Legitimizing Child Labour

“The worst thief is he who steals the playtime of children.

- Bill Haywood, Leader of the Industrial Workers of the World Union in the US

In India, it is those who claim to protect children who are stealing their playtime! The PM who claims to have been a tea-seller as a child, is the one legitimizing child labour today, making a mockery of the fact that an Indian recently won the Nobel for taking up the cause of freeing children from child labour.

The existing law in India, shamefully, only prohibits children below the age of 14 from being employed in ‘hazardous occupations.’ The UPA Government had proposed amendments to the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, 1986, seeking to ban all child work until the age of 14 years, and to prohibit children between the ages 14 and 18 from employment in hazardous employment. Note that even the UPA Government did not propose what child rights activists have been demanding: which is a complete ban on all child work.

The amendments approved by the Modi Government prohibit children between 14-18 from employment in hazardous occupations, while allowing children below 14 to be employed in ‘non-hazardous’ work in ‘family or family enterprises’.

The argument given by the Government to legitimize child labour is that the ‘social fabric’ of the country would be damaged if child labour in ‘family’ work is banned. ‘Social fabric’ here is a common Sangh Parivar euphemism for caste hierarchy and caste-based division of labour. This is made clear by the Government official who told Harsh Mander, “What is wrong with this? Should not the son of a lohar or ironsmith, learn to be an ironsmith, or of a weaver to be a weaver?” (Harsh Mander, Why the children of the poor must not be allowed to work in family enterprises,, May 16, 2015)

While the pleas of several child rights’, human rights’ and educational rights’ activists to ensure free school education from birth till Class XII continues to fall on deaf ears, it is extremely shameful that those who cannot guarantee children free quality education have no qualms in forcing them out of the school system by legitimizing child labour.

Some might question the use of the term ‘forcing out of school system’ since the change in law only allows the children below the age of 14 to work ‘after school hours’. As a researcher who has worked in the area of primary education in rural and tribal regions of India, I have often found in classrooms that the enrolment figures fail to be reflected in the number of students present in the class. It is not uncommon to find children enrolled in schools, staying back at home to take care of younger siblings or accompanying parents to fields or more frequently village markets for assistance.

If education is free till 14 years of age and children cannot be legally employed until then, parents and children still get some time to see a promise in what education has to offer. If the law allows children to be employed below the age of 14, the very fact that children may have gained some skills by the age of 14 after which education is no longer free, compounded by the cost of education (in addition to the perceived opportunity cost of education[1]) is more likely to encourage parents to force their children to discontinue schooling after the age of 14.

Does the ban on child labour in ‘hazardous’ occupations offer any protection to children? Unfortunately not, since ‘hazardous’ remains extremely narrowly defined. Are we indeed happy to see little children working on handlooms and at family owned tea stalls and as assistant helpers to working class parents, as long as their bodies remain ridden of external marks of injuries or burns? What of the hazard this change poses to their own future, their dreams of mobility and their desire to carve out a destiny for themselves different from that of their families?

Note :
 Opportunity cost of education refers to the money or the wages a child might have earned if he/she was not to go to school and be employed elsewhere, but now has to forego because he/she chooses to be in school at that time.

The class bias too could not have been any less subtle. Therefore, as the children of the ‘privileged’ can gladly spend their holidays and post school hours travelling, reading fiction, watching theatre, playing and honing several other self chosen skills, it is the children of the ‘unprivileged’ who must resign to a lifetime of all work (chosen by the fact of their birth) without a moment for themselves to do things of their own choice.

In case of children, the cultural notions of absolute submission to adult authority can further help to avoid even the possibility of confrontations over work hours or even wage pay. If children are working for their own parents or at their family vocations, who pays the wages or in fact who receives the wages for them? In one master stroke, the government seemed to have ‘freed for itself’ submissive and unquestioning labour force that can even be denied wages on the pretext of helping family and in the process. This also does away with the need for employing outside labour that would have to be paid wages and that would demand better work conditions without feeling constrained by any notions of familial obligation. It must be remembered here that employers often falsely claim ‘family’ connections with the child in order to evade the law.

It is not the first time that the BJP-led NDA government has cited ‘social fabric’ and family values to override concerns pertaining to human rights. Earlier last month, its Minister of State for Home cited the same in order to justify the refusal to recognise marital rape in the rape law. The BJP’s manifesto had proclaimed that it sees ‘Industry’ as ‘Family’; this implies that the patriarchal and caste hierarchies of the family will provide the model for labour-employer relations in industries.

Such casteist and patriarchal justifications form the very edifice of Modi’s ‘Make in India’ slogan. The government is inviting foreign corporate to come ‘make profits in India’ as it exploits notions of cohesive and sacrosanct family structures in order to ensure cheap, docile labour robbed of rights.

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