Fettered childhood

Published : Jul 16, 2004 00:00 IST

Child workers of a brick kiln in Chennai. - V. GANESAN

Child workers of a brick kiln in Chennai. - V. GANESAN

Effective state intervention to eliminate inequities, including class and caste barriers to employment and other opportunities in areas such as health and education, is required to end child labour.

THE World Day Against Child Labour, observed on June 12, went largely unnoticed as millions of children around the world continued to live and work in hazardous conditions and in dire poverty, with no access to education and health services. The limitations of just a few national and international agencies trying to raise public awareness about child labour is clear by its widespread prevalence, as indicated by statistics brought out by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

According to estimates, in 2000 there were nearly 211 million working children, the largest number in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Globalisation, coupled with the flooding of cheap imported industrial goods, has resulted in the destruction of local arts and crafts industries, destroying the livelihood of a vast section of the populace, especially women and children. The constant need to reduce costs to be competitive internationally has led to the lowering of real wages for adult workers and an increase in the employment of child workers on low wages.

The withdrawal of the state from social sectors, coupled with the privatisation of resources and the lack of employment opportunities, has aggravated the situation. Indeed, the jobless growth of the past decade has increased the pressure on the poor to adopt livelihood strategies that have resulted in each member of the family having to earn for a living. With rising job insecurity, children and women play an important role by supplementing the family income by working in tanneries, brick kilns, backyard enterprises, the cottage clothing industry or the sports goods industry.

Child labour, consisting of children below 14 years of age, is defined by the ILO as "the type of work performed by children that deprives them of their childhood and their dignity, which hampers their access to education and acquisition of skills and which is performed under conditions harmful to their health and their development" (ILO/United Nations Children's Fund, 1997). These children are often employed in low-skill, low-wage jobs with long working hours. Many of them work in hazardous occupations as bonded labour and are frequently abused by their employers.

Many children work as domestic labour or as industrial and agricultural labour or do street work, and are prone to commercial and sexual exploitation. Young girls have been drawn into prostitution and drug trafficking and peddling.

IN India, the 1999-2000 National Sample Survey (NSS) data indicate a high incidence of child labour, with 8.4 million children active in the labour force. If the wider definition of child labour is accepted, which is that all the children who do not attend school should be counted as child labour, the incidence of child labour is enormous. Nearly 53.95 million children did not attend school in 1999-2000, which would mean 62.35 million children in the labour force, or 27.32 per cent of the child population between five to 14 years of age.The vicissitudes of rural agricultural and non-agricultural work and the schedule of schools do not necessarily preclude school-going children from working for wages or in family occupations. Hence the data on the precise numbers of child workers can at best be tentative. Schools, which could be a source to wean children out of the labour market and put them through a process of learning, skill enhancing and, maybe, just living a healthy childhood, cannot do so in a vacuum.

The differential access to school education varies according to the place of residence - rural or urban - and income levels. Poorer sections of the population neither can afford school expenses nor find them useful, especially when the family is undernourished and under-clothed. In some instances, children from disadvantaged castes and poor backgrounds might stay enrolled in a school to avail themselves of mid-day meal schemes or other such incentives. Generally, `self-employed' children on family farms and other occupations appear to opt for work rather than school. This, therefore, is a decision of the family where the returns from school education at a later date are less significant compared to the labour contribution made by these children at present.

In any case, most of the children are employed in the agricultural sector or in the low skill sectors where years of schooling is not seen as being of much use. The evidence from the NSS data indicates that the decline in the incidence of child labour was sharp between 1987-88 and 1993-94, which slowed down in the subsequent period of 1993-94 to 1999-2000, This has to be seen in the context of an overall decline in labour force in all the States during this period, the deceleration of economic activity from 1995 onwards, the under-reporting of child workers in general and in particular to utilise the mid-day meal schemes wherever implemented, and the international campaign against child labour. A large proportion of rural children active in the labour force are from Scheduled Caste households. There has been a continuous increase in the proportion of children employed as `casual' labour. Labour force participation by girls in the five-14 age group is highly prevalent. In fact, urban female child labour plays an important role in the enterprises in the unorganised sector.

The decline in the incidence of child labour need not necessarily imply improving economic conditions of the households, which could have led to the withdrawal of children from the labour market. Rather, it could be a result of the lack of availability of jobs in the segment for child labour the shifting of child workers to the subsistence sector, the campaign against child labour and, at times, exaggerated data on school attendance of children. This is particularly true of rural children.

There is a high degree of regional variation in the incidence of child labour. Kerala has the lowest incidence of child labour and has no child workers for the 5-9 age group. Andhra Pradesh has the highest number of male and female child workers. The incidence of child workers is above the national average in Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The vast difference in the incidence of child labour between rural and urban areas is significant at 9.1 per cent for rural boys and 4.9 per cent for urban boys in 1999-2000. Similarly, the incidence of female child labour was at 9.6 per cent in rural areas and 3.6 per cent in urban areas in 1999-2000.

