Changes to Labour Laws to Approve Child Labour are Simply Wrong

What is The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986?

Sachin is a cobbler who works day and night to be able to provide for his family. His family have worked as cobblers for decades with the trade being passed down from father to son. Sachin has a 12 year old boy, Akash, who he would like to follow in his footsteps. Sachin feels that giving Akash a trade will help him in the future to get married and provide for his family. Akash is Sachin’s oldest son, so Sachin needs to make sure he is married well so his other sons and daughters do not suffer. However, the law is stopping Sachin from teaching Akash his trade.

child labour laws

In India, this act was introduced as a means to ban employment of children under 14, identify banned occupations and processes, regulate sectors in which child labour is allowed, e.g. film, and to declare penalties for violations. This law does require change. An editorial in The Hindu states the law is “weak and ineffective in curbing child labour”, in contradiction with “the Constitution and the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 that makes schooling compulsory for all in the age group of six to 14 years” and “does not regulate adolescent labour as mandated by ILO Conventions 138 and 182”.

Akash goes to school every day. It is not a good school, but he is able to read and write and has a rudimentary understanding of mathematics. He knows is will become a cobbler when he grows up. His father and mother expect it, as do all the elders in his village. It is a stable job, and Akash will then find his place in society just as his father and grandfather did before him.

What’s wrong with the proposed changes?

changes in child labour laws India

The government is looking to change the law so that children under 14 can work in ‘family enterprises’. Leaving aside for now what a ‘family enterprise’ means, and the myriad of ways this will allow unscrupulous individuals to circumvent an already “weak and ineffective” law to gain from child labour, let’s focus on the reason for the law being changed. The government is seeking to increase labour opportunities for the poor so they can work their way out of poverty. But is this justified?

Nobel Peace Prize winner, Kailash Satyarthi wrote “there exists a vicious circle between poverty, illiteracy and child labour”. Having children working instead of in schools means that the family unit will not break this cycle. “Children excluded from education grow up to be illiterate and economically vulnerable. These children are at high risk of exploitation and are more likely to be pulled into child labour at the cost of their health, education and well-being.” In the long run, poverty is not broken by children working, but through being educated, so any law that influences this balance towards work is not the right answer.

Akash is a curious boy. He enjoys school where he has made good friends and though he doesn’t like all the subjects, he is particularly interested in maths and sciences. However, this may all change soon, as his father says the work at his shop is too much for him alone. Also, Akash’s sister is ill and needs to go to the doctor, so the family need to make a little more money over the next few weeks.

Sachin decides that it would be best for the family that Akash leave school for a few weeks to help at the shop. It will only be for the short term, after which Akash can go back to school. It will help the family in their time of greatest need. No one really inspects or enforces the child labour law anyway, especially not when it involves children helping the family. So there isn’t really any danger, and Sachin heard the government is trying to change the law anyway so families can work together, which Sachin thinks is sensible.

Why are the children expected to earn?

If there is a job to be done and wages to be paid, then surely it should go to an adult. In developing nations there is a multitude of unemployed looking for decent jobs. The usual story is that children work because their families are poor and the money they earn supplements the family’s income, or that culture and tradition dictates that it is normal for children to work. However, the true answer is very different. Mr Satyarthi wrote it is because “children are the cheapest form of labour available. They are not aware of their rights, are easily misled and are too young to speak against their conditions.”

A few weeks go by, and Akash goes back to school. However, he has fallen behind and none of the teachers are willing to help him catch up. He continues to go to school and still enjoys it, but becomes less interested in studies as he has missed out on too much foundation work.

A few months go by, and Akash’s mother falls ill. Sachin again pulls Akash out of school to help with short term cash issues. Again after a few weeks Akash goes back to school, but now he is further behind. He only really goes to meet with his friends. Studies have little interest for him now. He knows he will become a cobbler.

Can India afford to allow child labour?

In the short-term, it may seem that child labour can alleviate extreme poverty or times of great financial stress. In the medium to long term, India will lose out. In an article published in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, Kalpana Srivastava points out the physical and mental health consequences of child labour. This becomes either a burden on Indian society where there is little in the way of public services, or a burden through missed opportunity. A number of reports have shown that educating children benefits a nation through companies hiring more productive staff, families gaining from higher wages, and the nation collecting more in taxes.

Oftentimes, developing countries point to the hypocrisy of industrialised nations, as they also used to employ child labour during the industrialisation phase of their development. This is true, but circumstances are different now. In a paper by Weisbrot, Naiman and Rudiak, the authors state “developing countries could be in a better position to regulate or ban child labour today than industrialized countries were in the past, if the high-income, importing countries were to support such a policy”. Nevertheless, the government of India now is surely more enlightened than the government of 18th century Great Britain. As Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Once Akash turned 14, Akash started working in his father’s shop full time. He didn’t need school any longer, and concentrated on learning his family’s trade so he too could get married and raise a family. The trade will help him support his family. Akash’s mother wonders what Akash could have been if he was provided an education.

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About the Author

Sukhdev is a British Indian, who has lived and worked in a number of cities including London, New York, Boston, Vilnius, Bogota and Dubai, where he resides with his wife. He currently works to help start-up companies that have a social impact. His latest venture is Chanzez, which will produce (not source) clothing ethically and use profits generated in the production countries solely to fund social impact projects such as school scholarships. Sukhdev is a CFA charter holder with an MBA with top honours from Columbia Business School in New York, an MSc from The London School of Economics and a BSc (Hons) from Aston University in Birmingham, England.

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