The Problem of Child Labour Needs More Than One Solution

Policy measures to counter the problem of child labour in India will not succeed if it is only treated as an economic issue.

In her book The Creation of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner suggests that the monogamous family system evolved precisely because children were seen as a valuable resource in early tribal societies that sought to control women’s sexuality because of their ability to bear children. Lerner wrote:

As long as children were a threat to the survival of the tribe or, at best, a liability, such distinctions would not be noticed or would not matter. But if, due to changes in the environment or in the tribal economy, children became an asset as potential labor power, one would expect the exchange of children of both sexes to give way to the exchange of women.

Children were employed as familial labour and were expected to contribute to the household economy. Even after the Industrial Revolution, factory owners in Europe preferred to employ children wherever possible because they could be paid half of what an adult worker would need to be paid. In fact, in plantations in formerly colonised nations, where labourers were largely migrants, owners preferred to employ a family instead of four men, because it presented a double benefit: they could pay a family less than what they would need to pay four male workers, and a family ensured that their workforce was reproduced within the plantation,  thereby saving the owners the trouble of having to constantly look for more sources of labour.

It was only in the 20th century, that the need to educate children before employing them was recognised. In the second half of the century, when education began to be considered one of the most important indicators of development, governments all over the world started thinking of eradicating child labour as a practice.

In this reading list, we examine the phenomenon of child labour and look at how India has handled the issue.

1) A Consequence of Poverty?

The 2011 Census shows that child labour has been a chronic problem in India and at least 10.1 million children are still employed by various industries. In his 2004 article analysing National Family Health Survey (1998–99) data, S Mahendra Dev argues that the occurrence of child labour is dependent on several demand and supply side factors. He reiterates the commonly held notion that poverty compels families to send their children to work in order to augment the family income, and therefore, in countries with high levels of poverty, child labour will be correspondingly high. In addition, he writes that socio-economic factors like female literacy, fertility rates, family size, adult wage rates, diversification of the rural economy, and female work participation rates are also important determinants of child labour.

The dismal plight of India's children between six and 14 years of age is vividly brought out by Myron Weiner: "Less than half of India's children between ages six and 14—82.2 million— are not in school. They stay at home to care for cattle, tend younger children, collect firewood, and work in the fields. They find employment in cottage industries, tea stalls, restaurants, or as household workers in middle class homes. They become prostitutes or live as street children, begging or picking rags and bottles from trash for resale. Many are bonded labourers and working as agricultural labourers for local landowners."

2) Not Just an Economic Problem

Child labour has traditionally been understood as a symptom of economic underdevelopment. This conception assumes that if a country is able to achieve higher rates of economic growth, it will automatically eliminate poverty because of which child labour will cease to exist. Kiran Bhatty, however, has argued that this notion is incorrect and that child labour cannot be posited as an economic problem alone. If there is sufficient political will to enforce primary education, then children can be kept away from hazardous workplaces.

Child labour must be seen as less a phenomena of poverty and more of social attitudes and sensibilities. This is evident from the fact that the developed world tackled this problem much before its economies grew strong. And even in the developing world there are countries where this problem is relatively non-existent. The extent of child labour in certain industries and the social degradation and damage it leads to in the long run must force us to acknowledge the social dimension of the problem and the moral and ethical questions it raises. Only when society as a whole internalises this sentiment will there be enough conviction to make a positive impact on the eradication of child labour.

3) Gendered Dimension of Child Labour

Adding to the argument about social attitudes being responsible for child labour, Neera Burra emphasised the importance of expanding the definition of child labour beyond wage labour. She pointed out that the contribution of girls to the household economy is often unpaid and unrecognised. Their labour goes entirely unacknowledged and there is practically no effort to send them to school because of long-standing stereotypes and norms that perpetuate gender discrimination.

It can be argued from one universalist perspective that those parents, who believe that girls need to be socialised into their adult roles as children and that formal education has no meaning for them, suffer from false consciousness. Social and historical circumstances determine the range of choices that communities, families and individuals are presented with and it is possible to keep adding to the list of what many would consider indefensible like, for instance, the practice of child marriage in India or the practice of female circumcision in Africa.

4) Legal Loopholes

The elimination of child labour from the production process altogether requires a two-pronged approach to curb it at both the demand side and supply sides. Ann George and Dev Nathan have argued that corporate initiatives can deal with the demand side, but social policy intervention is required to deal with the supply side. Consequently, corporations need to move beyond legal obligations and adopt social responsibility measures to successfully prevent children from entering the workforce. However, there is little incentive for them to do so because employing children is economically advantageous. Laws have proven to be inadequate in preventing corporations from hiring children, especially since corporations often exploit legal loopholes. For instance, in India, two different legal regimes guide the understanding of child labour and this is exploited by corporations to employ children.

India's Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986 allows children beyond the age of 14 to work in factories or elsewhere as regular workers. However, international contracts often include a clause about the non-employment of anyone below the age of 18, the internationally accepted and the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) definition of adult labour—so not employing anyone below the age of 18 becomes a contractual rather than a legal obligation.

5) Counterproductive Amendment

Adding to the already weak laws, the amendment made to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act,1986, in 2016 sought to allow children to work in family-based enterprises, despite the increase in the number of child labourers in urban areas recorded by Census 2011. Komal Ganotra criticised the government’s position that children learn the basics of an occupation if they help their parents. She argued that it defeats the purpose of protecting children from exploitative labour.

Looking at this multidimensional problem and the gravity of the issue, one of the major concerns with the amended bill is that it proposes to allow children to work in family-based enterprises. In reality, only 33 children out of every 100 complete their higher secondary education in our country age-appropriately, according to District Information System for Education 2014–15, and children who combine school with “economic roles” may ultimately drop out of school due to extended periods of work.


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