If you have lived in India long enough, you are no stranger to the term child labour. We have seen it in the service industry, in the domestic labour industry, and even in construction. It’s one of those unethical parts of the Indian society that has been normalised, an issue that is common but silenced. Child labour is an unequivocal human rights violation. Being forced into child labour deprives the child of their right to education and right to future opportunities. Most enterprises engaging in child labour have lax health and safety standards, endangering the lives of these children, or promote conditions which could be likened to human slavery.
To understand how harmful it can be, we must first understand what the term truly means. It is not as simple as a child engaged in some labour. Child labour is defined as ‘work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.’ It not only harms children physically, socially and mentally, but also ensures that their education remains incomplete, thereby limiting their future options.
The Reality of Child Labour in India
The last census, eight years ago, stated that 10.1 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 were active in the child labour community. While that only comes to 3.9% of the total child population, it is important to look at disparity across state lines. States like Nagaland, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh have a much higher proportion of children involved in child labour, with Nagaland leading at 13.2%. Although, the percent of children engaged in child labour has fallen from 5% to the current 3.9%, the fact remains that there are still over 10 million children being pushed into child labour in India.
The far north and far south, both seem to be showing the same trend: an increase in non-farm jobs, which mainly refers to the service industry. The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, as amended in 2016, has helped in reducing child labour but the implementation remains uneven across states. Bihar, Punjab and UP have cracked down on child labour and the number of prosecutions across these states for child labour are high. However, states like Rajasthan, West Bengal and Maharashtra haven’t done nearly enough considering their proportions of child labour.
Industries that engage Child Labour
While our census indicates that that there has been a decrease in the incidents of child labour in India, unfortunately, that might not be the case. We must account for the increase in population and that the census is conducted only every 10 years, before holding these numbers to be 100% accurate. There has been a shift in the nature of child labour, which means that cases are not being reported, and there are issues with tracking such cases.
Children are now being employed in home-based sectors: Farming is the most common ‘sector’ for child labour in India (and the world), and ‘manufacturing’ was very popular for non-farm work back in 2001. Currently, child labour in the service industry is on the rise, and more children are being employed in ‘homes’ for domestic work.
Social Issues which foster Child Labour in India
There are various reasons for child labour, the most obvious being poverty. The saddening fact is that child labour is not only a consequence of poverty, but also a cause of it. The reasons listed below, purposefully exclude human trafficking, although we recognise that it is an important tangential issue to child labour. Some of the most prevalent causes for child labour in India are:
- Literacy of parents: When parents are uneducated themselves, they often do not see the value in educating their children and push them into labour so they can ‘contribute’ to the family;
- Lack of awareness: Often, parents are unaware of the hazardous effects of child labour, and do not see the harm in their children going out and earning for the family, disregarding the kind or industry of work their child might be engaged in;
- Family Indebtedness: If a family is indebted within the informal loan sector, to a person or an entity, often their children are bonded into labour to clear the debt. The child has no say in this, and often remains in bonded labour well into his youth;
- Urban Migration: Poverty in rural areas leads to people migrating to urban cities in the search of better opportunities and facilities. When these opportunities do not pan out, children are then sent to earn as much as they can, by doing whatever they can, including begging.
Child Labour and Intersectionality of Issues:
Vulnerable groups: Scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, muslims and OBC children are the most likely groups to be targeted for child labour. Child labour is prevalent in the lower socio-economic class, where the population density is higher but the standard of living is lower and it is difficult to spread the awareness required. Working, however, in the informal sectors, the children don’t have adequate safety protection nor resources to escape the system.
Gender Issues: Studies conducted by International Labour Organisation indicates that 10% of girls are involved in “household chores” for more than 24 hours a week, which is twice the time that male child labourers spend. We are all too familiar with the Indian Patriarchy, and that it affects everyone, even the children involved in child labour. A girl child usually gets involved with domestic, home-based work or agriculture labour. It is difficult to get correct numbers on girls involved in child labour because the nature of their work is so invisible. The situation is further complexed as most girl children who are trafficked from rural and tribal areas in India are forced into sex slavery, which is also child labour and difficult to track. Boys, on the other hand, are forced into wage labour where physical labour is required. This includes construction and the service industry.
This gruelling truth corresponds with data that, in India, girls lag in school attendance. Only 82.7% of 7-14 year old girls are enrolled at school, compared to 88.7% boys. Most lower-income households or rural households do not encourage the education of their girl child, which leads to lost opportunities for the child and a life of labour as the only choice. Equality of opportunity for the girl child is missing in action.
Child labour in India is culturally normalised, because it is cheap and easy to find. The truth is, it is inhumane and hazardous. Children, all children, deserve a happy childhood, a fair education, and a right to life. The more we talk about it, and try to irradiate it, at least on a personal level, the more chances the children of India have of having a normal childhood. This Anti-Child Labour Day, take a walk around your neighbourhood and call out practices that encourage child labour.