By Vincent Van Ross
In a country like India where there is rampant unemployment and underemployment amongst the adults, what is it that encourages child labour? It beats logic. That is the gist of what Sujata Madhok, chairperson of the Delhi Union of Journalists Gender Council, spoke of at the Workshop on Child Labour and the Media. She lamented that journalists are rarely equipped to cover these issues with the seriousness they deserve as a result of which there is dearth of labour reporting in the Indian media.
The workshop was organized by the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ) in cooperation with the International Labour Oranisation (ILO) and the Center of India Trade Union (CITU) in New Delhi was directed at sensitizing the media on the issue of child labor and to generate public opinion in order to pressurize the government to take effective measures to eliminate child labor from India.
Outlining the purpose of the workshop, Ardhensdu Dhakshi, Co-coordinator CITU-ILO Joint Campaign to Eliminate Child Labour, said the idea was to apprise the media on ground realities of this issue and also to focus on socio-economic conditions which is the main cause of child labor. He also decried the apathy and inaction on the part of the governments both at the central and state levels.
At a tender age, when a child is supposed to lead a carefree life spending its time on education and play, about 50 million children in India are forced to work under hazardous and unhygienic conditions. Some of them work as bonded labour though bonded labour is banned in India.
In response to a writ petition, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has issued directions for withdrawal of children employed in hazardous industries which envisage payment of Rs.20,000 as compensation by the employer; constitution of a child labour rehabilitation-cum-welfare fund; offering alternative employment to an adult member of the family or payment of Rs.5,000 as compensation from appropriate government; to carry out survey of children working in hazardous industries; payment of interest on the corpus of Rs.25,000 (Rs.20,000 from the employer and Rs.5,000 from the government) to the family of the child withdrawn from work; ensure education of the child in a suitable institution; and to constitute a special monitoring cell in the Labour Department of the Government
Questioning the general feeling that there is lack of awareness about the dangerous consequences of child labour, M.K. Pandhe, President of CITU, exhorted: “Please show me a single father or mother who does not want his or her child to study. No parent wishes to make their child face poverty by remaining uneducated. It is just because their earnings are so low that they cannot feed their children or afford to send them to school. The minimum wages available in the country are so low that no father or mother can think of sending the child to school.
The CITU believes that as long as there is poverty in the country child labour cannot be abolished. According to Dr. Arjun Sen Gupta Committee’s findings, over 75% of our population does not have two square meals a day. It is ridiculous to expect such starving families to educate their children.
In spite of Child Labour Act passed 20 years ago prohibiting employment of children in hazardous industries, the child labour in these industries have grown over the years as the urge to survive is more powerful than the threat of dangerous working conditions. The case of girl child labour is still worse. Apart from economic exploitation, they are also subjected to sexual harassment and exploitation.
Quoting the ILO Global Report in her keynote address, Leyla Tegmo-Reddy, Director and ILO Representative in India, said: “In 2004, there were 11 percent fewer children below 18 years involved in hazardous work than in 2000. The EFA reports also show us that there were 103 million fewer children out of school in 2006 than in 1999.”
“The ILO’s policy on child labour is contained in the child labour Conventions: the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No.138) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No.182). The rapid rate of ratification of the Conventions by countries speaks of the political will that is evident. However, India is yet to ratify either of these conventions,” explained Leyla.
The International Labour Organisation’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour which complements government initiatives benefits over 100,000 child workers directly. However, India has not ratified the ILO conventions in spite of being one of its founder members. Leyla appreciated the role of the media in working towards eradication of child labour in India in spite of its many limitations.
CITU General Secretary and former West Bengal Labour Minister Mohd Amin who is currently a Member of Parliament narrated a horrifying tale of how the employers in the stone-crushing and cement industry literally choke child labour to death. He said the dust inhaled by the children forms a coating inside the respiratory canal and in three to four years it gets solidified like cement. This ailment is called silicosis. Once that happens, the child develops respiratory problems which eventually choke the child to death. The employers usually employ the children for three years or so and then they remove them under some pretext and leave them to die.
Senior development journalist, Bharat Dogra, stressed the need for ensuring proper perspective in reporting child labour issues. He cited two striking examples of carpet industry and beggary. In fact, the campaign to pull out child labour from the carpet industry resulted in the collapse of the industry itself. Similary, a campaign against children being forced into begging, turned anti-begging and anti-poor. He said the media should ensure that its campaigns do not end up in such negative impact.
Ashok Agarwal, an advocate specializing in labour-related issues, emphasised that we must have a well-oiled process of rehabilitation in place for dealing with rescued child labour before the children are rescued. There is still so much of confusion about what to do with the children after they are rescued from hazardous industries. In fact, the children find themselves neither here nor there. That is a pitiable state of affairs as far as the rescued children are concerned.
Coming back to the core of the issue: Why do we have child labour when there is a large section of adults who are unemployed or under employed? The reason is simple. Child labour comes cheap and they are open to use and abuse.
What can we do to eradicate child labour? If we ensure sustainable remuneration to adult labour, the parents may think of sending their children to school. Education can work as a deterrent to child labour. When the family is on the verge of starvation, we cannot expect the parents to educate their children.
What could be the role of labour unions to ensure a fair deal to child labour? The labour unions can help put up an effective monitoring system to ensure that work assigned to children is in keeping with the laws relating to child labour. In fact, they should also consider the possibility of enrolling children as their members so that they can fight for their rights.
What can the Non-Government Organisations do to help child labour. There are many NGOs working to improve the lot of child labour. They can do a lot to help rehabilitate children who are rescued from hazardous industries. The rehabilitation process ends at child home as far as government departments are concerned. That is more depressing for the child. The NGOs can also work towards getting school admissions for children of the weaker sections and children rescued from hazardous industries.
What can the media do to help eradicate or improve the lot of child labour? Here it is necessary to mention that the print and electronic media do not attach too much importance to labour issues leave alone child labour. One reason is that most newspapers and magazines are owned by large business houses and are advertisement driven. The electronic media, as we all know is TRP driven. However, that should not deter committed journalists from finding space and squeezing in these stories whenever possible. Also, there is need for follow-up of these stories till they reach their logical conclusions.