The plight of child labourers tends to grab media headlines every once in a while. Our policy-makers have also begun to give the issue its due, as reflected in the recent legislative amendments. The new legislation divides work into ‘hazardous’ and ‘non-hazardous’ occupations and processes, and also creates a distinction of work categories based on the age of the child. It bans employing both children and adolescents (within the age bracket of 15-18 years) in hazardous occupations and seeks to regulate their engagement in the non-hazardous work. While, at first glance, the provisions look promising, it is the understanding of hazards in the context of children that needs more nuanced deliberation.
The definition of ‘hazardous processes’ in child labour law has been derived from the Factories Act, 1948. It says that hazardous processes and activities are those that require special care to be taken while handling raw materials, products and wastes. Without these necessary precautions, these activities can directly affect the health of the worker or the environment. This definition squarely places the understanding of hazards in the context of factories and industries.
Coming to the subject of child labour, the phenomenon exists both within as well as outside of industries specified in the Factories Act. In the urban context, we see a large number of adolescents in domestic work, ranging from 4.2 million (officially) to 50 million (data source: National Domestic Workers’ Movement report), and most of them are girls. Given the wide range of figures, we do not know exactly how many adolescents are involved.
According to the law, domestic work is not hazardous and allows the employment of adolescents. Since most adolescent domestic workers are girls, and as there is lack of public scrutiny, they are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitations. Additional hazards include fatigue caused by long working hours, inadequate rest, denial of access to health services, education and recreation. All of these can cause long-term damage to her overall development and future life prospects.
Rag-picking and scavenging is another area which is not deemed hazardous as per the law. While it restricts entry for children below 14 years, involving adolescents is permitted. This is again an area where we do not have accurate estimates. Children begin rag-picking at tender ages of 5 or 6 years and often tend to continue. Rummaging through wastes, especially chemical and electronic wastes exposes one to serious health hazards.
The child labour legislation makes provisions that require establishments to report the employment of adolescents and states that adolescents can work only six hours a day and must have and one day off per week. However, there are enough instances where the employment of children and adolescents goes unregulated due to existing loopholes in the law.
India has ratified several key instruments including the UN Child Rights Convention (1989), the ILO Miminum Age Convention (1973) and the ILO Convention on Worst Forms of Child Labour (1999). This puts the onus on us as a nation to protect the rights of all our children irrespective of background. We must therefore strive to have the same benchmarks for all children with special focus on children of the marginalised. This can be achieved by increased investment in financial and human resources for proper implementation of the child labour law.
It is imperative that we acknowledge that adolescents are children too and have unique vulnerabilities, and recognise that by virtue of their evolving capacities and agency, the kind of ‘hazards’ children face are manifold than that of adults. Without large-scale scientific evidence, our listing of what constitutes hazardous work within the purview of the Child Labour law looks incomplete. It’s time we acknowledged the fact that children are much more vulnerable than adults, if they can be ‘handled easily,’ they can also be harmed just as easily.
Puja Marwaha, CEO, CRY – Child Rights and You