In the warren of Sadar Bazaar, a bustling commercial hub in Firozabad, a city in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh, Amina Shaikh, 13, toils at her father’s glass bangles workshop for five hours a day. The routine is unvarying. Back from school, the teenager gobbles up her lunch and then trudges two kilometers to her family workshop. Here, she is tasked with embellishing colorful stones on scores of fragile glass bangles her father crafts each day.
With her back bent for hours, and eyes focused on intricate patterns in a badly ventilated room, the job isn’t easy. Occasionally, when a shard of glass pierces Amina’s slim hands, she blots the garnet drop with a muslin cloth. “There’s no time to pause,” she says dismissively. “When my father gets large orders, there’s no time for anything; not even homework. During festivals, I stop going to school. If I don’t earn, how will the five of us eat?”
While the future of India’s bangles industry may be sparkling, thanks to buoyant exports and a booming online trade, behind the vibrant hues lurks the dark tale of exploitation of millions of kids like Amina who slave for unconscionable merchants and parents. Despite India being Asia’s third largest economy, galloping ahead at a 7 percent-plus growth rate, child labor remains one of the country’s worst-kept secrets. Poor Indian children often continue to bear the burden of earning a livelihood and buttressing family incomes to survive and attain the rudiments of an education.
A 2015 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) puts the number of child workers in India aged 5 to 17 at 5.7 million, out of 168 million globally. Overall, according to Child Relief & You, 33 million Indian children in the age group of 0-18 years are working. Most of these children are engaged in the unorganized and unregulated sector, a disempowered demographic that forms the bulk of the country’s “invisible labor” force. Despite earlier bans on children under 14 working in hazardous industries, hundreds of children continue to toil in factories, even dangerous mines, where entire families are virtually bonded to contractors.
It was precisely to address this social inequity, and human rights infractions, that India recently amended the long-overdue and controversial Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, after 30 years. But the legislation, which is awaiting presidential assent, seems to have created more problems than it seeks to solve thanks to its inherently flawed nature.
Activists object to two particular amendments — permitting children to work for their families and reducing the number of banned professions for adolescents. UNICEF had urged India to exclude the clause on family work from the proposed law, which it felt would protect children from being exploited, trafficked, or dropping out of school due to long hours of work. However, the lawmakers have ignored this critical clause. The new exemption now allows children to work for “family businesses” after school hours and during holidays, which will give legal sanction to their continued exploitation thanks to the omnibus term.
“Under the new Child Labor Act, some forms of child labor may become invisible and the most vulnerable and marginalized children may end up with irregular school attendance, lower levels of learning, and could be forced to drop out of school,” UNICEF India’s Chief of Education Euphrates Gobina said in a statement.
An analysis of census data by CRY reveals that close to 1.4 million child laborers in India in the age group of 7-14 years cannot write their own name. In other words, one in three child laborers in this age group are illiterate.
Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, who helms the non-profit Bachpan Bachao Aandolan (Save the Children Movement), has dubbed the new law as “a missed opportunity” for the country’s children and the lacunae in the bill as “self-defeating.”
“The definition of family and family enterprises is flawed. This bill uses Indian family values to justify economic exploitation of children. It is misleading the society by blurring the lines between learning in a family and working in a family enterprise,” he said in a statement.
A survey carried out by BBA found that as many as 21 percent of child laborers rescued in the capital city of Delhi were working with their families. Satyarthi claims he has gotten thousands of children freed and has come across hundreds of cases “where the masters claimed themselves to be the parents or relatives of the child.”
“Such work,” notes Shantha Sinha, erstwhile head of the National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights notes in an essay, “is a form of hidden exploitation under unregulated labor conditions… Children perforce get trapped in this vicious cycle of oppression and work as farm labor along with the entire family especially during peak seasons at the cost of education.”
The other problem with the bill, experts say, is that it brings down the list of dangerous occupations from the earlier 83 to just three now: mining, inflammable substances, and hazardous processes. “Does this mean that these industries, hitherto considered unsafe and banned from employing children for so long, have suddenly turned safe?” questions Amod Kanth, founder secretary of Prayas, a pan-India non-profit that rehabilitates poor children.
Kanth opines that the new law will actually worsen the situation. By allowing children to work before and after school hours, the bill contravenes their most fundamental right to a childhood and their entitlement to live a life with dignity as guaranteed by the constitution and the the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which India is a signatory.
What has been lauded in the new legislation, though, is stiffer penalties for those employing children, doubling jail terms to two years and increasing fines to $740 from $300. But, as experts have pointed out, stricter punitive action alone is not the panacea to the problem, more so in India where rates of conviction for child labor remain abysmally low thanks to tardy law implementation and an entrenched employer-police nexus.
Most feel economic growth is the only way out for the poorest in society to break free from this Catch-22 situation. “Once families are free of the constraint of subsistence, they will automatically stop sending their children to work rather than school,” says Kanth.
The untrammeled employment of poor children in Indian industries is due largely to abject poverty and deficient social security, explains Dr. Kirit Parekh, an economist. “The growth of urban India, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, privatization of basic services, and the neoliberal economic policies have exacerbated the absorption of children in industries.”
Non-profits report that 40 percent of the labor employed in India’s precious stone cutting sector is children. Their employment in the mining industry in Bellary District in the southern state of Karnataka, in spite of a harsh ban on the same, bears recounting. The entry of multinational corporations without proper mechanisms to hold them accountable for employing underage labor is also an issue. Foreign companies like Gap, Primark, and Monsanto have been known to employ underage children in their supply chain.
The suggestion of a total ban on child labor has also been bandied about. But opinion is overwhelmingly against it given India’s complex family dynamics and sundry stakeholders (parents, siblings, employers, the state). A nuanced and cohesive approach, according to experts, is the way forward. “While bans against child labor are a common policy tool, there is very little empirical evidence validating their effectiveness,” asserts Parikh, “Besides, given the country’s lax policing, it’s tough to catch the perpetrators, who are mostly families themselves.”
As for the new law, it has — in the words of Satyarthi — “failed” India’s children. “It has reinforced the status quo in society by hindering socio-economic mobility of the marginalized and furthers the rigid norms of social hierarchy.”
Neeta Lal, a New Delhi-based journalist and editor, was a nominee for the World Media Summit Awards 2014 & SOPA Awards 2014.