Child labour in India: a persistent problem

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Although the Indian government has signed up to the UN’s goal of eliminating child labour in all its forms by 2025, an influential Parliamentary committee has warned drastic action is needed to meet the commitment.

Although India has passed legislation prohibiting both child and bonded labour, the stark reality is that the country is making slow progress towards its goal of eliminating these deplorable practices.

A Parliamentary Standing Committee, led by senior Biju Janata Dal (BJP) MP Bhartruhari Mahtab, submitted a detailed report on the implementation of the central government’s policy aimed at tackling and eliminating child labour in Parliament on 20 December. The report, National Policy on Child Labour – An Assessment, warned that it is “practically not possible” for India to meet the commitment made by the international community as part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to eliminate child labour by 2025.

Credit: iStock, Vardhan

Ambiguity in the law
The report, from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour, Textiles and Skill Development Committee, added that India needs to introduce a uniform legal definition of a ‘child’, as there was ambiguity in the definition of a ‘child’ under various employment laws. It also concluded that, although India has ratified various International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions on the prohibition of child labour, the government has a long way to go to achieve its commitment to ending all forms of child labour in the next few years.

The committee therefore called on various central and state government ministries to take coordinated action to tackle child labour, including amending policies and laws aimed at banning
the practice.

The committee warned that discrepancies in the definition of a ‘child’ under India law needed to be clarified to better protect children from exploitation and make it easier to bring prosecutions and other action against those who illegally employ children.

For example, the panel noted that under the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 (CALPRA), a ‘child’ means a person who has not completed their 14th year of age, or such age as may be specified in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, whichever is more.

Meanwhile, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 defines a ‘child’ as a male or female aged six to 14 years, while the Minimum Wages Act, 1948 – via a 1986 amendment – classes a ‘child’ as a person who has not completed their 14th year of age.

However, the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act 2015 (JJ Act) defines a ‘child’ as a person who has not completed 18 years of age, and the term ‘adolescent’ is not defined in the JJ Act 2015.

The committee added that the Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare – a community-based health prevention programme aimed at educating and supporting adolescents on health issues such as good nutrition, sexual and reproductive health and mental wellbeing – defines an ‘adolescent’ as a person aged between 10–19 years.

The panel further noted that the employment of children in contravention of the CALPRA Act is a cognisable offence – where the police can make an arrest without a warrant and start an investigation without the permission of a court, making it easier to pursue and prosecute offenders.

In contrast, under the JJ Act, 2015, illegally employing a child is a non-cognisable offence, where the police cannot arrest the accused without a warrant and cannot start an investigation without the permission of the court, making it harder to investigate and prosecute those who illegally employ or exploit children using this legislation.

The panel therefore says the central government should examine discrepancies in the criteria for determining the age of a child in the various laws. They also urged ministers to investigate whether the situation where the offence of illegally employing children is cognisable under the CALPRA but non-cognisable under the JJ Act is resulting in ambiguity and delays in ensuring justice for children who are exploited through illegal employment.

Tougher punishments
The committee added that punishments for illegally employing children should be made be tougher to provide a greater deterrent. In particular, they called for the fine for breaching the CALPRA 1986 to be increased by three to four times the current level, and for the authorities to be given the power to cancel the operating licences and registrations of businesses, and seize their property, if they are convicted of child labour offences.

The panel added this may require amendments to the CALPRA, “which the [Union Labour] Ministry should pursue in order to have zero tolerance on child labour”.

The parliamentary committee also warned that some businesses outsource work to contractors, who in turn employ children, allowing the main business to avoid legal responsibility. As a result, they say teh law should be changed to ensure that principal employers can be held accountable if they fail to take appropriate steps to ensure their contractors are not illegally employing children to undertake work for the main business.

The committee added that although around 200,000 children engaged in child labour have been rescued in the past five years, very few First Information Reports (FIRs) for potential child labour offences have been registered by police. An FIR is the first step towards beginning an investigation and eventually taking a possible prosecution for a cognisable offence like illegally employing children.

