Blanket ban on child labour will hit right to livelihood

Blanket ban on child labour will hit right to livelihood

The Union cabinet has approved an amendment to the existing Act to enforce a blanket ban on the employment of children below 14 years in all occupations and processes, hazardous and non-hazardous.

Now the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 permits children under the age of 14 to work in non-hazardous sectors. This new amendment would mean that they can do no work at all! Since 1986 India has been unable to enforce the existing ban and child labourers (5 to 14) have increased from 111 million in 1951 to 126 million in 2012. This new amendment will be even more difficult to enforce and will further push children into more invisible, unmonitored and therefore hazardous situations.

In contrast, ‘summer jobs for kids’ are widely advocated in the west by more than three hundred websites that promote the advantages of work for children as young as five.

Kathy Peel, ‘America’s Family Manager’ offers smart solutions for a ‘Happy and Organised Home’. She says “From the time our boys were 9 and 5, they had to earn and save money for big purchases and summer camp. They sold flower-bulbs and swept driveways. As they grew they did odd jobs and ran their own businesses, acquiring great experience: They learned to communicate with adults professionally, realised the importance of being responsible, and discovered creative ways to advertise. They also learned to delay gratification, discovered how to make good financial decisions, and acquired an appreciation for what things cost. Finally, they experienced the satisfaction of a job done well.”

In India we are confused and have thrown the baby out with the bath water. The Child Labour Act with all its short comings, was intended to protect children for hazardous work and prevent employers from exploiting children; but it was also supposed to provide children with protected avenues of employment and the possibility to familiarise themselves with the world of commerce. A Draft Bill proposed by the Concerned for Working Children in 1985 went beyond the Act in several respects by proposing a large developmental component that included: integrating work and education both in the formal curriculum so that children be prepared for the world of work (as the law permits children to work above the age of 14 years); the setting up of ‘flexi schools’; that the provisions of the ‘Apprenticeship Act’ be explored, and the safety and educational components of it improved and strengthened.

Regrettably, influenced by the WTO, the ILO’s International Programme for the Eradication of Child Labour (IPEC) and pushed by hardliners in India, strategies have been designed for all children based on generalised examples of children in hazardous and intolerable forms of labour such as the match and firework industry, that account for a very small percentage of the child work force. Progressively the banned list has been expanded and little or nothing has been done about regulating ‘safe’ occupations.  
There is a danger in these generalisations derived from worst case scenarios as it shuts down all avenues of employment – even the safe and developmentally necessary ones. It compels a ‘black and white’ view that precludes a nuanced approach.

Punitive measures

The strategy enunciated by the Child Labour Act and Policy to impose bans and use punitive measures to enforce it is further simplified in the Child Labour Action Plan. The Action Plan targets only the demand side of child labour by penalising parents and employers while paying no attention to the supply side and the causes that push children into the work force, such as poverty, poor quality education, few options for vocational training and the increasing scarcity of good public schools due to closure.

Many children work in order to go to school and take up summer jobs to save up for school books and other necessities. It is common to see young boys and girls working in juice parlours or grocery shops during the holidays. The children feel it gives them experience besides the much needed pocket money. However, in recent years, there have been raids on these establishments and these children have been taken into ‘custody’ and put into institutions or Observation Homes, while the intolerable forms of child labour are allowed to continue.

No child should work in conditions that do not contribute to their normal growth and development. Protecting children from exploitation and providing them access to education is an obligation of the state and the right of every child. However, when this obligation is twisted to criminalise child work and enforcement is through penalising parents and traumatising children it ceases to be a right and turns into coercion.

Law enforcement has never succeeded through compulsion alone and the reason that we have such an abysmal record of implementing the existing Act is because we refuse to recognise the root causes for the supply side of child labour – one of them being poverty.

Work is a positive ethic that should be encouraged. There are many skills to be learnt from work. Minister for women and child development Renuka Choudhary, the one sane voice in the largely obscurantist lobby, believes that a blanket ban denies children the right to a livelihood by preventing them from picking up vital skills passed on by master craftsmen.

We need to remove our blinkers and move away from this ‘black and white’ perspective towards a more educated approach to children and work. Protect children we must, but allowing them to experience safe employment while going to school is also important, especially as our education is so one-dimensional providing literacy at best. Do we want to provide safe opportunities that encourage growth or do we want a stunted generation, virtually unemployable when they are old enough to work, with no entrepreneurship skills?

(The writer is director development, The Concerned for Working Children)