In­dia’s child la­bor chal­lenge

Pro­posal shows how a coun­try re­liant on young hands strug­gles to en­sure rights

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Shashank Ben­gali shashank.ben­gali@la­times.com

SU­RAT, In­dia — Their hands fly with the speed and pre­ci­sion of vet­eran as­sem­bly-line work­ers, paus­ing only to flick sweat fromtheir shiny-smooth fore­heads.

They con­struct box af­ter card­board box, de­signed for sari shops in far-off cities, stack­ing them into mul­ti­hued tow­ers that loom above their small, hunched bod­ies.

Many of the work­ers are not yet teenagers, and they fill the dimly lighted cor­ri­dors of the tex­tile mills and ware­houses of this industrial city in west­ern In­dia. De­spite a law re­quir­ing ev­ery child younger than14 to be in school full time, mil­lions of In­dian boys and girls still hold jobs, in­clud­ing more than 50,000 in Su­rat alone, ac­cord­ing to es­ti­mates by hu­man­rights groups.

In­dia has de­clared that it wants to end child la­bor, but ad­vo­cacy groups ar­gue that a new gov­ern­ment pro­posal could ac­tu­ally push more young­sters into the work­force, jeop­ar­diz­ing their ed­u­ca­tion and putting them at greater risk of ex­ploita­tion.

Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s Cabi­net last month ap­proved amend­ments to a 3-decade-old child la­bor law that would make it legal to em­ploy chil­dren younger than 14 in “fam­ily en­ter­prises” not deemed haz­ardous.

Chil­dren would be barred from min­ing, heavyin­dus­try, man­u­fac­tur­ing fire­works or other danger­ous pro­fes­sions, but could par­tic­i­pate in vir­tu­ally any other sec­tor as long as the work was out­side school hours in a busi­ness run by rel­a­tives, says a gov­ern­ment state­ment on the leg­is­la­tion.

Modi’s con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment said it was seek­ing to strike “a bal­ance be­tween the need for ed­u­ca­tion for a child and the re­al­ity of the so­cioe­co­nomic con­di­tion and so­cial fab­ric in the coun­try.”

In many poor In­dian fam­i­lies, boys and girls as­sist their par­ents from an early age, and pro­po­nents say an out­right ban on child la­bor could harm small farm­ers, shop­keep­ers, cooks and oth­ers who rely on young hands to help them scrape by.

The num­ber of rec­og­nized child la­bor­ers in In­dia has fallen sharply, ac­cord­ing to cen­sus data, to 4.3 mil­lion in 2011 from 12.6 mil­lion in 2001, although chil­dren work­ing in fam­ily busi­nesses are be­lieved to be sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­counted. Child rights ad­vo­cates are con­cerned that the gov­ern­ment pro­posal could roll back even those gains by carv­ing out a loop­hole that­would be abused by em­ploy­ers who al­ready stretch the def­i­ni­tion of the word “fam­ily.”

In Su­rat, a fast-grow­ing city of 4.6 mil­lion, tex­tile bosses rou­tinely tell la­bor in­spec­tors that the boys em­broi­der­ing saris, fold­ing gar­ments and as­sem­bling boxes are rel­a­tives.

Gov­ern­ment sur­veys, how­ever, in­di­cate that many child work­ers in Su­rat are mi­grants from poorer states. Ex­perts say the chil­dren rarely dare con­tra­dict their bosses and au­thor­i­ties of­ten lack the re­sources to in­ves­ti­gate fur­ther.

“Fam­ily busi­ness sounds good, but what we have found is that bosses say, ‘I’m his un­cle’ or ‘he’s my son,’ and law en­force­ment is not very keen to ver­ify the claim,” said Chan­drashekhar Desh­mukh, head of the non­profit Pratham Coun­cil for Vul­ner­a­ble Chil­dren’s of­fice in Su­rat.

“If this prac­tice gets legal cover, child la­bor might ac­tu­ally in­crease.”

In­dian au­thor­i­ties are try­ing to bring child la­bor pro­vi­sions in line with a land­mark 2009 law that man­dates free, full-time school­ing for ev­ery boy and girl younger than 14. The ear­lier la­bor leg­is­la­tion banned chil­dren younger than 14 from work­ing in only haz­ardous in­dus­tries.

