A Child Labour Keeps Lopsided Economy Afloat on his Blood and Sweat

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According to the ILO, internationally child labour has declined by one third since 2000. But, in India, that employs the largest numbers of child labour in the world, the trend is just the opposite. According to the 2011 census, carried out by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the number of child labour has increased from 11.28 million, in 1991, to 12.67 million, in 2011. Bhavna takes a hard look the grim scenario, as part of Different Truths special issue on WDACL. 

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It is the eve of June 12, the World Day Against Child Labour (WDACL), an annual tug at our collective conscience in slumber. The day the print media will carry a customary picture of a malnourished child, picking leaves in a tobacco farm, in an obscure country in the sub-Saharan part of Africa. The virtual space will be flooded with evocative videos, from contemporary journalists, interviewing children toiling in a glass factory in Firozabad. The well-reads and the optimists will be complacent from discussing the latest ILO initiative. And the irony will come full circle in some school, where a child would win a prize for making a vivid poster on the abolition of child labour.

The good news is that according to ILO reports, child labour has declined by one third since 2000. The bad news is that, more than half of the existing ones are employed in hazardous work. Fractions have a strange way of soothing the severity of our rough existence, so let us paraphrase that is 168 million working children out of whom 85 million are employed in hazardous (read dangerous, life threatening) industries.

Once upon a time, children were considered to be the divine sign that the world should go on. Today, they are perhaps the indication that work must go on. From agriculture, mining, construction, garment to fireworks and diamond manufacturing industries, little fingers are found curled around complex tools, working tirelessly for little or no money, to deliver stunningly simplified products for five star user ratings. Perhaps exposure to nicotine, toxic mercury and pesticides, collapsible pits, inflammable crackers resulting in severed limbs, loss of eyesight, brain damage and cancer of various organs, is a small price to pay for the unbridled progress of the world economy.

Those who cringe at India being referred to as the land of snake-charmers and all things mystic, perhaps do not realise that it’s better to be known as a fuzzy colorful land for spiritual seekers than to be known as the home to the largest number of child laborers in the world. The internal demographics are a far cry from the positive panorama of the world. According to the 2011 census, carried out by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the number of child labour has increased from 11.28 million, in 1991, to 12.67 million, in 2011.

Children in India come as complete festive packages. They cut precious stones for jewelry, weave zari borders on sarees, and fill gunpowder in crackers – all to add a little cheerful confetti to our celebrations. India has passed a number of constitutional safeguards and protection laws that prohibit not the labour of children below 14 but their employment in 64 industries that have been identified as hazardous. In a more recent and welcome move, a beneficial legislation was passed to provide free and compulsory education to all children between ages six and fourteen. However, the beneficial attempts are half-hearted and scarce, while most punitive legislations remain toothless paper tigers.

Every time a question is asked about the cause or consequence of child labor, the word ‘poverty’ is delivered in a chorus, with a helpless shrug. Grace Abbott put it more eloquently when she said, “Child labour and poverty are inevitably bound together and if you continue to use the labour of children as the treatment for the social disease of poverty, you will have both poverty and child labour to the end of time.” However, that is a rather myopic view of the situation.

Mario Biggeri and Santosh Mehrotra, both Associate Professors in Human Development Economics carried out a study of macroeconomics factors that encourage child labour. They suggest that the causes of child labour include both the demand and the supply side. While poverty and unavailability of good schools explains the child labour supply side, the growth of low paying informal economy rather than higher paying formal economy is amongst the causes on the demand side. This year the ILO is focusing on Child Labour in supply chains. Companies including Gap, Primark and Monsanto, have been criticised for the use of child labour in their products. The companies claim that they have strict policies against selling products made by children, but the many links in a supply chain make it difficult to oversee them all. Yet another study points to tax evasion as a reason for the creation of a lopsided economy kept afloat on the blood and sweat of tiny hands.

But the problem is more visceral than it is academic. Let us see this from a semantic viewpoint. The anomalies begin with the very definition of child labour. The International Labour Organisation defines child labour “as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” The UNICEF defines it differently, it states, “A child is said to be involved in child labour activities if between 5 and 11 years of age, he or she did at least one hour of economic activity or at least 28 hours of domestic work in a week and in case of children between 12 to 14, he or she did at least 14 hours of economic activity or at least 42 hours of economic activity per week.” In a more obtuse view, India’s Census Office defines child labour “as participation of a child less than 17 years of age in any economically productive activity with or without compensation, wages or profit.”

Even cursory views of these three definitions lays bare the growing roots and justifications of child labour. From deprivation of childhood we plummeted to less susceptible age brackets. It’s almost as if keeping children out of hazardous industries would somehow miraculously bring them to schools and playgrounds.


Let’s redefine.

Child labour: Any child who is not in school.

No hours, no minimum standards and remunerations and definitely no age brackets. Children often close their ears to advice, but they open their eyes to examples. Let’s guard their innocence and show them that the world is still a worthwhile place to be.

©Bhavna Bhasin

Bhavna Bhasin, a lawyer by profession, seeks refuge away from the monochrome world and is often found nestled between the pages of a book. Quarter of a poet, self-acclaimed photographer and a curator of minimalism,when she is not found devouring literature, she sits, devising ways to save the world, one bibliotherapy session a time.