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Child labour in India: how can it be stopped?

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Despite the best efforts of stakeholders such as the Indian government and children’s charities, significant numbers of children are still engaged in hazardous or harmful work in India. Two experts explain how the country can work towards eradicating child labour.


Although India has made great strides towards eradicating child labour, the problem persists, with an International Labour Organization (ILO) report from 2015 estimating that over 5.7 million children in India aged 5-17 were engaged in child labour that is dangerous or harmful to their health and wellbeing.

The coronavirus pandemic also threatens to reverse some of the gains made in recent years in reducing child labour. Indeed, the ILO and UNICEF recently warned that globally, millions more children are at risk of being forced into hazardous and exploitative work as the economic downturn from the pandemic forces families to try all available means to survive.

We asked two experts about the current situation around child labour in India amid Covid-19, and what can be done to eradicate it.

We spoke to:

How serious is the problem of child labour in India? How does India compare to other countries in terms of the extent of child labour?

Lenin: Despite rates of child labour declining over the last few years, children are still being used in some severe forms of child labour, such as bonded labour, child soldiers and trafficking. Across India, child labourers can be found in a variety of industries, such as in brick kilns, carpet weaving, garment making, domestic service, food and refreshment services (such as tea stalls), agriculture, fisheries and mining.

Children are also at risk of various other forms of exploitation, including sexual exploitation and the production of child pornography, including online. Child labour is also increasing after the relaxation of lockdown due to Covid-19.

Dr Lenin Raghuvanshi, Founder and CEO, The People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights.

Prabhat: Unfortunately, children are the worst victims of any crisis or disaster, and the Covid disaster is believed to have pushed millions of children into labour.

Prior to Covid, the child labour situation globally was already frightening. There are 218 million children aged 5-17 years' old in employment worldwide, of which 152 million are victims of child labour. Nearly half of the 152 million – 73 million – undertake hazardous work.

India has been doing a fabulous job of reducing child labour, especially after making education a fundamental right. As per the Census of 2011, there are 10.1 million child labourers (down from 12.6 million in 2001) in the age group of 5–14 years. There are 33 million working children in India (defined as 5–18 years' old).

Also, 42.7 million children in India are out of school, although the Right to Free and Compulsory Education law has been in force since 2010. Together, Uttar Pradesh (21.5 per cent), Bihar (10.7 per cent), Rajasthan (8.4 per cent), Maharashtra (7.2 per cent), and Madhya Pradesh (6.9 per cent) constitute nearly 55 per cent of the total number of working children in India, as per Census 2011.

We have already seen an increased number of children forced into labour as schools are closed, and there is an economic crisis in families, due to the pandemic.

Is the pandemic fuelling a rise in child labour in India?

Lenin: Under India’s strict pandemic lockdown, all schools across the country were closed. Hundreds of thousands of businesses were affected and millions of people lost their jobs, spreading financial hardship across the poor section of the population. The pandemic also increased the trafficking of children for labour and sexual abuse.

During the pandemic, children are forced to work because family incomes are not enough to survive on. With many people losing their jobs due to Covid, the financial crisis faced by families has increased manifold. These families will need extra pairs of hands to earn to provide two meals a day, leading to more children entering the economy or working in family-owned enterprises and farms. For example, I have observed the children of weavers becoming child labourers due to their families’ loss of their livelihood in Varanasi, a city in Uttar Pradesh.

Also, massive financial losses in businesses have increased the demand for cheap labour, such as child labour. Due to reverse migration from urban centres, there is also going to be a shortage of adult labour. Children, especially adolescents, will be increasingly in demand to fill this gap.

The children who remain at home – especially girls – will be under pressure to contribute to household chores and take care of their siblings. More and more girls will be pulled further away from education and into managing the household. The closure of schools will lead to a gradual detachment from education, especially for those children who cannot access online education. This detachment will eventually lead to dropouts from education among children, which in turn will lead to them entering the workforce.

In India, a large number of children are already trafficked for labour. Due to reverse migration caused by the pandemic, a large number of children have returned to their villages. Children in overcrowded relief camps, quarantine centres and those returning home with their parents are also at increased risk of being trafficked.

Prabhat: In India over half of the child labourers are located in the five states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh – the same states that account for the majority of out-of-school children (except Maharashtra). The irony is that all these states have been severely affected by Covid.