The amend­ments must win ap­proval of both houses of Par­lia­ment and the pres­i­dent, but an­a­lysts say they stand a good chance of be­com­ing law.

Trade unions back the ini­tia­tive, say­ing it is in line with In­ter­na­tional La­bor Or­ga­ni­za­tion con­ven­tions that re­quire coun­tries to set a min­i­mum work­ing age of at least14 and bar em­ploy­ment that would dam­age chil­dren’s health or­well-be­ing.

“It’s a very pro­gres­sive amend­ment, and it is very clear,” said Vri­jesh Upad­hyay, gen­eral sec­re­tary of Bharatiya Maz­door Sangh, In­dia’s largest la­bor union.

“Sup­pose I am a shop­keeper. My child comes af­ter school and sits with me, he helps me— that’s al­lowed. If in any way he earns money, that is child la­bor and that will be pun­ished.”

The pro­posal stiff­ens penal­ties for em­ploy­ers found break­ing the lawto up twoyears in pri­son and a fine of about $800 for a first of­fense. But it scraps first­time pun­ish­ments for par­ents, a nod to the strug­gles that prompt child la­bor to begin with.

Ed­u­ca­tors say that any regular work that takes away from chil­dren’s time to study or play out­side of school can be harm­ful to their devel­op­ment and raise dropout rates. Farm work ex­poses chil­dren to harm­ful pes­ti­cides, and in Su­rat’s gar­ment in­dus­try, which man­u­fac­tures saris and other tra­di­tional cloth­ing sold across In­dia, chil­dren work all-day shifts for as lit­tle as $1.50.

One re­cent af­ter­noon, troop­ing through the cor­ri­dors of Shiv Shakti Tex­tile Mar­ket in cen­tral Su­rat, so­cial worker Meena De­sale of the Pratham or­ga­ni­za­tion knelt and gen­tly cupped the chin of a worker who looked no older than 10. His name was Amar, he said, smil­ing sheep­ishly as he folded a stretch of bright red fab­ric.

“Are you in school?” De­sale asked.

“Yes,” came the re­ply. But when asked to name the school, Amar hes­i­tated. He went si­lent and re­turned to his work.

“They are told to say this is only af­ter-school work, to con­form to the laws,” De­sale said af­ter­ward. “But very fe­wof them can read.”

The day af­ter Su­rat au­thor­i­ties raided a restau­rant last month, two teenage work­ers from the north­ern state of Ra­jasthan sat qui­etly in the ad­min­is­tra­tor’s of­fice at a gov­ern­ment-run chil­dren’s home. One of them, Mahin­der Ra­jaram, who is from a small vil­lage, said he had served tea for two months, earn­ing about $35 each month.

Ramesh Khad­salia, a teacher at the home, said of­fi­cials were try­ing to con­tact the boy’s fam­ily to send him home. But Khad­salia said there was a good chance that Mahin­der, who said he had dropped out of school in fourth grade and did not know his age, would leave to find work else­where.

Crit­ics say the amend­ments send the wrong sig­nal from Modi’s gov­ern­ment, which has been try­ing to re­vive In­dia’s lum­ber­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor and pro­mote for­eign in­vest­ment through a glossy cam­paign dubbed “Make in In­dia.”

“There is a feel­ing that if chil­dren are blocked from work­ing, the gar­ment in­dus­try or other in­dus­try might suf­fer,” said Prab­hat Ku­marof Save the Chil­dren.

“But if you re­ally look at the is­sue, this won’t be the case. No one would sup­port the idea of ‘Make in In­dia’ mean­ing ‘ Made by Chil­dren.’ ”

Altaf Qadr As­so­ci­ated Press

CHIL­DREN work­ing as garbage col­lec­tors un­load waste in New Delhi. A pro­posal to amend a child la­bor law would make it legal to em­ploy chil­dren younger than 14 in “fam­ily en­ter­prises” not deemed haz­ardous.

Channi Anand As­so­ci­ated Press

ON THE OUT­SKIRTS of Jammu, In­dia, chil­dren carry sacks of left­over veg­eta­bles col­lected from a whole­sale mar­ket. The food will be sold in their shan­ty­town.

Channi Anand As­so­ci­ated Press

LAWS meant to keep chil­dren in school are rou­tinely flouted.

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