Labour pains

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 August, 2006, 12:00am

Savitri's day begins at 6am when she makes tea for the whole family, warms up milk for the two young children, packs their school lunch and gets them dressed and makes breakfast.

The rest of the day is spent cooking, washing up, ironing, dusting and being shouted at by the 'lady' of the house. She gets time for a bath only late in the afternoon while the family enjoys a siesta. Her day ends at 10pm when she collapses in a heap in her room - a windowless, low-ceilinged box the size of a broom cupboard.

Only 12 years old, Savitri works a 16-hour day as a maid in Friends Colony West, a suburb of New Delhi. When an 'agent' visited her parents' home in Jharkhand, eastern India, more than a year ago and told them she could earn a salary in a nice home where she would be treated like 'a member of the family', they agreed. Impoverished landless labourers with seven children, they let the agent take Savitri to the capital - in return for US$66.

'I didn't want to leave home but my parents said I'd get good food. But they [her employers] don't give me vegetables, only lentils and chappatis,' said Savitri, who misses playing in the fields with her friends and wants to go home.

Outraged at the way Indian families hire children like Savitri as domestic servants and treat them as slaves, the government is now introducing legislation banning any child under the age of 14 from working in homes, dhabas (roadside cafes) or restaurants. The legislation, effective from October, was introduced on the advice of the Technical Advisory Committee on Child Labour. The committee said that domestic work or work in restaurants and cafes left children open to physical violence, trauma and sexual abuse.

The use of child labour is already illegal in certain industries such as carpet-weaving and soap manufacture, where conditions are regarded as dangerous for children. But work in homes and small restaurants - considered non-hazardous - has been exempt. This loophole has now been plugged.

Every city in India is full of children who have lost their childhood. Instead of playing and learning, they slave in hot kitchens. Far from home, they live among strangers. They arrive in a city such as Delhi not knowing a soul.

New Delhi is estimated to have 300,000 children working in homes, tea shops or dhabas. Mumbai has a similar figure. The smaller southern city of Hyderabad has about 40,000. One voluntary group, Save the Childhood of Children, says tens of millions of children will be protected by the new law.

Large sections of the Indian middle class like to employ child servants, known by the generic chothu (little boy) or chothi (little girl).

The advantages are substantial: children can be paid less than adults, they do not answer back, are more compliant and their dependence is absolute. Rajshri, an 11-year-old domestic servant in Nizamuddin West, has begged her neighbours to help her escape (when her employers leave her alone in the house, they lock the front door from the outside so that she cannot go out), but they are reluctant to get involved.

Rajshri is the first to rise and the last to go to bed in the home where she works and is always afraid of the wrath of her employers - not just the adults but the children too. Although younger than Rajshri, the children abuse her and kick her if their food is served cold or not spicy enough.

A short distance away, at Nizamuddin railway station where crowds surge in every direction, tea shop owners do good business. Sukur, 13, has been making spicy, cardamom-flavoured tea and washing the dishes in a bucket of dirty water for the past year.

He remembers with horror his experience of working in a home. No one showed him any gentleness. If, on cold winter mornings, he failed to wake up on time, the master of the house would kick him awake and then not feed him as punishment for oversleeping.

He came to Delhi with his mother to look for work after his father died when he was nine. He has worked on construction sites, packing shelves in grocery shops and in homes. He prefers the tea shop to his earlier jobs. Some customers are nice to him and give him tips and the owner is not cruel.

Asked if, given a chance, he would return to his village in Bihar and start studying, Sukur replies with the maturity of a family man. 'I'm not a child any more,' he said. 'How can I study? I have to support myself and my mother.'

In future, Indians who employ children as servants can be jailed for up to two years. Without the new law, if a children's charity or voluntary group happened to discover a Rajshri or Sukur being exploited or mistreated, there was no law under which employers could be prosecuted.

The new law will give them a weapon. It will also expose the extent to which the middle class treats children as drudges.

