Law fails to slow demand for India's child workers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2007, 12:00am

Life as a maid in Delhi was not great for Sarfina Kerketa. The 14-year-old worked 15-hour days, slept on the kitchen floor, and was only allowed out of the house to run errands. Often hungry, she was unable to supplement her meagre diet - because she was not paid one rupee.

It was not until her employer, 'a very angry lady', picked up a bicycle and hurled it at her that she decided she had had enough and fled.

The girl, from the eastern state of Orissa, didn't know a soul in New Delhi. The two men and a woman who had come to her village promising to place her with a family that would pay 1,200 rupees (HK$212) a month had long since disappeared.

Soon after her escape, she ran into some workers from Prayas, a charity that campaigns against child labour. They arranged a bed for her in a children's home and a place in school. That was three years ago and Sarfina has since blossomed, discovering a talent for painting flowers.

Plenty of other children are living this life, many of them years younger than Sarfina. The government estimates that India has 12.6 million child workers aged between five and 14. Child rights activists say the real number is probably several times higher.

In India's booming cities, there is a growing desire for cheap labour. In the countryside, where agriculture is failing to support the rural population of 600 million, people are desperate for money. A growing number of placement agencies are catering to both markets.

There is no minimum employment age in India, but in October a federal law was enacted barring children under the age of 14 from working in homes, restaurants and hotels. This supplemented the 1986 child labour law, which banned the employment of children in hazardous industries.

Although the letter of the new law is stern - violators face up to two years in jail and a maximum fine of 20,000 rupees - campaigners say that so far, it has had little effect.

'It's not just that people aren't being arrested for this crime,' says Rajib Haldar, executive director of Prayas. 'Child labour is such a huge problem in India that the police can't address it alone. You can't tackle the crime without also tackling the causes.'

In January, a skinny boy was found wandering around the New Delhi railway station, hardly an unusual sight in a city in which more than 100,000 children live on the streets. But he was seen by volunteers manning the station's child-assistance booth.

The child told them his name was Harun Rashid, that he came from Bihar, one of India's poorest states, and that he had just escaped from a factory making bindis, the ornamental dots Indian women stick on their foreheads.

The 11-year-old had spent a year working long days in the factory - without being allowed out once - with five other children aged between nine and 11.

When police arrived at the address he gave in Mubarakpur, southern Delhi, they found an ordinary looking house. Since the 1986 law, many factories that employ children have moved into smaller, domestic units to avoid detection.

All six children came from the same region of Bihar and in each case, their parents had been promised 1,000 rupees by the middleman who took them away. The children were delivered back to their parents and the factory has been closed, but no one has been prosecuted.

Mr Haldar says this is typical and a result of vague legislation. 'There are cases of bonded child labour like this all over the place.'

The law, he says, should enable similar swoops on houses where children may be working, but many suspect police avoid searching domestic residences.

Save the Children recently conducted a study on child workers in West Bengal. It found that this eastern state is a popular transit hub for child workers and their traffickers because it borders three of the country's most backward states - Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa - and shares poorly guarded borders with two impoverished countries: Nepal and Bangladesh.

Of course, not all child labour is of the brutal, isolating sort. In a slum in Mumbai there are cheery, school-age children everywhere: working behind the counter in family shops and scrubbing piles of washing. Here, where recycling is big business, children are valued for their deftness at 'rag picking', sorting through huge, stinking piles of rubbish for useful bits of plastic or glass.

'Any poor child in India who is not going to school is probably involved in some kind of work, even if it is just looking after smaller children while the mother works,' Mr Haldar explains.

He says the demands of child rights groups that such children should be made to go to school are unrealistic and useless.

The fact is that for very poor children and their families, education is rarely a compelling alternative to work. Many government-funded schools have low standards and large classes, with as many as 60 pupils. Education tends to be of the old-fashioned, inflexible sort: learning by rote, with lots of tests.

A more creative approach to education suits child workers better. Part-time, vocational courses do not scare away children who have never attended school, while increasing their opportunities. At Sarfina's home, for example, girls are taught the skills necessary for working in a beauty salon.

There is little doubt that such efforts are improving millions of lives. But child labour is a symptom of poverty and until India's economic growth raises the living standard of the very poorest, there will always be child labourers. For the children themselves, work is the most ordinary thing in the world.

Asked why she did not leave her cruel employer before the incident with the bike, Sarfina, a little puzzled, replied: 'It was my job.'