By Akash Kumar*
“Child slavery is a crime against humanity. Humanity itself is at stake here. A lot of work still remains, but I will see the end of child labour in my lifetime.” – Kailash Satyarthi
In 2015, India was termed as the ‘shining star’ in the global economy by Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman, then Commerce and Industry Minister when India continued to grow at a fast pace while major economies facing a slowdown. One of the significant competitive advantages that India has is its cheap labour cost, which makes its products competitive in the exports market, and Child labour is a significant contributor to the reduced labour costs. This statement might seem far-fetched at first, but the historical data tells a different story.
Child labour constituted 13% of the workforce in India as per the 2001 Census. While child labour is a widespread phenomenon in India, it is not understood correctly. Quite a few people are not sure about the legal age to work in India, while some believe that child labour is limited to the employment of children in hazardous occupations like mining etc. International Labour Organization defines it as “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” It includes work that impedes with the opportunity to attend the school or forces them to leave it prematurely.
According to the 2011 Census, 10.1 million children between the age of 5 to 14 years were engaged in child labour, and around 45% of them were girls. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar region alone have more than 3 million child labourers, and a significant portion of these children works in the hazardous hand-knotted carpet industry where, in the past, NGOs have reported cases of children being beaten by metal rods, burnt with branding irons and hanged from top of trees to discourage them from running. Both the central and the state governments have turned a blind eye to the situation as this carpet belt constitutes around 80% of Indian carpet exports.
Factors leading to Child Labour
There are deep-rooted problems in our society which are contributing to child labour. Poverty and illiteracy of parents are the major factors leading to child labour. They are also responsible for other problems such as lack of awareness about the harmful effects of child labour and inaccessibility to quality education, which compounds the problem even further. There are other issues as well like family indebtedness, which pushes a child into bonded labour.
Over the past two decades, several programmes and initiatives, such as calls for the boycott of goods involving child labour and introduction of social certification of products as child laboor free, are seen as potential weapons against the use of child labour. In the past, we had seen consumer boycotts across the globe, from the Swadeshi movement in India to boycotting products manufactured by slave labour in the United States. These movements were reasonably successful in creating awareness among the general masses.
Even in the recent past, boycotting campaigns by several NGOs against multinational companies regarding the working conditions of labourers employed by their suppliers have put pressure on these MNCs to take a step to improve the situation of these workers. When it comes to child labour, these practices have been ineffective and might aggravate the problem rather than mitigating it in certain circumstances. These are the possible drawbacks of these initiatives:
- When we boycott particular products, we are decreasing the demand for labour in that industry while the supply of labourers remains constant, which pushes the wages of adults down or worse, creates unemployment. This makes the condition of low-income families worse, forcing the children in these families to seek employment and thus increasing child labour in the long term.
- Consumer boycotts make the child labour undesirable or, at least it intends to, which leads to a drop in wages of children. In a country like India, where 22% of the population is below the poverty line, the income from a child’s work might be vital for the survival of most impoverished of the families. Thus, it might force these families to increase the number of children they send to work, which would lead to an increase in child labour.
- The pressure from the consumers to boycott the products might lead to the elimination of children from companies. These children might join other sectors to maintain the family income, which is more dangerous or less well paid. We witnessed a similar situation when Maharashtra government’s ban on dance bars pushed some bar dancers into prostitution due to lack of other employment options.
- These methods are ineffective against child labour in the informal sector, which we see in places like houses, shops and cafes etc. This is evident from the fact that child labourers had increased in urban India from 1.3 million in 2001 to 2 million in 2011.
The initiatives like boycotting of products are more of a band-aid solution to a problem which is deep-rooted in our society. We need some fundamental changes to make a difference on the ground level. It is a human rights issue because of which the children are deprived of the dignity they deserve and are not able to realize their full potential and to combat this issue we need the government to play a more pro-active role. India needs to adopt a uniform minimum age for employment of children, which is denied under the pretence of constitutional constraints. Other social institutions like NGOs should play the role of a watchdog in the process.
The provision of programmes for subsidies, like income-generating programmes, is required to pull these children out of the vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy and child labour. We need effective policies from the government so that we will be able to provide improved schooling to the children from less fortunate backgrounds. Provision for food, cash stipends, cloths and skill development programmes should be adopted to encourage children to join schools.
We need better implementation of the policies that are already in place to make education truly accessible and affordable for everyone which can get children away from the exploitative workplaces to an environment which is conducive to their physical and mental development. The changes in economic policies should be augmented with overall social change in the attitude of general masses towards child labour and the spread of education, and only then we will be able to curtail the exploitation of young children.
- Child Labour | UNICEF. (2019). Retrieved 17 July 2019, from http://unicef.in/whatwedo/21/child-labour
- Caesar-Leo, M. (1999). Child labour: the most visible type of child abuse and neglect in India. Child Abuse Review, 8(2), 75-86. doi: 10.1002/(sici)1099-0852(199903/04)8:2<75::aid-car508>3.0.co;2-a
- What is child labour (IPEC). (2019). Retrieved 17 July 2019, from https://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang–en/index.htm
- India a ‘shining star’ in global economy: Nirmala Sitharaman. (2019). Retrieved 17 July 2019, from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/foreign-trade/india-a-shining-star-in-global-economy-nirmala-sitharaman/articleshow/49051164.cms?from=mdr
- Ballet, J., Bhukuth, A., & Carimentrand, A. (2011). Child Labour and Responsible Consumers. Business & Society, 53(1), 71-104. doi: 10.1177/0007650311416070
- Zislis, E., Defense, C., & Walia, A. (2019). The Truth About Our Clothes & Where They Come From – What You Will Find In A Typical Western Home. Retrieved 17 July 2019, from https://www.collective-evolution.com/2017/02/08/the-truth-about-our-clothes-where-they-come-from-what-you-will-find-in-a-typical-western-home/
*Student, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad