Child family labour debate misinformed

The ongoing debates over the proposed amendments to the Child Labour Act appear to be polemic.

The current uproar and breast-beating over the proposed amendments to the Child Labour Act appear to be misinformed and polemic. An impression is being created that the proposed amendment is removing a ban which currently exists on ‘family child labour’, and is permitting it.

It is being totally obscured that the existing Child Labour Act, a most regressive and pernicious one at that, has been allowing child labour under 14 years even in the most hazardous family enterprises under its Section 3 since 1986.

Section 3 prohibits employment of children in 16 occupations specified in Part A and
65 processes listed in Part B of a Schedule but adds that “...nothing in this section shall apply to any workshop where-in any process is carried on by the occupier with the aid of his family...”

This was the reason that several totally hazardous processes, such as manufacture of matches and fire-works, that were being done in commercial establishments, were shifted in 1986 into private homes where they flourished with the aid of supposed ‘family child labour’, which the government could do nothing about. As far as is known, this is still the continuing situation.

It is being totally lost sight of that the proposed amendment is an improvement on the existing Act as it reportedly allows ‘family child labour’ only in ‘non-hazardous’ sectors. By implication it would ban all hazardous work by children in family enterprises, including beedi-rolling, etc. But these banned hazardous processes need to be explicitly listed in the amendment, as without it, there would be confusion over what is and what is not banned. 

While there is no requirement in the existing Child Labour Act that a child helping the family should do so only after school hours, the proposed amendment allows non-hazardous family work only after school hours. Hence, it is not violating the Right To Education Act as is being falsely argued.

Several experts are arguing that family labour in any commercially productive activity, even if it is non-hazardous and done after or before school hours, should also be banned. But one needs to look into the practicality of enforcing all such abolitions as labour inspectors are not allowed to inspect private homes.
Strict conditions need to be stipulated, however, that any permitted family child labour may be done under the supervision of only the parents or legal guardians of a child. This is necessary to prevent an employer from using this provision to employ child labourers and claim that they are his family members.

Non-hazardous labour
It is significant that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) does not say anything explicitly on child family labour. Even the European Council, a strong protagonist of possibly the best social legislation in the world, does not ban family child labour outright (Article 2 of its Directive 94/33/EC), but allows member states to regulate it, as long as the work is not dangerous or harmful.

It further feels that it is necessary and good for children to help around the house as a part of the socialisation process. Also, the EU is mindful of not passing laws that cannot be strictly enforced as any unenforced law breeds impunity and disrespect for the law.  There may be a lesson for us in this.

Many who are shrilly opposing non-hazardous family child labour saying that it violates a child’s right to education, are speaking with a forked tongue when they also favour parents’ right to say ‘no’ to their out-of-school child being placed in a free residential school to ensure its right to education. It is contradictory that those who set such great store by the rights and wisdom of parents, are not trusting the parents to not exploit their children when it comes to family child labour.

The Child Labour Act of 1986 is the cause that this country is 30 years behind in ridding the country of child labour as it failed to impose even a minimum age for general employment outside the family, as was required by the UNCRC. As per the 1986 Act, even a new-born child can work in any so-called non-hazardous commercial enterprise, and in any hazardous work too carried out by the family.

The proposed amendment sets the long-overdue minimum age of 14 for general employment in all commercial enterprises as per ILO Convention 138. It also raises the age for working in all hazardous commercial enterprises to 18 years, in line with ILO Convention 182.

Despite India’s resistance to build into our laws even the minimum requirements of the UNCRC and poor track-record in achieving them, the over-ambitious laws that are not even a requirement under the UNCRC are demanded, as in the clamour for a ban on non-hazardous family child labour until the age of 18 years, much beyond what even the most developed countries have legislated.

(The writer is Executive Trus-tee of CIVIC, Bengaluru)

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