Child labour: Need to bring in change

Child labour: Need to bring in change

A quarter century after the passage of the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act (CLPRA) in 1986, the Union cabinet has approved long-required amendments to it.  This Act,  drafted and championed by a prominent civil society organisation, succeeded in taking the fight against child labour a quarter century behind.   Thus the Act, while claiming to be based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), contained the totally misinterpreted and damaging provision allowing child labour in supposed ‘non-hazardous’ occupations on the plea that, given the current economic circumstances of families, a child should be allowed to work.

Nowhere does the UNCRC support a child’s ‘right to work’.  UNCRC Article 32(1) requires states to protect children from economic exploitation and any work that is likely to interfere with their education, which should be based on equal opportunity.  The relevant international provision is the ILO Convention No 138 which requires the minimum age for general employment to be 15 years, reducible to 14 in developing countries.  Articles 18(2) and 19 of the UNCRC add the proviso that where parents are unable to provide the rights of children, the state should assist them in performing their child-rearing responsibilities.

Convenient choice

The government however found it convenient to accept the formulations of the civil society organisation and did not incorporate these salutary provisions of the UNCRC into the Act.  Thus in violation of all precepts of a humane society whose first duty would be to look after its children, the CLPRA did not fix a minimum age for employment and ludicrously allowed even a toddler to work and fend for itself.  Even all species of animals feed and care for their young.   

The CLPRA fixed the age of 14 years  only for work in supposedly  ‘hazardous’ occupations,  whose list did not cover even  15 per cent of child labourers.  The occupations where children could work included agriculture and animal husbandry where 85 per cent children were engaged.  So which children did the Act protect?  Later, the ILO through its Convention 182 on the ‘worst forms of child labour’,  fixed the more stringent 18 years as the minimum age for ‘hazardous work’. It is gratifying that, though  a quarter century late, the Cabinet has accepted to bring the CLPRA in line with at least the minimum provisions of international law as prescribed by ILO -  of 14 years as the minimum age for general employment and 18 years for hazardous work.

However, it certainly is desirable for the country to go beyond these minimal provisions under international law and extend the age for compulsory education, and the corresponding age for general employment in a phased manner to 16 (Class X) and 18 (Class XII), as has been done by several progressive countries.  But civil society organisations are claiming that 18 years is the minimum required under international law for completion of compulsory education and for general employment because “the UNCRC defines the child as any person below 18 years”.  Nowhere does the UNCRC say education should be compulsory till 18 years.  The minimum required under Article 28 (a) of UNCRC is to make primary (elementary) education ‘free and compulsory’,  and under Article 28(b) to make secondary education – comprising general and vocational education -  ‘free’ only, but not ‘compulsory’.

The demand that even secondary education should be made compulsory till 18 years needs to be accompanied by a concurrent demand that it should also provide a vocational stream.  One witnesses annually 30-40 per cent children - from all classes and not just the poor - failing the Class X and Class XII exams indicating that their aptitude is for skills and not for academics.

Without the option of a vocational stream during secondary education, millions of these youth would find themselves nowhere in life at age 18, at the end of 12 years of education - unskilled to take up any work and also incapable of pursuing further academic studies.  A vocational stream, in addition to the general,  as part of compulsory secondary education would also alter the current paradoxical situation, where the country has among the largest youth force in the world and yet the greatest dearth of skilled employable workers.

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