Belabouring Over Child Labour
By Farzana Versey
October 13, 2006
The Indian government's recent announcement banning the employment of children as domestic servants and workers in roadside eateries, restaurants, teashops starts with a problem. The age limit is below 14 years. And its figures are 80 per cent off the mark – the verdict talks about 20 million children whereas the number is close to a 100 million.
Child labour is an inevitability. It sounds awfully romantic to shed tears over this fact, but then we forget that if they were not rolling beedis or knotting carpets or serving food, they would be out in the streets robbing, soliciting or even begging. The last ought to be taken into special account because there is a large mafia that maims children for them to qualify as prized beggars.
Often children work on their own in these unorganised sectors before they 'graduate' to working for employers. This is where a defined exploitation comes in.
Gerard Oonk, spokesperson of the international campaign 'Stop Child Labour – School is the best place to work', that India is affiliated to, has commented on the recent ban: "This is a very important step in the fight against child labour. Hopefully the Indian government will combine it with sound rehabilitation programmes, as many children are traumatized, and with programmes to get them into regular schools, either directly or through special bridge programmes."
This is naïve and hands over responsibility to an establishment that in the past took action only because the United States refused to buy our carpets. A follow-up action is a utopian dream. In our armchair cogitations, we completely forget the person at the centre of this: the child.
I have met a number of children working in private establishments in the tanneries at Dharavi, in shops, doing arduous work, and they all felt work was the only way out. Mubarak who left a job washing dishes at a small restaurant now works in a factory making flash doors and at the very suggestion of banning child labour he had smirked, "What's wrong with working anyway? It is better than being in the streets. If you ask me I am willing to work anywhere, do anything as long as I make money. I have to survive in this city."
Together with child labour are connected the issues of other remedial actions, for many of them are immigrants. The pavement becomes the child's home. In Brazil they used to kill street children; in India it is a case of slow poisoning – hafta, drug peddling, pimping, prostitution and the inhumanity which robs them of innocence.
The present ban that has been imposed under the Child labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 mentions frequent physical violence, psychological traumas and "at some times" sexual abuse. Long working hours are mentioned, too.
Who is going to ensure that there will not be night shift, that there will be a one-hour rest period in the stipulated six-hour day, and that the employer would maintain a muster roll? Isn't the employer the exploiter? Aren't the parents conniving due to financial compulsions?
Children themselves are powerless. Sanctifying child labour with all the provisions will not take away the bondage factor, just as abolishing it on paper is not going to end its practice. Several years ago a Bill was tabled in the Upper House making provisions for minimum legal protection: "Any person can file a complaint before the courts," it said in all earnestness.
Who would go around scouting in factories, make-shift hovels and homes to find beleaguered children who would bare their souls? Moreover, who would take the case to court? Would the parents, themselves ignorant, helpless and a party to the deal, fight against an employer who is their mai-baap? Or does the law think that work experience has made the child so mature that s/he could hire a lawyer and make the employer a respondent?
Let us extend the parameters a bit. Remember all those children immortalised in Mira Nair's film 'Salaam Bombay'? They were back to where they belonged, where they were meant to belong. In the gush of authenticity it was forgotten that the raw emotions they exposed for the camera would stay with them. They too were exploited.
Or take the reality shows on television, be it a fun programme or a serious music contest. Children look and perform like adults and are made to wear outlandish and vulgar clothes. It isn't their education that counts, but how well they can manipulate the audience to send SMS votes that seems to matter.
Parents themselves exploit these kids by pushing them in directions they had wanted to go but couldn't. Under the garb of promoting their untapped talent, they display them as their property, emotionally blackmailing them all the time.
Employers are only one of the categories of exploiters.