The ban of all child labour up to the age of 14 years in the new Child Labour Bill approved by Rajya Sabha is a big step forward. However, it carries a proviso that children will be allowed to support their families in home-based work, in fields and forest gathering, during vacations and after school hours. This provision defeats the purpose of the ban, and amounts to taking one step forward and two steps back.

A lot of India’s industry – manufacturing,food packaging, garment, leather, and several others, function by outsourcing work to home-based units, which do not qualify as factories, are paid based on the number of units produced, are unorganizsd and do not have give their workers any protection. In India, the definition of family is vague – anyone is an uncle, aunt, niece or nephew, and there is no system to monitor or protect children from being abused or exploited.

Behind closed doors

Many of us who work in communities with families are often told by parents, “Woh chacha ke saath kaam sikne chala gaya." The child has gone to learn a skill with his uncle. We know that these are not happy families in cheery sunlit rooms working together to augment their income. They, in fact, are far away from home, dark, small, unventilated spaces where children are crouched, for hours together, often working with implements and materials that are very harmful to them. These so-called uncles are agents, nothing less than traffickers, or employers.

In rural India, it is common that children take weeks and months off school to help parents in their own fields, as well as work in other’s fields during the harvest seasons. The low quality of education, in any case, demotivates parents who feel it is better if their children work and it has taken year of efforts by government and civil society to motivate parents to keep children in school and off the fields. Still, in many places attendance drops substantially at certain times of the year. It is also known that children come to school, are marked present, eat the free mid-day meal and leave. The Bill will only dilute efforts to keep children in school.

The Bill also defines adolescents as those between 14 and 18 years of age. The amendment allows them to work in certain “non-hazardous” occupations. However, the list of professions considered hazardous has reduced substantially in comparison to those comprehensively outlined in the 1986 Act.

Taking a step back

The new Bill will make it harder to gain access into private homes to identify children who are being exploited under the garb of helping and tougher prove that children are not paid. It also has fewer types of employment that will be considered to be hazardous to children and makes it overall more difficult to rescue children and prosecute employers.

This can have many consequences in a country that has been struggling to put an end to child labour and where, according to official figures, 10 million children are engaged in some form of work. A provision allowing children to work at home will only push this figure up.

To prevent this from happening, the government should take the following steps before enacting the Bill:

  • Remove the provision allowing children to help in family enterprises and home-based activities.
  • Develop an exhaustive list of hazardous occupations including as many occupations as possible and institute a system to review and modify the same regularly, to include more occupations as they emerge.      
  • Consider revision of Article 24 of the Constitution of India, and review the identification of only those children under 14 as child labourers, as well as the revision of the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, to make education free and compulsory until class 10 at the minimum.
  • Precede any amendment by: a comprehensive review the implementation of the current child labour law based on experiences of children, government machinery involved in responding to cases, and practitioners working in the ground; appropriate investments in infrastructure, human resources, and services for prevention, monitoring, rescue and rehabilitation of exploited children.
  • Include curriculum in all schools on traditional arts, skills, and occupations, give all children in all schools an opportunity to learn and preserve the same, and also include the use of technology, e-commerce, to increase productivity and market access in the curriculum.

Nicole Rangel Menezes is the co-founder of Leher, a child-rights organisation.