Rajya Sabha fails child labourers: Allows for Regressive Tinkering of Child Labour Act, that jeopardizes children further instead of a total re-haul of a faulty Act. Let more wisdom prevail in Loka Sabha

Posted on July 20, 2016

To our deep distress, the Child Labour Amendment Bill 2012, was passed yesterday in the Rajya Sabha, a regressive step that fails our children, yet once again. Since its first tabling, four years ago, the State should have critically reviewed why child labour has remained rampant in the country despite enactments of legislation and how a plethora of state policies and failures were directly contributing to the increasing number of communities eking out a survival in severe poverty and deprivation, compelling more children to enter child labour. Instead, the State abdicates its duty with just a sweeping ban of labour of children under 14, without a single safety net or rehabilitative process in place. Without viable alternatives, it is commonsense that children will be further criminalised and will be forced to resort to invincible and hence, even more exploitative labour.

The Labour minister claims this is a historic Bill – how can minor tinkering of a radically faulty approach which simply does not address the causes nor seek to mitigate the reasons why children work stand to this claim? Both the Act and its flagship, the National Child Labour Programme [NCLP] ignore the larger socio-economic environment in which child labour is embedded, turning a blind eye to poverty and thereby failing to respond to the urgent needs of impoverished and marginalized children, their families and communities.

The Lokasabha, hopefully will take cognisance of the fact that the existing law bans work by children under 14 years in 18 occupations and 65 processes, while stipulates regulation in other occupation, sectors and processes for those in the 14-18 age group – yet in reality children either continue to labour because of family distress or because of the dismal quality of education which is neither relevant nor accessible – or are ‘rounded up’ in disastrous raid programmes and locked away in Juvenile Home, their voices silenced and left to languish.

The Amendment Bill bans all forms of work by children under the age of 14 years, but makes an exception which allows children under the age of 14 years to work in family based enterprises, and in the audio – visual and entertainment industry. (Part A; Section 3);

This is an extremely retrograde step as it perpetuates work in family based enterprises – which is where labour of children will be outsourced to insidiously – if a ban is in place and no other alternatives are readily available to children. While we recognise that good work is a part of a socialization process of all youngsters, rich and poor, we hold severe misgivings about this exception clause ‘justified under the socio-economic reality of India’ as it is most likely that employers will use this ‘family enterprise’ option to perpetuate even more exploitative labour. The labour Departments fail to inspect even industries – now they will be expected to inspect ‘every single home’! They will be impossible to monitor and may well provide the cheap labour for the ‘make in India’ production houses – where children will be totally unprotected.

The opposition members did warn the government to not pass this Bill in haste, without examining all the issues involved, including that that possible systematize exploitation of children within the ‘homes’ by employers in the guise of relatives and of caste based occupations forcefully perpetuated – yet, at the time of voting, when their views may have made a difference, many of them were absent.

The Bill introduces a new category of ‘adolescent’, defining them as those aged between 14 and 18 years, and prohibits their employment in hazardous processes (Part A; Section 2 of the Principal Act; Clause (ia)). The Bill fails to make any provisions for this newly created category of ‘adolescents’ nor does it specify the reason for creating this new category. The so called ‘Hazardous processes’ are only determined by the Factories Act that governs adults and leaves open doors for violations of rights of adolescents. There are no provisions laid out for the education of Adolescents either in academics or vocational education.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee which had studied the Bill had clearly pointed out that “… instead of entrusting various ministries with this task, the government should bring a New Child Labour Policy and the machinery to implement laws, policies and projects should be specified therein”. This will articulate how as a country the child labour issue will be addressed, both in the short term and long term sustained manner. It had also pointed out that the Bill did not take into account the larger issues of poverty, market and economic forces, social practices and attitudes and other causative factors which are root causes of child labour and force children into exploitative work.

We urge that the Parliament and the Government have to arrive at a holistic approach that incorporates the synergy of all concerned departments such as Education, Labour, DWCD, Health, Social Welfare, Police, RDPR, Urban Administration, Housing as opposed to the current fragmented and simplistic ban approach. They have to listen to children, their realities, their aspirations and respect their rights, they have to create decentralized social monitoring and participatory mechanisms and devolution of powers to Panchayats in rural areas and Ward Sabhas in urban areas, for prevention and pre-emptive measures in pace. Enable platforms for participation of children to raise their issues with their elected representatives, as this would help address issues in a holistic, more individualized manner, responding to the specific causes of child labour as experienced by individual children and to provide appropriate responses to them.

Only when there is an increased demand for high skilled workers families will find it worthwhile to invest in education for their children. However, if such employment opportunities do not exist, children will enter the workforce earlier. This myth that education can break the cycle of poverty is false. It is not a magic wand that solves all socio-economic problems and miraculously transforms the development model. A generation of educated youth cannot create jobs and solve a national economic malady. A nation’s economy is not inherently elastic expanding in response to educated youth, neither is it realistic to expect impoverished families to magically manufacture ‘surplus’ to keep their children in school, especially when the prognosis for high skilled employment is dim.

What working children need is a new comprehensive policy designed in consultation with them that presents both transitional short term alternatives while offering a means for long term socio-economic transformation. Poverty needs to be tackled in full measure, for example the agricultural sector on which the majority of India families depend which is also the largest feeder block for child labour, needs to be made viable and sustainable with a sense of urgency. Meanwhile child workers should not be penalized for the folly of governments, but given safe ways to acquire skills, knowledge and education and support their families if they need to, encouraging entrepreneurship.

Such a holistic and comprehensive approach will ensure not just reduction in child labour but also address the equally serious issue of trafficking of children, and facilitate shift from a punitive and criminalising approach towards a more supportive, rehabilitative, enabling and empowering approach set within the framework of Child Rights.