New labour law in India will only lead to more misery for impoverished children

Amrit Dhillon says a bill allowing under-14s to work after school and at vacation time in family businesses is likely to increase drop-out rates, entrench exploitation and limit social mobility

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 11:58am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 6:38pm

Walk along any street in the Indian capital and you will invariably run across chotu (literally “little one” in Hindi, or a young child). This term of endearment, though, rarely signals loving behaviour from the employer using it. Chotu is, typically, a young boy who fled poverty in his village. He works at a roadside eatery or tea shop for 14 hours a day, eats leftover scraps and sleeps on the floor in the shop.

India’s child labour laws prohibit anyone from employing those under 14. But employers love the tiny, nimble fingers of young children for delicate work such as embroidery, bangle making or stitching cricket balls, and impoverished parents send their children to sweatshops in the cities because they can’t feed them. The 2011 national census found that 4.35 million children aged between five and 14 were working.

A new law passed last week by members of Parliament is likely to make the situation even worse. This actually allows under-14s to work, after school and during vacations, in non-hazardous family businesses.

Ending child labour requires collaboration and patient work

The logic is that poor families running a small business need their children to make a contribution. If they work after school, what’s the harm? Employers who prefer amenable workers who don’t talk back and never dare ask for a raise will love this law. Without fear or shame, they can now hire children to work for them. The definition of “family” in the law is also a problem: it is broad and includes the parent’s siblings. But who is going to conduct a DNA test to check that a child’s “uncle” is a real uncle, particularly in India, where a cousin is treated as a brother and even distant relatives are regarded as close family?

The definition of ‘family’ in the law is also a problem: it is broad and includes the parent’s siblings

The law will ensure that even more children drop out of school and end up being exploited. Parents will have no incentive to send them to school once they get used to the extra income. Missing school will become the norm and a childhood with already very little play will have even less fun.

Another effect, as human rights activist Harsh Mander pointed out, is that these children will, by dint of helping their parents, end up in the same profession. So the child of a rag picker or a potter will lose out on the social mobility that comes with education.

Of course, it’s a sad reality of life in India that poor families need an income from their children to feed themselves. A family may well suffer more hardship if children are not allowed to work in the family business.

But the difference that will be made to the family income by letting the child work is small compared with the perpetuation of poverty into future generations that will ensue if a child’s education is damaged.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India