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. In India, for example, children can be ‘rescued’ from their jobs – in practice, forcefully removed – and held in children’s state custody for the simple crime of working.

But in India and around the world, this ‘ban approach’ has failed to reduce the prevalence of child labour and in the process criminalised and traumatised thousands of working children. In the first 15 years after the passage of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, the number of working children in India actually increased, from 111 million to 126 million in 2001. The state of Karnataka, where CWC is based, has postponed its target for the eradication of child labour in the state four times, with the goal, originally set for the mid-1990s, currently set for 2020. In the meantime, thousands of children have been forcefully – sometimes violently – removed from work and incarcerated in children’s homes, before being returned to their families only to return to work in an unofficial, lower-paid and less safe position.

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.

Child work and child labour – knowing the difference

It is often claimed that work is ‘bad’ for children, or that the domain of work is something that should be reserved to adults. In fact, the right kinds of work can be not just safe for children, but actively beneficial to childrens’ 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.

But not all work is right for children. No child should be engaged in any work that does not contribute to her/his growth and development. This is ‘child labour.’ CWC believes that while we may strive to, one day, abolish child labour, it is a mistake – and harmful to children – to try to abolish child work. But when you differentiate carefully between child work and child labour, our work shows it is possible LINK to quickly reduce child labour in some areas.

Ending child labour: a realistic approach

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.

Learning from children

We did not come to these conclusions by ourselves. We learned them from working children. Working children from India and all over the world tell us repeatedly that while they want to gain an education on top of their work, to simply prevent them from working would be to impoverish them and their families.

“Don’t just keep telling us ‘stop working’. We work because we have to eat. We work because, for us, it is a necessity. If you really want us to stop working – make sure you solve the problems of our families.”
– A working child at a CWC workshop in Bengaluru, 2007

In one of the largest ever studies of the topic, working children aged between 10 and 14 years from South Asia, Africa and Latin America were asked about their view of their work. 77% said that ‘going to work and attending school’ is their best option under their current circumstances. Just 12% favoured ‘school only.’

This fact is widely recognised in Western countries. From baby-sitting to car-washing, Western children are expected to contribute to household chores and often receive money in exchange. Yet India, with millions of child labourers, is expected to keep its children’s lives free of work!

A disturbing trend in policy

Unfortunately, the trend in recent years in policy, both in India and internationally, has been to move further and further away from this nuanced approach and towards simply criminalising working children.

India’s first national child labour law, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, provided, as originally drafted, a progressive approach to the issue, emphasising tackling the root causes of child work. Unfortunately, the law that ultimately passed was very different, putting the emphasis largely on a ‘ban approach’ to child labour and criminalising children working in a wide range of industries.

As seen above, this ‘ban approach’ has entirely failed to stop child labour while criminalising thousands of children. But despite the failure of this approach, India is now taking it a step further. A new amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 will ban children aged under 14 from all work, regardless of whether or not the work is deemed ‘hazardous.’ This is a stricter position than is taken by many Western countries!

CWC believes a new approach is urgently needed, one which focuses not on punishing working children but on addressing the social and economic factors that drive children to work – while recognising that, in moderate amounts and in the right roles, work can and should be a part of a healthy childhood.

Read a recent article by Nandana Reddy, founder of CWC, on the amendment to the Child Labour Act.

  • 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

  • Related Posts

    More posts: education