Child labour is most prevalent among children from excluded social groups, such as low-income families, subsistence farmers and landless households. These children work in different sectors, such as agriculture, industry and the service industry. The pandemic has aggravated the problem. Following the general lifting of the lockdown in the country, a considerable population of migrants have returned to their home states, fuelling the risk of children being forced into labour or trafficking to make up for the lost income.

A report released by the World Bank, Covid-19 Crisis through a Migration Lens, recognised the impact of the virus on the livelihoods of a large proportion of the country’s internal migrants. Migrant labour is a vital driver of the urban economy; however, the lockdown has forced many to return to their villages due to the absence of employment and a steady flow of income. Also, with a significant number of households migrating with their families, children have been forced to discontinue schooling, and engage in labour or home-based work upon returning to their native villages.

According to ILO Global Estimates, in the last two decades progress has been made to ensure that nine out of 10 of the world’s children are not in child labour, slavery or trafficking. However, ending the exploitation of the one child in 10 has proved to be a challenge, with the decline in child labour between 2012-2016 at a third of the rate of the decrease in the 2008-2012 period. UNICEF and the ILO foresee that millions of children are at the risk of being pushed into child labour as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, which could lead to the first rise in child labour after 20 years of progress.

With the vast impact of the pandemic, the vulnerability is exacerbated for children to be forced into labour as schools are closed or inaccessible. There is also a substantial economic downturn in household income, limited functioning of social services and greater demand for cheap labourers.

Thus, it is unlikely that we will be in a position to achieve the United Nations target of elimination of all forms of child labour by 2025. So better efforts need to be made to prevent children from getting forced into labour.

Prabhat Kumar, Deputy Director, Child Protection, at Save the Children, India.

What are the key causes of child labour?

Lenin: The caste system-based slavery system with a patriarchal system is one of the significant reasons for child labour. Parents or relatives of children coming from socially backward families push them towards child labour in most cases. Poor school infrastructure and lack of importance of education due to the caste system of Manusmriti are some of the big reasons behind the problem. The problem of poverty is also to blame. So child labour and exploitation are the results of many factors, including poverty, social norms condoning them, lack of decent work opportunities for adults and adolescents, migration and emergencies. These factors are not only the causes but also a consequence of social inequities reinforced by discrimination.

Prabhat: The primary reasons behind child labour in India (which are almost the same in other countries) - apart from poor enforcement of child labour law and other related legislations and schemes - are: children being out of school; dependency of low-income families on their small children’s income (at the cost of their education and leisure); adult unemployment; and the demand of cheap and submissive labour who surrenders their voice and choice. We already saw children being forced to work the day the lockdowns were eased.

Why is India failing to eradicate child labour?

Lenin: Most importantly, there is a lack of political will in real spirit. At the same time, it has resulted in a fuller understanding of the complex causes of child labour and, in particular, the fact that it is deeply rooted in poverty. Its elimination cannot be achieved merely by a stroke of the legislator’s pen but it is recognised to be a very long-term goal.

Prabhat: There are several laws for the protection of children and aimed at preventing and reducing child labour. These include:

  • Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016, which prohibits the engagement of children in all occupations and adolescents in hazardous occupations
  • Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 to all children of the age six to 14 years
  • The Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection) of Children Act, 2015, which mentions that “any working child below the age of 18 years is a child in need of care and protection”, and
  • The Integrated Child Protection Scheme to provide a secure and safe environment for the overall development of children.

There are other elaborate mechanisms for the review and enforcement of such laws and to provide the necessary legal support to vulnerable children. These include the State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (SCPCR), District Child Welfare Committees (CWCs), child protection units, special juvenile protection units, District Level Task Force on Child Labour, children’s homes and Childline (the All India Helpline for Children – 1098). Despite all of the above laws and mechanisms, there is a high number of children working as child labourers.

The lack of convergence between several departments and the allocation of the financial budget for schemes on child labour are vital issues that the government has not been able to take adequate care of.

During Covid-19 times two factors that will be most important for the government to curb child labour are ensuring that  all girls and boys are back to learning in school and secondly supporting them and their families with livelihoods and cash-based support.

The studies also suggest that a one percentage point rise in poverty leads to at least a 0.7 per cent increase in child labour in certain countries. Thus, access to social protection schemes, direct benefit transfers and livelihood support to poor and vulnerable families are crucial in preventing a large number of children being forced to work.

What health and safety risks are child labourers exposed to?

Lenin: Child labour continues to be negatively associated with the physical and psychological health of the children involved. This reflects a failure of policies not only to eliminate child labour but also to make it safer. Although there has been a decline in the number of working children the quality of life of those still engaged in child labour appears to remain low.

