World Day Against Child Labour 2019: Experts rue lack of govt response to concerns over 'family enterprises' clause in Indian law

While the World Day Against Child Labour is observed today (Wednesday, 12 June) globally, let's take a look at the plight of child labourers in India.

According to data released by UNICEF in 2017, 12 percent of all children in India are engaged in some form of child labour. Their vulnerability makes them easy targets for exploitation, which makes it vital for the government to frame stringent laws in this regard.

To effectively combat child labour, the Centre, in 2016, amended the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. While the amendment seeks to completely ban child labour, it allows children to render help in “family enterprises” and allows adolescents to work in certain occupations not considered hazardous.

Experts and members of several NGOs have expressed several concerns about child labour and the inadequacy of the government’s response to it.

The “family enterprises” conundrum

Although the amendment bans all forms of child labour, concerns have been raised regarding the exception made for help in family enterprises. On this point, the Parliamentary Standing Committee had stated that the labour ministry was providing a “loophole” through this provision, and that it would be difficult to assess whether children are actually “helping” or are working to supplement family income.

Kavita Ratna, director-advocacy at a Bengaluru-based NGO, The Concerned for Working Children, said, “The government does not even regulate the working conditions of children in big industries. How does it expect to monitor the same in homes?”

 World Day Against Child Labour 2019: Experts rue lack of govt response to concerns over family enterprises clause in Indian law

Representational image. Reuters

Additionally, Ratna remarked that in a country like India, where children helping with family work is ingrained in the social fabric, “a child assisting a family should not even come under the legislative purview”. She pointed out that if “help” at the family level exceeds a certain duration, or puts the child in harmful circumstances, it could affect the growth and development of the child, and would be akin to child labour.

At the root of the problem is the challenge for the government to monitor household activities.

Prabhat Kumar, spokesperson for Save the Children India, said the provision on “family enterprises” is detrimental to children because “the forms of child labour are changing and becoming home-based”. He asserted that the provision “affects the right of happy childhood”.

The government responses to criticism of this amendment are that “removing this provision would place the families of children at the whims and mercies of the inspecting officers who could hold all parents assigning family chores of a non-commercial nature to their children as guilty of violating the law”.

Ratna, however, believed that another provision, which specifies hazardous and non-hazardous industries for adolescents, is a step in the right direction. She said that with this amendment, the government has identified sectors where adolescents can be allowed to work.

She pointed out that before the amendment, there was a lot of ambiguity about the law regarding minors above 14 years of age. “This led to the assumption that it was okay for children over the age of 14 years to work in all kinds of occupation”, she said.

In this respect, the Parliamentary Standing Committee expressed concern that this may allow adolescents to be employed in industries which are “apparently non-hazardous.” The committee also said that the ministry had “altogether ignored the provisions of the ILO Convention 138 that such occupations (in which minors cannot be employed) should also include those which can jeopardise the safety and morals of young persons.” It points out that the treatment meted out by employers can make a work environment hazardous.

Ratna proposed incentives such as access to flexible school hours, evening school hours and the provision of counseling to ensure that adolescents are aware of the industries that are safe to work in. She said that this is imperative to ensure that the law is not abused.

Rehabilitation remains a challenge

The Act also calls for the setting up of a rehabilitation fund to be used to help the children after they have been rescued from the clutches of child labour. The money set aside for each child in the fund is meant to ensure that the child does not re-enter the vicious cycle of child labour.

However, Priti Mahara, director, policy research and advocacy at Child Rights and You (CRY) said, “Going by the overall experience, disbursal of the rehabilitation fund is not very timely, and the number of cases where disbursal takes place is also very minimal due to the small number of cases that are registered under the law against child labour.”

Kavita Ratna from the NGO CWC said the rehabilitation amount often does not reach children due to ambiguity in the law on how the fund is to be disbursed.

If children do not get monetary support after being rescued from child labour, they may face severe repercussions and may be pushed into greater poverty.

Experts working in voluntary organisations on child rights believe that apart from a monetary amount, the government should provide more holistic support to children. Prabhat Kumar said, “A strong community-based child protection mechanism is needed for regular monitoring of children at the community level and to ensure that they go to schools regularly. In case the child was forced to work due to the economic condition of the family, adequate efforts should be made to provide all benefits to the family under relevant developmental and social security schemes.”

Ratna believes that the key to successful rehabilitation lies in tailoring every rehabilitation program to the child. She believes that an analysis of the child’s situation must be done and then decisions must be taken as to what programmes and schemes will be the most beneficial. Representatives from the voluntary organisations that this reporter spoke to stressed on the importance of education, and making it easily accessible and affordable. It is also important to note that many times, children are unable to go to school because they have to take care of their younger siblings, or because the family needs additional income.

Conviction rate

Although the law on child labour provides for stringent punishment for certain crimes, the conviction rate is extremely low. For instance, according to a report in The Hindu, 61 child labourers were rescued in the span of one year in Tamil Nadu, but only nine employers were convicted.

Better implementation of legal provisions

While Prabhat Kumar from Save the Children spoke about the need to dedicate adequate resources towards ending child labour, Prithi Mahara of CRY said, “There must be convergence between different departments. Further, institutions of local governance like Panchayati Raj institutions should be sensitised and empowered towards prevention of child labour in their jurisdictions, as well as rehabilitation of former child labourers”

Societal change

Mahara said, “Proper counselling of parents is certainly a very crucial step. Awareness-building programmes with parents and communities should be conducted, through which people at large can understand the ill effects of child labour. But nothing can be achieved unless the government implements livelihood schemes like MGNREGA and others with all sincerity.”

On the other hand, Kumar stressed on engaging with the private sector. He noted, "The private sector has a very important role to play in protecting children from harmful work, in improving working conditions and removing hazards from the environment of young workers. We also believe that employers that are aware of the risks of harmful work for children and what is acceptable and not acceptable for a child or young worker to do, are crucial for the protection of children.”

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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2019 07:51:31 IST