know that it would still cause the same failure in implementation as before. It cannot be easily determined whether children are helping their family, or working towards the family’s income. The Standing Committee report explained this clearly to our legislators. It further advised that “allowing children to work after school is detrimental to their health as rest and recreation is important for fullest physical and mental development in the formative years besides adversely affecting their studies.”
The “entrepreneurship” argument is even more beyond comprehension. In case the officials didn’t know what law is being talked about, “labour” is (last time we checked) mostly physical work done to produce goods. A labourer can hardly do anything innovative when he is handed a sickle. Even if the said official meant that he is going to give money to children for an enterprise, say for altering the Mumbai skyline to make it look a bit more aesthetic, the children would need to go to school to learn to add, subtract, and multiply numbers.
Advice On Deaf Ears
In light of the expert advice that the government had, the approval by the cabinet shows cunning and obstinacy. It is hard to understand why children cannot learn the crafts of their forefathers after they have completed school, even if it is mandated by social norms that children learn these crafts from their parents and even if this is “a complex and delicate issue“. In fact, the government had received an even better proposition. Since the RTE Act provides that children be able to complete elementary education even after the completion of their fourteenth year, the Standing Committee suggested that the ideal definition of child in the Child Labour Act allow for this provision of RTE. The report also explains that the International Labour Organisation’s Minimum Age Convention, 1973 requires that “the minimum age for admission to employment or work shall not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling.”
It is very clear that the government wants to preserve a workforce that it does not have to give adequate pay to, and a workforce that cannot demand anything because it is going to be invisible. All industries that are run as family enterprises can use labour that simply doesn’t exist because those children are only “helping their family“. Costs of production will remain low (profits therefore high) and ministers can pose for photographs with graphs of growth, illusions of a shining India, and the inevitable “acche din“. Perhaps when the Bill is taken up for discussion, the government’s answer- as to every other thing- would be to point out how they have improved on the previous Bill. It would be foolishness to accept this ‘whataboutism’. No government should get away with such a law. There are already problems that people working for the rights of children face, and a lot of those problems have to do with the implementation of laws. Let us not compound their problem by allowing the law itself to play dice.