India child labour law raises concerns

Posted on July 27, 2016

epa05070383 Indian girls Munia Kumari (front) and Maina Kumari (back) carry sand dust as they work at a brick making field in Hajipur, Bihar state, India, 10 December 2015. Parents from underprivileged society send their child for engaging in a job as a distressed measure due to poor economic conditions. According to the 2011 national census, a total of 4.4 million children in the age group of 5
to 14 years are working, however experts believe that the figures are much higher. EPA/PIYAL ADHIKARY©EPA

India’s parliament has adopted a new child labour law that critics fear will do little to reduce what remains a pervasive phenomenon in the world’s fastest-growing large economy.

The new law ostensibly imposes India’s first general ban on employing children under the age of 14, who previously were restricted only from toiling in industries that are deemed “hazardous”.

    The law, which also provides for tough penalties for violators, is intended to signal India’s official renunciation of its long-held belief in the inevitability of poor children taking up paid jobs to help support their families. 

    But the law has provided for one wide-ranging exception — permitting children under 14 to work in “family-based” enterprises after school hours and during school holidays.

    While policymakers say the provision will allow children to learn valuable “traditional skills” from their elders, activists see this as a loophole that will make the ostensibly broad ban on child labour tough to enforce. 

    The definition of the family included in the law is also expansive — going beyond just the nuclear family of parents, grandparents — to include uncles and aunts, which critics say could leave children vulnerable to economic exploitation by distant relatives, or employers posing as relatives. 

    “This is a regressive step and was not required,” said Bidisha Pillai, advocacy director for Save the Children, a charity. “Our concern is that this is going to be incredibly hard to monitor. You have now given manufacturers the leeway to push more manufacturing out of their factories into homes, and then say: ‘We don’t know what is going on in our supply chain.’ ” 

    The new law also imposes a first-time prohibition on children from 14 to 17 — who previously had few restrictions on their employment — from working in hazardous industries. But critics said the protection this offered teenage workers would be limited as the list of “hazardous industries” was cut from 83 to three, including mining and work with inflammable substances.

    Children of any age, under the garb of family enterprises, can now legally work in brick kilns, slaughter houses, beedi making, glass furnaces and other hazardous labour

    – Kailash Satyarthi, anti-child labour activist

    Kailash Satyarthi, India’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning anti-child labour activist, has described the law as a “missed opportunity to protect our children and generations to come” and vowed to keep up the pressure for tougher laws against child labour.

    “Children of any age, under the garb of family enterprises, can now legally work in brick kilns, slaughter houses, beedi [hand-rolled cigarette] making, glass furnaces and other hazardous labour,” he said in a statement. “Children have been failed again.”

    In a report last year, the International Labour Organisation estimated that at least 5.8m Indian children — ranging in age from 5 to 17 — are employed as wage labourers in various sectors of the Indian economy, while another 6m children work in family trades without pay.

    Other organisations have estimated the number of child labourers, both paid and unpaid, as far higher.

    About half of India’s working children are in agriculture; a quarter toil in manufacturing industries such as garment-making, carpet-weaving, or making bricks and hand-rolled cigarettes; others are in service sectors, such as dishwashers in restaurants.

    Indian policymakers have long resisted a wide-ranging, tough ban on child labour, which they felt would harm impoverished households dependent on their children’s earnings to make ends meet, or artisanal workers where skills are passed from parent to child.

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