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Child labour perpetuates illiteracy, poverty and corruption

Kailash Satyarthi, Sept 26, 2012 22:45 IST

The clearance on the long awaited amendments in the child labour law of 1986 has ignited a debate which had almost extinguished a decade ago when more than 7 million children joined the Global March Against Child Labour.

There are two schools of thought pitched against each other. One advocates for right to work for children, while the other demands total abolition of child labour. The theory of right to work has been advanced essentially by some European professors and supported by a few activist groups in Peru, Senegal and India. Their argument stems from the poverty syndrome, lack of education facilities and the inability of enforcement of blanket ban on child labour.

At the outset, I would like to state that I have confronted such people at various occasions and have found that their own children have been enjoying best education opportunities, whereas the argument of socialisation, self esteem building and empowerment through “respect and dignity in work” has often been used in case of children belonging to the poor for the sake of convenience. Rules of the game cannot change that drastically across different sections of the society.

Similar arguments were also used by the presently rich nations about a century ago, but they exemplified a strong political will to eliminate child labour and invest in education. This has also been evident in the case of fast growing economies and changing societies like South Korea, China, Turkey, Brazil and India where education is pivotal.

Historically, child labour has been an age old evil rooted in social injustice, economic deprivation, inequity and exploitation of the weak by the powerful. This societal mindset coupled up with insatiable demand for cheap and docile labour further aggravated by insensitivity, corruption and lack of vision of the political class virtually paralyses law and constitutional guarantees. If the unenforceability argument were to be believed for once, no progressive change in the society by law would have ever been possible. Law enforcement is the responsibility of the state and the society that are predominantly driven by adults. Then why should vulnerable children pay the price for others’ inertness?

Union cabinet’s decision is undoubtedly a progressive step to align child labour law with federal laws like Juvenile Justice Act and Right to Education Act and live up to the International commitments that cannot be ignored in a globalised world. Parliaments of 175 countries have ratified an ILO convention to eradicate worst forms of child labour up to the age of 18, whereas 163 countries have ratified yet another convention prohibiting any kind of employment up to at least 14 years.

Decision based on facts

These conscious decisions by the international community and states have not been taken in a jiffy by being overtly idealistic, but are based on facts and rationales. It is now a proven axiom that child labour causes poverty and unemployment perpetuating illiteracy and backwardness.

About 215 million children are engaged as child labourers whereas 200 million adults the world over are without jobs. India as a case in point has 65 million jobless adults and correspondingly almost 60 million child labourers according to NGO estimates. Ironically most of the unemployed adults are parents of these very child labourers.

Additionally adult workers lose their power to collectively bargain for decent wages owing to easy availability of inexpensive labour in children who are preferred by the employers. According to a recent research conducted by Unesco and World Bank, a single year of primary school increases the wages people earn later in life by 5-15 per cent for boys and even more for girls. For each additional year of secondary school, an individual’s wages increase by 15-25 per cent. No country has ever achieved continuous and rapid economic growth without first having 40 per cent of its adults able to read and write.

Child labour is the biggest impediment in school enrolment, retention and attainment of quality education. In the present era of globalisation that thrives on information and technology, the notion of education has undergone a complete change over the last 25 years. Earlier the rhetoric was ‘Education for Employment”.’Today it stands revised to ‘Education for Empowerment.’

Notably children, in particular the poor ones are not responsible for poverty, but they surely are victims. Therefore any poverty argument will further victimise and alienate them from future prospects of a dignified life unlike other children.

Another largely ignored factor is the correlation between black money, corruption and child labour. Six crore child labourers in India cumulatively earn Rs 90 crore every day at the rate of Rs 15 per child labourer per day. While the same number of adults would earn Rs 690 crore based on the floor wage rate of Rs 115 per day. This is the amount that reflects in fudged books of account of the employers. Clearly the employers generate Rs 600 crore of black money every day, which in turn fuels systemic corruption and further perpetuates child labour, poverty and illiteracy.

Eradication of child labour is possible and within our reach, only if state, corporate entities and society dispose their responsibilities and respect the constitutional and universal rights of the children. States must demonstrate leadership by creating effective accountability framework, devising comprehensive and convergent policies (particularly for meaningful education) substantiated with adequate resources. Corporate sector must ensure ethically clean and child labour free value and supply chains. Finally, the society as a whole must be honest in treating all children equally, irrespective of their social and financial backgrounds.

(The writer is the founder of Bachpan Bachao Andolan)

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