'A myth spread by the middle class is that they are doing these poor children a favour by giving them food, clothing and shelter. It's a lie. The notion of charity masks the hidden exploitation of children for their own convenience,' said Shantha Sinha, who works with M.V. Foundation, an anti-child- labour group in Hyderabad.

While in public, Indians who have children slaving for them pretend to be helping them by giving them an income. In the privacy of their homes, the picture is very different. Children are often given only leftovers. With no room available, they sleep on balconies, the landing at the top of the stairs or any corner anywhere.

Perhaps worst of all is the tyranny of constantly being at everyone's beck and call. They rarely have a moment to themselves. The days can involve endless demands of large Indian families where parents, grandparents and children often live under the same roof.

Given their vulnerability, abuse of all kinds occurs. Just days after the government ban was announced, a study by British-based Save the Children into child servants in Chennai, south India, revealed shocking levels of mistreatment.

Of the 500 children studied, one-third said they were under-fed and more than 68 per cent had been punched and hit. Of this 68 per cent, 46 per cent said they had sustained injuries that were seldom attended to. More than 20 per cent had been forced by their employer to have sexual intercourse.

The report mentions Hema, 13, who worked as a domestic helper in Calcutta and was sexually abused for two years by the master of the house. 'All children are vulnerable to abuse. Child domestic workers are even more vulnerable given their social and economic powerlessness,' the report says.

Many voluntary groups that work with children have welcomed the ban. Others have reacted with hostility, citing the harsh poverty that drives children to work.

Raj Mangal Prasad, of Pratidhi NGO, calls it a 'cosmetic exercise'. 'Unless there is a mechanism for giving these children another way of earning a living, the law will be ineffective because without work they cannot survive,' he said.

The government had been spectacularly ineffective in implementing earlier laws on child labour, Mr Prasad said.

Indian governments are notorious for passing laws that are rarely enforced. It's a classic Indian syndrome - mistaking the outward form for the substance. In education, for example, the government's aim is to provide free and compulsory education for all children up to the age of 14. Yet, more than 40 million children are out of school.

Reacting to the new law, an editorial in the Hindustan Times newspaper asked: 'Who are we kidding?' It went on: 'Child labour is a function of the endemic poverty in society and attempting to tackle it through a prohibition is not likely to go far. All it will do is provide another avenue for the police ... to make money.'

Certainly, children like Savitri, Sukur or Hema will be in trouble if they are stopped from working. Savitri knows that her parents were relieved to have one less mouth to feed. Sukur and his mother, already destitute, will starve if his tiny income dries up.

Their reaction to the law speaks volumes about their helplessness. At Jungpura Extension, Wazir, 11, from Bihar, has heard about the law but wants to continue selling water with a slice of lemon from a cart owned by his employer. His meals are paid for but he gets only US$15 a month. He sleeps on the floor of his employer's one-room shack.

'I have no option but to go on doing this. My father has told me not to come back. When my mother died, he remarried and my stepmother hated me. She said I ate too much. When she told me to leave, my father agreed with her,' said Wazir who is luckier than most in having an uncle in the city whom he sees occasionally.

Alka, 12, works as a maid for a salary of US$17 a month. Her parents earn a pittance working as day labourers on construction sites. 'I hope I can continue working,' she said when asked how the ban would affect her. 'I don't think my parents can support me. If I don't work, they'll probably get me married off.'

Children's charities believe the law will only be effective if it can be backed up by supporting infrastructure to ensure no child needs to work to earn a living - but there is no evidence of this happening. They point to a government order passed several months ago prohibiting civil servants from employing children. Take a walk around a residential block built for civil servants and it is business as usual - children washing cars, minding children, cooking and cleaning. Not a single public official has been booked for this offence.

'I know the government's awful track record in making laws stick. But these things work in strange ways. If just one family in one street is prosecuted and shamed over employing a child, it will scare the whole neighbourhood. They'll worry that next the time police might come round to them. It's this fear that might work,' Ms Sinha said.