Children engaged in labour have a poor health status, which could be precipitated or aggravated by their work. For instance, malnutrition and poor growth were reported to be highly prevalent among working children. On top of malnutrition, the nature of labour has effects on a child’s health. For example, long working hours have been associated with poorer physical outcomes. It has also been reported that the likelihood of being sexually abused is higher with increased working hours.

The majority of studies conclude that child labour is associated with a higher prevalence of mental and behavioural disorders.

Child labour exposes children to abuse, whether verbally, physically or sexually, which ultimately results in psychological disturbances and behavioural disorders.

Moreover, peers and colleagues at work can affect the behaviour of children – for example, thorough normalising or encouraging smoking or drug abuse. The effects of child labour on psychological health can be long-lasting and devastating to the future of children involved.

Are big companies doing enough to tackle child labour in their supply chains?

Lenin: Big corporations or companies have a direct link with the issue of child labour. While corporate social auditing improves working conditions at factories; the worst exploitation often takes place outside of the factory where many layers of subcontracting turn child labour into an invisible crime, making child labour a part of every business.

Child labour in supply chains looks different depending on the sector. In the carpet industry, ‘carpet kids’ sit at looms for up to 14 hours per day, using sharp tools to weave carpets with no access to education. Some are trafficked to loom sheds far from home often under threat of violence to work off a family debt that can never be repaid on meagre wages.

Many embellished garments are also produced by hand in individual homes. Girls are often compelled to sew with their mothers to meet ambitious quotas for extremely low piece-rate compensation. School absenteeism among girls during busy production periods quickly results in poor academic performance and tragically high early dropout rates.

Entire families toil on brick kilns across South Asia. Many are bonded to the kiln and forced to work to pay off a debt. Children as young as five years’ old begin contributing to the family’s production quota by carrying and stacking bricks. Some children are trafficked to manage donkeys and other livestock. With long working hours and few school facilities, children face nearly insurmountable barriers to getting an education.

Prabhat: There are several organisations and business houses which have been supporting the implementation of child labour law; helping with the number of cases registered; helping with prosecutions; and working closely with statutory bodies like District Level Task Forces in the rescue and rehabilitation of child labourers. There are several organisations, such as Save the Children, who have formed village-level committees to prevent and rehabilitate child labour; the focus is on sending children back to school and preparing them to be school-ready. India has a strong civil society network that has been working on addressing the issue of child labour for many years.

Several businesses have started looking at and taking stringent action to prevent child labour in their supply chains. They are also looking to support civil society organisations in helping to curb child labour and to support families so children are protected and not forced into labour. However, a lot of work needs to be done with business houses on eradicating child labour in the supply chain.

What other steps should government, big businesses and others be doing to eradicate child labour?

Lenin: Child labour is illegal under numerous laws and conventions around the world. The joint efforts of government, individuals and big corporations is the need of the hour to eliminate child labour. The government should make all efforts to educate every child and youth on one hand, and; on another hand, the government should implement a multilayer and multi-dimensional programme for the elimination of child labour and its factors. 

Big corporations and individuals have a significant role to play in this effort. The responsible business for the elimination of child labour is a key action for a better world as child labour not only impacts one generation but everyone that follows. In his 2013 report, Child Labour & Educational Disadvantage – Breaking the Link, Building Opportunity, the former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown warned: “Because children who face restricted opportunities for education will receive lower wages as adults, child labour is one of the most powerful motors transmitting poverty across generations.”

Prabhat: Due to the alarming situation created by the pandemic, there is a need for unprecedented, innovative and proactive measures at scale from all quarters to save children and achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of ending all forms of child labour by 2025.

Some of the measures that can be suggested to bring India on track to control child labour include:

  • Expanding the outreach and quality of education with new tools and techniques
  • Expanding the food and social security cover to include all poor and marginalised
  • Providing jobs and employment opportunities to adults
  • Securing household food security
  • Making the labour laws more stringent
  • Increased inspection of factories and domestic/small enterprises
  • Strengthening the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) and District Child Labour Task Forces to check trafficking and to rescue and rehabilitate child workers
  • Empowering Gram Panchayat with adequate resources to track and secure every child in their local area.

The Village Level Child Protection Committee, as mandated under ICPS, is well placed to monitor, track and respond appropriately in coordination with a District Child Protection Unit and a Child Welfare Committee. It is high time that world leaders, business houses, donors and civil society make a pledge to reinvigorate efforts to end all forms of child labour by 2025.

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