May 1 is celebrated as the International Labour Day to commemorate the labour movement, which ushered in various reforms and recognises the contributions of workers across the world. However, when we talk about labour rights, we often forget child labour.
According to Census 2011, around 43.5 lakh children between the age group of 5 and 14 are working as main workers and around 57.6 lakh children as marginal workers in farm and non-farm sectors, ie, around 1 crore children are engaged in some form of work. Another 1 crore adolescent labour between the age group of 14 and 18 are also engaged in work.
However, child labour in India declined from 5% in 2001 to 3.9% in 2011. Interestingly, the nature of employment also changed significantly between 2001 and 2011. Data indicates that there has been a decline in the number of children engaged in manufacturing, but child workers are still found involved in hazardous activities such as carpet weaving, rolling cigarettes, manufacturing agarbattis, fireworks and matches.
Article 24 of the Constitution prohibits employment of children below the age of 14 in factories or industries. Yet there is a high demand for child labour in both agricultural and non-agricultural sectors. Industries mostly employ children for their low costs and as a cheaper substitute to adult labour. They are often obedient, less demanding, and easier to handle. With their nimble fingers and clear vision, they are particularly in demand for fine artistic works. They can also sit in odd postures for long hours and work without breaks. This, in turn, affects their health, reducing their capacity to work in future.
The Child Labour Act formulated in 1986 and amended in 2017 provided a legal framework prohibiting employment of children below 14 in a hazardous occupation. The National Policy on Child Labour targets education for all children below 14 and also proposed non-formal education combined with employment and income-generating schemes in areas of high incidence of child labour.
Several measures such as social labelling, where countries prohibit the import of goods that involve child labour, social auditing, where companies undertake auditing to evaluate the existing working condition of the supply chain, UN Guiding Principles, which sets obligations for the government to ensure that businesses adhere to these guidelines, have been taken. The International Labour Organisation from 1992 has worked extensively to eradicate child, bonded and forced labour. The sustainable development goal of the UN targets to eliminate child labour in all its forms by 2025.
Despite this, child labour is significantly high in our country. Studies show that legislative actions led to a shift in child workers from factories to family businesses and informal sectors, including as rag pickers. Prostitution, child trafficking and bonded labour increased as a result. This is mainly because child labour is more an issue from the supply side than the demand side.
Poor parents send their children to work to supplement household income. They are withdrawn from school and send to work. Those who try to manage both school and work together perform poorly in schools and eventually drop out. The unavailability of quality schools in the locality adds to the problem. Government schools fail to provide quality education. Even where schools exist, the belief in getting jobs from education is not very strong. The upward mobility towards graduation is thin and hence the expected return is not equal to the sacrifices made.
Household size is another issue. With a bigger household size, the elder child has to take the responsibility of younger siblings. Conditions of girls are worse as they are forced to take up household chores and take care of younger siblings while parents, specially mothers, go to work.
Child labour has seen a marked increase during the pandemic. An all-India survey conducted among 767 families and 818 children found that 75.8% of the children who were at schools before the lockdown were working after the lockdown eased. The survey divided the States into five zones and found that child labour shot up in North, South, and West zones while the rates were lower in Central and Eastern zones.
Children from disadvantaged communities are worse off. Child labour increased 280% in these communities and almost 94% of the children said they were pressured by the family to work owing to the economic crisis. To cope with the pandemic-induced income loss, many parents sent their children to work. Business enterprises incurring losses preferred children, especially adolescents, to adults.
With the online mode of education, vulnerable sections could not afford smartphones and internet connection. Hence, students could not attend classes on a regular basis, and this detachment from schools also gradually led them to get engaged in work.
The recent changes in the labour law in some States which saw an increase in working hours from eight to 12 is likely to increase the demand for child and adolescent labour.
It is high time the government took strict action not only from the demand side to stop hiring children in factories but also focused on the supply side, so that parents stop sending children to work. Making parents aware of the importance of education is necessary. Imparting affordable quality education to all children is essential.
During the pandemic, best practices should be put into place. For example, a headmaster in a Jharkhand village installed loudspeakers at various spots so that students could attend classes from their locations. In Chhattisgarh, Mohalla classes were organised in areas with low infection rates. They could also provide mid-day meals to all students.
Direct cash transfer or generating employment for parents to reduce financial distress and, in turn, the incidence of child labour needs to be taken up on priority. More investment in human capital will lead to a better economy and nation.
(Sucheta Sardar is Assistant Professor and Amarnath Tripathi is Associate Professor at Sharda University, Noida. Kalu Naik is Research Associate at ICAR-NIAP, New Delhi. Views are personal)