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Child labour crisis: India’s legal challenge

Children employed as domestic workers are often abused physically and sexually, starved, tortured and stripped of their fundamental rights.
Last Updated 26 February 2024, 01:43 IST

Seventy-five years after the constitutional guarantees under Article 24 that prohibit hazardous child labour, and nearly two decades of the Right to Education, children are still denied these fundamental rights. At the last count, there were over 10 million child labourers and 43 million children who were denied the right to an education. 

In the heart of the National Capital Region, thousands of us are consciously oblivious to the plight of these children who face cruelty in homes, on roads, in sweatshops, farms and factories. We walk past them even as the number of child labourers continues to rise. 

Newspapers frequently expose the atrocities and the appalling conditions faced by children employed as domestic workers. They are often abused physically and sexually, starved, tortured and stripped of their fundamental rights. They are trafficked from remote villages to cities and towns to cater to the growing greed of the middle class for cheap labour and products.

Compelled by poverty and vulnerability, parents often supply children to traffickers, but child labour thrives not because of poverty or helplessness but because of the state’s failure to ensure education and social security. Parents have no choice, but only the pressure of poverty that drives them to send their children to traffickers who promise them a life without hunger and suffering.

Besides the supply-side factors that worsen child labour, the demand-side factors that encourage and sustain child labour also need to be addressed. Child labour and child trafficking are both economic crimes that generate illicit money.

Any person who claims to be assisting a child in poverty should be asked three questions: Why have they not employed the child’s parents, guardian or his/her elder siblings? Is the child earning wages as per the Minimum Wage Act? Is the child working for the stipulated eight hours or more?

Children are coerced into labour because they can be exploited easily. The companies that use child labour in their supply chains to increase their profits and the procurer who constantly push for lower prices, along with the weak law enforcement, have made this organised crime more widespread. To eliminate child labour, one must go beyond the legal technicalities and adopt a justice-oriented framework that prosecutes the whole trafficking network and holds the main employers accountable for using child labour in their supply chains.

The government, as the protector of the rights of children as well as the procurer of goods and services, has to lay down a national policy on child labour with zero tolerance towards companies that continue to engage in child labour. At the same time, the state should ensure timely and effective rehabilitation. The Supreme Court’s 1996 order of Rs 20,000 for rehabilitation should be raised to at least Rs 1 lakh. Rural areas, where child trafficking is more common, need more monitoring at village panchayat levels.

The elimination of child labour in all its forms by 2025 is a commitment made by the government under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We have only two years left to fulfil our promise to our children. If we fail, we will condemn the children of this nation and their future generations to a fate of bondage and exploitation.

The country has been witnessing a changing landscape for children in the last three decades, including the criminalisation of child labour and the creation of ecosystems where child labour doesn’t thrive, but the situation continues to be grim. So, we need a radical shift in our perspective and a holistic approach that tackles the root causes of the problem.

Access to education, prevention of trafficking and elimination of child labour are all fundamental rights in India and still, they are not available to millions of children. To ensure that the country does not fail our children anymore, the right to justice itself needs to be seen and recognised as a fundamental right.

To eliminate child labour, we need to ensure that all children have access to education till the age of 18, protect and rescue them from exploitation, rehabilitate them with social and skill-based support, prosecute and convict the employers and traffickers, recover and pay the unpaid wages and penalties, and ban child labour in the government’s supply chains.

(The writer is a Supreme Court lawyer, child rights activist and author of 'When Children Have Children: Tipping Point to End Child Marriage')

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(Published 26 February 2024, 01:43 IST)

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