The panel therefore suggests penalising police officers for not registering FIRs for possible child labour offences, similar to the penalties officers potentially face for failing to register FIRs for alleged sexual offences against children under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012.

Improve economic prospects
The committee also made a number of other recommendations for government aimed at eliminating child labour, arguing that improving the economic prospects of lower paid workers and families can help prevent child labour. For instance, the panel said the Housing Ministry should ensure that construction workers receive their full entitlement of social security and legal benefits, as this will remove the need for them to employ their children to work alongside them or to send them to work for building contractors.

It also said that the annual financial assistance given to a family of Rs 6,000 per child has not increased in the past 14 years and the number of Anganwadis – centres that provide basic health care to children in rural areas – is inadequate. The committee therefore called on the central government to both increase the financial assistance given to families with children in line with inflation and the number of Anganwadis.

Although the committee’s recommendations are not binding, they carry a lot of weight and received significant media coverage. Also, the report is a grim public reminder that child labour remains a serious issue affecting millions in India, robbing children of their childhood, education and futures. 

According to the 2011 Census, the most recent one carried out in the country, there are about 10.1 million working children between the age of five and 14 in India, working either as a ‘main worker’ or a ‘marginal worker’. In addition, more than 42.7 million children in India are not in education.

However, the committee’s report does note a reduction in the number of working children, from 12.6 million in the 2001 census to 10.1 million in the 2011 census.

Widespread poverty
Although the Indian economy has grown significantly in recent few decades, poverty remains widespread, and commentators say this remains the main reason why children are forced to work and leave school before the legal minimum age. For poor families, struggling to meet their basic needs, forcing their children to work at business establishments is a way of obtaining desperately needed income.

However, these children endure unimaginable hardships, often work in hazardous environments, are subjected to exploitation and are regularly deprived of their right to education. They are the victims of poverty, inequality and a lack of opportunities, and many are also in danger of being fatally injured at work.

Children belonging to poor families are often found working in a variety of industries, such as brick kilns, carpet weaving, garment making, domestic service, food and refreshment services (such as tea stalls), agriculture, fisheries and mining.

According to a report by the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation, and the 2011 census projections, India will have 7.8 million child labourers in 2023, comprising a male–female ratio of 57 per cent and 43 per cent respectively.

Although the reduction in the annual rate of child labour in 2001–11 (–2.01 per cent) was greater than in 1991–2001 (–1.16 per cent) and 1981–91 (–1.88 per cent), India continues to have an unacceptable level of child labour.

Media reports of child worker deaths
Commentators say that although the introduction of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act in 1986 (with amendments in 2016), and the Right to Education Act 2009, which guarantees children between the ages of six and 14 the right to free and compulsory education under the Indian Constitution, was a step in the right direction, children in India remain extremely vulnerable to becoming victims of bonded and forced labour.

The media regularly reports stories of children being killed or injured while working illegally, including after being encouraged or coerced into illegal work. For instance, the newspapers recently reported the story of 14-year-old Alok, who lost his life while working as a lift supervisor at an air cooler factory in outer Delhi’s Bawana Industrial Area. Alok would accompany his mother to work at a factory on the days he didn’t feel like going to school, and would look after his younger sister while his mother worked inside the plant.

The factory supervisor had previously asked Alok to work at the plant, arguing it was a way for the teenager to earn some easy money, although his mother was reluctant to allow it. However, on the fateful day of the accident, Alok was asked to operate a makeshift wooden lift while his mother was on a toilet break. “It is a task that requires expertise and training. How can you send a 14-year-old to operate the lift?” asked an eyewitness, according to a news report in The Quint.

The lift operator’s job is to pull the roller wires in a grinder box. However, Alok had not been trained to safely operate the system, and after he opened the box and tried to pull the wires, he accidentally slipped and fell into the elevator shaft from the second floor of the plant. He was crushed to death when the elevator came up from the ground floor.

