Child work and child labour

CWC has been engaged with working children, and the issue of child work and child labour, since our beginnings in the 1970s. While many ‘child labour’ organisations focus on putting an end to children working, we take a more nuanced approach: empowering working children, tackling the root causes of child labour, and recognising the positive role work can play in children’s lives.

Our stance on child labour

The current approach to child labour taken by many countries and international institutions, and increasingly by the Indian government, is to ban children from working and to enforce that ban through the juvenile justice system. This ‘ban approach’ has failed to reduce the prevalence of child labour and in the process criminalised and traumatised thousands of working children.

Instead of criminalising working children, CWC believes in tackling the root causes of child labour, and recognising the positive role that age-appropriate work can play in childhood.

It is often claimed that work is ‘bad’ for children, and certainly, no child should be engaged in any work that does not contribute to her/his growth and development. This kind of work can be considered ‘child labour’.

But the right kinds of work can be not just safe for children, but actively beneficial to children’s growth and learning. Such work must be not just physically safe, but not detrimental to a child’s development. A combination of such work with education offers the best basis for many children to develop skills, experience and confidence.

CWC believes that while we may aim, as a long term goal, to end child labour, it is a mistake – and ultimately harmful to children – to try to prevent children from all work. Indeed, that is not the approach taken in Western countries, where children are actively encouraged to work for ‘pocket money’, washing cars, delivering newspapers and helping in family businesses.

We also recognise that even eradicating ‘child labour,’ while a worthwhile long-term goal, is problematic. Work provides a vital source of income for children from poor families across India and the world – which not only helps basic living costs, but enables many children to afford the cost of education, including books and uniforms. While we may work towards a future without child labour, we cannot achieve this merely by criminalising child workers and those who employ them.

Instead, we must tackle the root causes of child labour. These include poverty; inadequate, inappropriate and sometimes harmful schooling; and environmental degradation, which is destroying rural agricultural livelihoods, sending children to the cities for work. Sometimes the simplest investments can significantly reduce the burden of work in children’s lives: for example, the opening of an anganwadi (nursery) in a village can enable large numbers of children to go to school instead of looking after younger siblings.

Read more about our stance on child work and child labour.

Our work with working children

Defending and empowering working children

In line with these principles, CWC’s work with working children has focused on helping children to organise themselves to provide mutual support and work to obtain their rights. We facilitated the creation of Bhima Sangha, a union of working children with over 13,000 members, and continue to support it with resources and training. Since its birth in 1990, Bhima Sangha has taken actions to protect members from employer abuse, draw attention to safety violations, and lobby local governments for simple environmental improvements, such as repairing footbridges, which can make work safer and less onerous.

Read more about Bhima Sangha and our work with children’s unions.

We believe strongly that working children need and deserve education. We have provided evening schools to enable working children to receive education and vocational training. And we have helped many children, who wish to, to stop work and enter education, often through our own educational institute, Namma Nalanda Vidya Peetha.

In addition, CWC lobbies governments and international institutions to push for a better approach to the question of child labour. India’s first ever major report on child labour, the Gurupadaswamy Report of 1978, was prompted by a question asked in Parliament by MP George Fernandes at the suggestion of our founder Nandana Reddy.

CWC contributed extensively to the drafting the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986. With our input, the original draft of the bill regulating work for children and addressing the social and economic factors that drive children to work. (Unfortunately, the law that ultimately passed was very different, putting the emphasis squarely on prohibition of child labour and criminalising children working in a wide range of industries. CWC continues to lobby to reverse this approach.)

Senior members of CWC have played key roles in the International Working Group on Child Labour, which was instrumental in the formation of the International Movement of Working Children. More recently, senior members have contributed to the development of the latest National Curriculum Framework for education and to the twelfth five-year plan for adolescent education.

Tackling child labour – effectively

CWC’s interventions have proven successful in reducing harmful child labour while enabling children to do work that is conducive to their development.

In line with our longstanding support for children’s participation, we believe that children should have a voice in deciding which work is and is not suitable for them. In 1999, we facilitated a major survey of working children in several Panchayats (the base unit of Indian local governance) across Karnataka asking children of different ages and genders what work – both paid work and unpaid household work – was and was not suitable for them. The results were strikingly detailed and locally specific. The Panchayats adopted a definition of ‘child labour free’ based on these definitions of suitable and unsuitable work.

CWC’s definition of ‘child labour free’:
- No children have to do work that is detrimental to their normal growth and development
- No children migrate for employment
- All children get an education that is appropriate to them and compatible to the formal system

Had these Panchayats simply banned children from working, the rules would likely have been flouted and ignored. Instead, each of the Panchayats that adopted this approach were declared ‘child labour free’ within five years, and have remained so.

If child labour is eradicated, it will not be through criminalising children. It will be through community-level work to establish child labour free areas – by appropriately defining child work and child labour, and tackling the social and economic factors that drive children into unsuitable work.


  • When you look into a child’s eyes you expect to see hope, trust and innocence; but when you see these signs of childhood are replaced by betrayal, hunger, fear & suspicion, we need to take a serious stock of ourselves and the society we have created.


    - Nandana Reddy | CWC