Why New Child Labor Laws in India actually encourage Child Labor

India's Child Labor Laws were recently amended - with exemptions that encourage the exploitation of children. 

I am extremely concerned about India's recently implemented new law against child labour.

The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill was introduced in India's Federal Parliament, and on July 19 2016, the Indian Upper House (Rajya Sabha) approved the amendments. The Bill seeks to prohibit the engagement of children in all occupations and prohibits the engagement of adolescents in hazardous occupations and processes. This Bill comes as an amendment to the old Child Labour Act of 1986.

So, the key question is: has the law improved child labor exploitation?

The amended legislation still leaves significant loopholes in the law which even might increase child labour – especially of children aged 14 and under.

The new law prohibits all employment of children under 14 years, and it is prohibited for children under 14 years to work in mines, to work with inflammable substances or explosives and to do ‘hazardous work’, which includes 28 sectors – such as the production of coal, cement, metal, leather, chemicals, glass and dyes. 

The list does not include: the entire agricultural sector, including the use of pesticides, but also the labour in garment factories, spinning mills and weaving. 

Two major positives of this law reform is: 

  1. the amended legislation carries significant penalties for employers in the case of child labour, with a lengthier imprisonment sentence, and greater fines, and for a second offense an imprisonment of 1 to 3 years can be imposed; and 
  2. the law  finally gives the right to free education to all children up to 14 - obliging parents to send them to school.

Exceptions in the new legislation is the loophole that leaves poor children more vulnerable: 

The biggest problem with the new law is an exception in the legislation that says that children under 14 may help their family after school with work or may work in a ‘family enterprises’.

According to the Minister of Labour, Bandaru Dattatreya, the child is not permitted to enter an employer-employee relationship - with the exception of family work - which is necessary - because of the ‘socio-economic backwardness in society’.

Children under 14 often work full days, or before and after school dong menial tasks - because parents usually make so little money with the very low pay for each item they produce - that children are involved in the 'family business' to increase home production.

This leaves many vulnerable families living in debt bondage, and those living under the poverty line - in an extremely vulnerable circumstance. A  lot of work in India is outsourced by companies and subcontractors to families living in these circumstances.

The result of the Amended Child Labor Laws in India therefore results in legitimising exploitation of the poor and vulnerable, whereby: "a growing trend of outsourcing, contractors who farm out work to families at exploitation rates", as expressed by The Hindu Business Online

So, why will these amendments in legislation not assist victims, or put away traffickers? 

It's estimated that millions of children in India live as modern-day slaves. They work in the fields, in factories, brothels and private households - often without pay and usually with no realistic chance of escaping. The majority of them are sold or hired out by their own families.

According to an Indian government census from 2001, this country of over 1 billion people has 12.6 million minors between the ages of 5 and 14 who are working.

The real number is undoubtedly significantly higher because many children are not officially registered at birth -- and the owners of course do their best to keep the existence of child slaves a secret.

Aid organizations estimate that three-quarters of all domestic servants in India are children, and 90 percent of those are girls. Although both child labor and child trafficking are illegal, police rarely intervene - and the courts seldom convict child traffickers and slaveholders.

Children's education and health are compromised: 

Children's education and health are being compromised, as children are "unable to straddle both school and work, they are forced to give up the former" - as stated by Shantha Sinha, former head of the Indian National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights and renowned children's activist of the MV Foundation.

It is know from research, that on an average school day only 71% of the enrolled children are actually in school in India, with disastrous consequences for their basic literacy and numeracy knowledge, and of course - for their future employment opportunities.

Corporate social responsibility needs to be a priority! 

Some businessmen are really pleased with the new law, with one business owner declaring: “Earlier I could only hire someone aged above 18. Now I can employ more people… I pay an underage employee only 100 rupees ($1.95AUD). It is a big saving" according to an article by BBC News.

Child labour before and after school continues - and reinforces extreme forms of exploitation of families in India under the pretext of: there is plenty of cheap children available, so why pay more to adults.

 The Indian parliamentary commission- which reviewed the law is very critical of ‘family work' after school, expressing concern for how the Ministry may keep a check on children working in their homes. 

Although on 4th July 2016, 55 businesses, their trade organisations, the Dutch government and several NGOs signed the Agreement on a Sustainable Garment and Textile Sector, child labor will still continue in India. 

PictureThis agreement is an important step towards more responsible business conduct, but the reality remains - most Indian families of a lower caste, or families living in debt bondage cannot financially survive - unless their children are working before and after school at home - or during school hours with their parents. 

How can corporate social responsibility survive the great economic forces and growing injustice and inequality in the world? - Corporate Social Responsibility MUST be prioritised! 

Caste hierarchy is perpetuated under these new laws: 

UNICEF also is critical of the law, noting that the number of child labourers is highest among Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi) - particularly in rural areas, and noting that child labour in cities is increasing due to ‘children migrating or being trafficked to work in hazardous small industries or construction sites’.

Advocates also have voiced their ongoing concerns over wthe new Child Labor Laws in India, noting that the Bill denies children working in 'the family business' the time and space to develop and grow as citizens with similar choices and opportunities that children from affluent families enjoy, and thus contributes towards fostering existing inequalities and discriminatory practices in society - particularly of the lower caste - Shanghai Sinha:  The new law banning child labor is no ban at all.

The Untouchables targeted: 

Even though India has been a democracy for almost 70 years, the systemic perpetuation of caste discrimination - particularly of the ‘untouchables’ or Dalits is still entrenched in Indian society. As a result the Dalits continue to be at the bottom of the production chain as well as at the bottom of society. 

PictureThe UN human rights treaty, bodies and rapporteurs , such as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
Concluding observations (2014) CEDAW/C/IND/CO/4-5 continue to address the inhuman treatment of the untouchables, despite push-back from the Indian Government. 

As a developed country in a developing region, Australia has to  join forces and do what we can to support organizations in India and elsewhere fighting for the rights of vulnerable women and children - in a regionally collaborative manner, setting aside political, cultural and social differences for the sake of the poor, the vulnerable and the exploited.  

As consumers, tourists and advocates, we need to make sure we are making ethical choices with our purchases, that we do not create a demand for trafficking through our global footprint, and that we become more informed, and better at telling others about the horrific human right violation occurring every day to the most vulnerable in our region.
Let's do all we can to end modern day slavery in our lifetime - one child at a time! 
You can be informed by reading more information about human trafficking in India on the Global Slavery Index website on India here.
You can sponsor a child to help them and their families out of poverty through the Australian and New Zealand Dalit Freedom Network here

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