Following the fatality, a member of the Bawana Industrial Workers Union claimed that most unauthorised factories in the area heavily rely on children for their day-to-day work and children aged 10 to 15 years old are regularly spotted working in these businesses.

“They work overtime and are paid less, earning Rs 5,000-6,000 a month. Labour laws exist only on paper,” he said.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 prohibits the employment of children in certain occupations and processes, and regulates the working conditions of children in certain industries. In addition, Article 24 of the Indian Constitution prohibits the employment of children in factories, stating: “No child below the age of 14 years shall be employed in work in any factory or mine or engaged in any other hazardous employment.”

However, these laws are frequently flouted, and the likes of Alok end up paying a deadly price.

Global rise in child labour
According to a 2021 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and UNICEF, 160 million children worldwide are caught in the web of child labour, representing a distressing statistic of one in 10 children.

The report warns there has been a significant rise in the number of children aged five to 11 years in child labour. Also, the number of children aged five to 17 years in hazardous work – defined as work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals – increased by 6.5 million to 79 million in the period 2016–2011.

UNICEF states that children are still subject to severe forms of child labour, such as being forced to become child soldiers, being trafficked for work purposes and sexual exploitation, and bonded labour, where employers give high interest loans to the parents of children and in return the child (and frequently other family members) are required to work at low wages to pay off the debt.

Target to end bonded labour ‘also unlikely’
Meanwhile, India will not only miss its 2025 target of eliminating child labour, but also its 2030 target of ending bonded labour.

In July 2016, the central government declared in Parliament that as part of its 15-year vision to achieve “total abolition of bonded labour”, it would identify, release and rehabilitate around 18.4 million bonded labourers by 2030.

Government statistics show that 315,302 people were released from bonded labour in the 45 years between 1978 and January 2023, of which 94 per cent (296,305) were rehabilitated.

However, the statistics also show that, since the 2016 declaration, only 32,873 people have been released from bonded labour, a yearly average of 4,696. According to data analysis by the news website IndiaSpend, this would mean that at the same annual rate, by 2030, the government would have achieved only two per cent of its 18.4 million target, leaving 18 million Indians in bonded labour.

The 41st report of the Lok Sabha’s Standing Committee on Labour, Textiles, and Skill Development 2022-23, published in March 2023, found that despite regular advice from the Ministry of Labour and Employment to states and union territories urging them to identify districts suitable for surveys and related initiatives aimed at supporting the welfare of bonded labourers, there has been a lack of tangible or substantial progress in national and local efforts to eliminate bonded labour.

“The committee, therefore, impress upon the Ministry to reinforce their coordinating and monitoring mechanism so as to ensure eradication of this social evil,” concluded the report.

“The committee desires that the Ministry intensify the efforts towards establishing the National Portal on Bonded Labour so that the welfare measures prescribed for bonded labour are well disseminated, and benefits are truly and accurately extended to them.”

The National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) defines bonded labour (sometimes known as debt bondage) as a form of slavery, stating it has persisted for centuries.

Bonded labour is defined as when an individual’s labour is requisitioned as a means of repaying a loan.

Although not all bonded labour is explicitly forced, the majority of forced labour practices, whether involving children or adults, exhibit characteristics associated with bonded labour.

Studies indicate that the prevalence of bonded labour is a significant issue within the informal sector of the Indian economy.

A 2018 study, Assessing Budgetary Priorities for the Rehabilitation of Bonded Labour, by Jawed Alam Khan and published by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, states: “Initially concentrated in agriculture and allied sectors, bonded labour has now extended its reach into various non-agricultural domains, reflecting shifts in industries and occupations over time.” The study underscores that approximately 10 per cent of India’s workforce comes under the classification of bonded labour, with women and children constituting a large chunk of bonded labourers.