Saving the child slaves
They’re sold by their families in India to pay off debts or snatched from their homes by traffickers to spend every waking hour working in horrific conditions. But one man is fighting to give them back their childhood. Anthea Ayache reports
Sunlight scorched the corrugated iron sheets piled haphazardly to form makeshift slum factories. Far below in one of the many workshop basements, boxes of festive baubles sparkled, their kaleidoscopic colours dancing across the low rickety walls, escaping through the scarce crevices, a mirage of freedom falsely reflected from the blinking neon strip overhead.
Glitter intended for festive toys blanketed the worn-out workbench, masking the telltale scars like snow. These elaborate ‘handcrafted’ decorations destined for December’s twinkling homes many miles away would not, however, be bringing cheer to this dimly lit factory cellar, nor to its small band of employees.
They were not a highly skilled team of adults enduring harsh conditions for a decent salary. Instead the workforce was 14 child labourers who were trafficked, forced to make decorations for 15 hours a day, beaten and starved. But these children were the lucky ones, rescued by a man on a mission to stamp out child slavery and save India’s millions of child labourers.
The malnourished boys, between the tender ages of 8 and 14, had been held captive in filthy windowless rooms in Delhi for almost a year. Their eyes strained in the dark while their shard-injured fingers struggled to make the tiny glass trinkets.
Living such a miserable existence, these boys are just a small window into the world of India’s trafficked children, millions of who are either sold by their poverty-stricken families in return for the meagre sums needed for survival, loaned to unscrupulous creditors to pay off family debts through labour or kidnapped, never to be seen again.
But these boys, referred to by the media as the Delhi 14, were the lucky ones. Their life of misery and pain would have continued had it not been for the efforts of Kailash Satyarthi, India’s leading child activist and founder of internationally recognised human-rights group Global March for Children.
He and his volunteers alongside the Delhi taskforce hit the factory with an unexpected early morning raid, and despite efforts by their captors to hide the children in a nearby windowless cell that was barely big enough to fit one adult, all were rescued.
Since then, all the boys have been through a rehabilitation programme and are back where they belong – in school.
Invisible yet everywhere
The problem of youth exploitation is vast in India, a country with the largest number of working children in the world. Government statistics claim there are 12 million child labourers in the country, however charity organisations working in the sector say the real figure is far higher and more likely to be around 50 million. Although a more modest estimate puts the figure at 15 million.
Nationwide, from the filthy city slum sweatshops to the green expanses of rural tea plantations, the innocent and voiceless toil laboriously and silently, isolated from all that lies outside their world of work.
Across urban and rural centres, children are forced to work relentlessly in industries from shoe making to gem cutting and in carpet factories to brick kilns where, as Satyarthi says, they receive no pity from their masters.
“Small children of six, seven years and older are forced to work 14 hours a day without breaks. If they cry for their parents, they’re beaten severely, sometimes hanged upsidedown from trees and even branded or burned with cigarettes. They’re often kept half-fed because employers feel if they’re fed properly, they will be sleepy and slow in their work. In many cases they’re not even permitted to talk to each other or laugh because it makes work less efficient. It’s real medieval slavery.’’
Although child and forced labour has historically been reserved for India’s agriculture sector and rural communities, the archaic tradition has spread into urban areas like an infectious disease. In the country’s sprawling cities, hidden down the littered alleys of vast garbage-spewing slums, millions of unskilled children sit hunched over their work in extremely hazardous environments.
Deprived of even the most rudimentary training, these youths carry out perilous tasks on a daily basis. Some are forced to risk the