Child Labour | UPSC 

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UPSC Syllabus: Mains:  GS Paper II: Social Justice

Sub Theme:  Child Labour| UPSC

Breaking the cycle of child labour is in India’s hands

The true extent of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on child labour is yet to be measured but all indications show that it would be significant as children are unable to attend school and parents are unable to find work. However, not all the factors that contribute to child labour were created by the pandemic; most of them were pre-existing and have been exposed or amplified by it.

The state of child labour

  • 152 million children around the world are still in child labour, 73 millions of them in hazardous work.
  • NSS Report (2017-18) suggests that 95% of the children in the age group of 6-13 years are attending educational institutions (formal and informal) while the corresponding figures for those in the age group of 14-17 years is 79.6%. Hence, a large number of children in India remain vulnerable, facing physical and psychological risks to a healthy development.
  • The Census of India 2011 reports 10.1 million working children in the age group of 5-14 years, out of whom 8.1 million are in rural areas mainly engaged as cultivators (26%) and agricultural labourers (32.9%).
  • A Rapid Survey on Children (2013-14), jointly undertaken by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and UNICEF, found that less than half of children in the age group of 10-14 years have completed primary education.

Definition of child and child labour

  1. As per the Child and Adolescent Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, amended in 2016 (“CLPR Act”), a “Child” is defined as any person below the age of 14, and the CLPR Act prohibits employment of a Child in any employment including as a domestic help.

Children between age of 14 and 18 are defined as “Adolescent” and the law allows Adolescent to be employed except in the listed hazardous occupation and processes which include mining, inflammable substance and explosives related work and any other hazardous process as per the Factories Act, 1948.

Criticism:

  • It is criticised that the Act allows child labour in “family or family enterprises” or allows the child to be “an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry”.
    • It excludes a section of toiling children in the unorganized sectors including agriculture as well as the household work
  • The Act does not define the hours of work and it simply states that children may work after school hours or during vacations.
  • India’s Census 2001 office, defines child labour as participation of a child less than 17 years of age in any economically productive activity with or without compensation, wages or profit.
  • Factories Act, 1948 prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 years in any factory. The law also placed rules on who, when and how long can pre-adults aged 15–18 years be employed in any factory.
  • Mines Act, 1952 prohibits the employment of children below 18 years of age in a mine.
  1. Notably, the Constitution of India prohibits child labour in hazardous industries (but not in non-hazardous industries) as a Fundamental Right under Article 24

Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 mandates free and compulsory education to all children aged 6 to 14 years.

  • National Policy on Child Labour in 1987 also says that “no, child below age of 14 years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or engaged in any hazardous employment”.

Causes of child labour

  • UNICEF suggests that poverty is the biggest cause of child labour.
  • Biggeri and Mehrotra have studied the macroeconomic factors that encourage child labour. They focus their study on five Asian nations including India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Thailand and Philippines. They suggest that child labour is a serious problem in all five, but it is not a new problem. Macroeconomic causes encouraged widespread child labour across the world, over most of human history. They suggest that the causes for child labour include both the demand and the supply side.
  • While poverty and unavailability of good schools explain the child labour supply side, they suggest that the growth of low paying informal economy rather than higher paying formal economy – called organised economy in India – is amongst the causes of the demand side.
  • India has rigid labour laws and numerous regulations that prevent growth of organised sector where work protections are easier to monitor, and work more productive and higher paying.
  • The unintended effect of Indian complex labour laws is the work has shifted to the unorganised, informal sector. As a result, after the unorganised agriculture sector which employs 60% of child labour, it is the unorganised trade, unorganised assembly and unorganised retail work that is the largest employer of child labour. If macroeconomic factors and laws prevent growth of formal sector, the family owned informal sector grows, deploying low cost, easy to hire, easy to dismiss labour in form of child labour. Even in situations where children are going to school, claim Biggeri and Mehrotra, children engage in routine after-school home-based manufacturing and economic activity.
  • Other scholars too suggest that inflexibility and structure of India’s labour market, size of informal economy, inability of industries to scale up and lack of modern manufacturing technologies are major macroeconomic factors affecting demand and acceptability of child labour.
  • Many economist suggest the government planned and implemented land redistribution programs in India, where poor families were given small plots of land with the idea of enabling economic independence, have had the unintended effect of increased child labour. They find that smallholder plots of land are labour-intensively farmed since small plots cannot productively afford expensive farming equipment. In these cases, a means to increase output from the small plot has been to apply more labour, including child labour.
  • The technical innovations and developments in the IT sector have not created jobs in poverty-stricken areas.

A decrease in India

One piece of good news is that child labour in India decreased in the decade 2001 to 2011, and this demonstrates that the right combination of policy and programmatic interventions can make a difference.

While child labour has declined during the past decade globally, estimates indicate that the rate of reduction has slowed by two-thirds in the most recent four-year period. These positive and negative trends have to be taken into account when developing India’s policy and programmatic response during and after the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Policy interventions such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) 2005, the Right to Education Act 2009 and the Mid Day Meal Scheme have paved the way for children to be in schools along with guaranteed wage employment (unskilled) for rural families.

Ratifying International Labour Organization Conventions Nos. 138 and 182 in 2017, the Indian government further demonstrated its commitment to the elimination of child labour including those engaged in hazardous occupations.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment-operated online portal, Platform for Effective Enforcement for No Child Labour (PENCIL) Portal since 2017. It allows government officials, law enforcement agencies and non-governmental organisations to share information and coordinate on child labour cases at the national, State and local levels for effective enforcement of child labour laws.

The present problem

The economic contraction and lockdowns ensuing from the pandemic have affected all countries in Asia, leading to income reductions for enterprises and workers, many of them in the informal economy.

The large number of returned migrant workers has compounded the socio-economic challenges.

India experienced slower economic growth and rising unemployment even before the pandemic. Subsequent lockdowns have worsened the situation, posing a real risk of backtracking the gains made in eliminating child labour.

With increased economic insecurity, lack of social protection and reduced household income, children from poor households are being pushed to contribute to the family income with the risk of exposure to exploitative work.

With closure of schools and challenges of distance learning, children may drop out leaving little scope for return unless affirmative and immediate actions are taken. As many schools and educational institutions are moving to online platforms for continuation of learning, the ‘digital divide’ is a challenge that India has to reconcile within the next several years.

The NSS Report No. 585 titled ‘Household Social Consumption on Education in India’ suggests that in 2017-18, only 24% of Indian households had access to an Internet facility, proportions were 15% among rural households and 42% among urban households. The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020 survey highlights that a third of the total enrolled children received some kind of learning materials from their teachers during the reference period (October 2020) as digital mode of education was opted for.

Way forward

The challenges are significant and manifold but it is not impossible to meet them if the right level of commitment among all the relevant stakeholders and the right mix of policy and programmatic interventions are present. It is through strategic partnerships and collaborations involving government, employers, trade unions, community-based organisations and child labour families that we could make a difference building back better and sooner. As we reinforce the commitment to protect children from unacceptable forms of work, our focus to mitigate the aftermath of the pandemic also remains.

We need a strong alliance paving our way towards ending child labour in all its forms by 2025 as countries around the world have agreed to in Sustainable Development Goal 8.7.

We — governments, employers, unions, civil society organisations and even individuals — must rise and pledge to ‘Take Action against Child Labour’ as a part of the UN’s declaration of 2021 as the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. Our actions today will determine the future of children tomorrow.

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