There are 1.01 crore children between the ages of 5-14 being made to work as child labourers in India, as per Government of India’s Children In India 2018 report based on Census 2011 data. The ILO 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. In its most extreme forms, child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets of large cities—often at a very early age.”
Instead of being in school or at play or other constructive activities, what are these children being condemned to do? They are put to work on a range of activities that span repetitive low-skill work that doesn’t aid development for future employment opportunities, they are forced to be exposed to conditions devastating to health and safety in the agriculture, industry and service sectors.
The work involves long hours on a bewildering range of tasks such as transferring pollen in cotton plants, picking the crop with their bare hands, indentured on tea or tobacco plantations and brick making factories and construction sites; being sent down dangerous mines for extracting gold and diamonds, or confined to cramped workshops for cutting and polishing gemstones; working at slaughter houses and tanneries with minimal protection or under life-threatening conditions at fireworks factories.
Children are very commonly employed in the murky underbelly of the fashion industry in yarn and spinning mills, and garment factory sweatshops, put to work from handling silkworms in scalding water to doing painstaking embellishment work. They are on the streets picking rags—carrying an entire recycling industry on their shoulders, or in homes doing domestic work either as employees of others or in the case of girls in their own homes where they are treated as free labour and not considered as deserving of education as their brothers.
The worst of all are the human trafficking situations of modern day slavery that children are thrown into, facing horrific abuse and lifelong trauma as bonded labourers or sold into sexual exploitation. Alongside the physical implications of this work, can we even begin to imagine the mental health consequences for these children and adolescents forced into labour?
Some of the primary reasons for the continuing exploitation of children for labour are poverty, adult illiteracy and lack of awareness, lack of access to meaningful education, family indebtedness, cultural factors, gender discrimination, migration (due to conflict or natural disasters etc.), and criminal enterprise. Several factors determine the type of work children are made to do: age, caste, gender and level of economic deprivation.
Education is the key to lifting children out of poverty, however education is the very first opportunity that gets taken away as they are forced to work to support families, sentencing them to remain in the vicious cycle of economic deprivation. Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim children are hit the hardest, given Indian society’s extreme prejudices towards these communities historically. Dalit girls are the worst affected (UNICEF/UNESCO report)—the harassment and abuse they face discourages their school attendance and becomes a strong factor in pushing them towards work instead.
Add to this, weak laws such as the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2016 which allows exemption for children employed in family businesses. A very large percentage of child labourers are from marginalised communities and they end up being employed by their own families for traditional trades and activities. So the law does not work to help such children have an option outside of employment.
India’s track record on child rights as scrutinised at the third Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in 2017 has not been something to be proud of, compared to the earlier two reviews. The number of recommendations given to India have increased, with Child Labour being at the very top of areas receiving heavy criticism from UN member nations. Recommendations included stricter definitions of what constitutes hazardous work, stronger institutional support for protecting children and adolescents from exploitation, and prohibiting child work in family businesses.
The government has increased child protection allocation in the 2018 Budget, however as Kailash Satyarthi, the renowned child rights activist has pointed out, without a concerted budgetary focus on education and tackling child labour, the Sustainable Development Goal to eliminate child labour by 2025 is not reachable. He reiterates that our Constitution guarantees children the right to education, security and freedom and any politician not working towards ensuring these is not fit to be in government.
Indeed simultaneously, any able citizen of the country needs to do their part in keeping the discussion strong and the pressure up on remaining alert and spreading awareness within their communities. In Mr Satyarthi’s words,
“Awareness is the first step of social change. So we have to be aware, and we have to also make others aware. As consumers, we have to be much more responsible. We should ask whether children are enslaved in the supply chains for producing those goods. If we have valid reasons to believe so, then we should have the courage to say no to such goods.”
We are ever so far removed from so much of what we consume today. Tracing the journey of commercial products that feature in any facet of our existence is difficult in this era. The clothes we wear, the sugar in our tea, jewellery we covet made of precious metals and stones, the materials that go into our mobile phones to the houses we live in… we must push ourselves to explore the origins of products, take time to explore the dark truths of exploitation that lie at the root of production.
We must confront ourselves with the thought that these dark truths include the fact that it is invisible children as young as five who fundamentally enable our comforts and privileges. We must be outraged and ashamed at this fact, and we must do our part in furthering the fundamental rights, dignity and protection that every single child deserves.