The policies of structural adjustment, liberalisation and globalisation in India have resulted in jobless growth during the 1990s. Since 1995-96, the agricultural growth rate has been very low and industrial growth too has slowed down. It is the service sector and the unorganised manufacturing sector that have grown relatively rapidly. However, they have not been able to offset the decline in employment levels in the farm sector and the organised industrial sector. There has also been pressure on the government, particularly during the 1990s, to cut the expenditure on public sector enterprises, the social sector and welfare measures as also on rural infrastructure.

While the reduction in the expenditure on public enterprises and rural infrastructure has led to a decline in employment, the cuts in the expenditure on the public and social sectors and on welfare measures has led to a rise in the cost of living and a decline in the quality of life for both the rural and urban poor. They have to spend more on education and health while paying higher costs for food and other necessities. The crisis is further compounded as businesses keep wages low in order to be competitive in an increasingly globalised economy.

The poor have to redefine their survival strategies, in such a way that each member of the household, including children, has to contribute either through direct participation in the labour market or through helping in the house as a caretaker. Children, working in fields, grazing cattle or winnowing paddy, not only are extra hands but enable adult labour to seek employment away from the villages.

Migrating to towns and cities becomes an important component of this survival strategy where children are employed in carpet factories, brick kilns, lock-and-toy making units, the sports goods industry and other enterprises in the unorganised sector. The ever-increasing numbers of old and young migrant workers living in the slums and shantytowns in cities constitute the low-wage, low-skill labour for the small and medium enterprises.

While the poor might consider child labour as one of the components of their survival strategies, the demand for such labour for specific tasks and enterprises needs to be noted. The persistence of child labour in a period when the unemployment levels for adult workers are increasing appears to be paradoxical. If the adult population is unable to find employment and is available for work, the employment of children for specific types of work and in specific industries occurs because of the demand for such labour and not labour shortages.

This can be explained by the nature of the labour market, which is segmented owing to caste, gender and class divisions and, therefore, provides distinct areas for employment for child workers. Owing to the complex structure of the labour market, children who work in brick kilns, at construction sites and in related activities belong to specific castes. In urban areas, children work as domestic help or as labour in small and large enterprises of various types, many of them in tune with the caste to which they belong. Many of the menial tasks for which children are employed have always been assigned to the poor in society, which are categorised as the `lower castes'.

The caste/class-based segmented labour market in India has led to a situation where occupational groups are demarcated and child workers have to stay within the bounds of caste and class affiliations. The child workers, therefore, do not compete with the overall adult labour force, nor are the issues of skills, knowledge or productivity primarily related to the occupations they are employed in.

The combination of caste, class and gender keeps girls entrenched in family occupations. They work on the fields and carry out essentially productive tasks, such as cattle care and cooking. Although female labour participation is very low owing to the traditional roles of a wife and a mother assigned to Indian women, which confines them to their homes, young girls are pushed into employment to supplement the family income despite their wages being far below the average male wage. Young girls constantly face sexual and physical abuse at the workplace and are kept away from long-term schooling.

The discriminatory wages paid to child workers, particularly female child workers, keeps them apart as a segment in the labour market so that they are not seen as competition to adult workers. Child workers, both in urban and in rural areas, are not paid the adult wage, as children are not considered the main breadwinners or as productive as adult workers. Children from poor and disadvantaged sections of society are taken as apprentices and trained over a period of time mostly without any payment. At times, wages for the children are paid in advance as loans to the parents, and it is the children who have to work in bondage to pay back the loan. Child workers thus help in maintaining pre-capitalist relations when they work in bondage to help repay loans taken by their parents.

It is often argued that the phenomenon of child labour can be eradicated by the spread of universal elementary education. However, a few studies have discounted a direct relationship between the incidence of child labour and the number of children enrolled or the number of schools in the area. Nonetheless, the dropout rate from schools is correlated with the incidence of child labour in these studies. The need to send children to school would depend normally on the expectations of the parents from the labour market.

The education of girls is more dependent on interrelated factors like patriarchy, class and caste than on improving their status in the labour force. Studies have shown that a regular income and salaried employment of parents are significant factors for keeping children at school. The significance of quality universal education at the elementary level cannot be questioned and the necessary facilities should be supplied by active state action.

The deleterious effect of the work that child workers perform results in ill health, malnourishment, lack of sleep and other disorders. These children carry such ailments into their adult life, thus forming a part of the sick and under-productive labour force. For example, tobacco dust causes burning of eyes, conjunctivitis rhinitis, mycosis, dryness, occupational dermatitis, bronchitis; cutting, shaping or polishing a gemstone by holding it against a fast-moving circulating disk often causes blisters or cuts in the fingers which at times can cause gangrene; or peering closely at gems for eight to 10 hour a day for 10 to 15 years of continuous employment in the gem industry can permanently damage the eyes.

Children who start working at a young age, particularly in factories and sweatshops in urban slums, develop chronic health problems. Long hours of work, lack of sleep, half-empty stomachs and work on complex machines contribute to accidents. Studies have shown that the majority of the child workers have a low capacity to work, as they are anaemic and malnourished. They are, therefore, condemned to even longer working hours to accomplish their tasks. The overcrowded and unhygienic workplaces become ideal sources of infections and diseases of various types. Children are also exposed to toxic substances in mines, factories and hothouses. Postural disabilities are developed in jobs that require constant bending. Children exposed to lead poisoning in their workplaces face detrimental effects in their brains.

The strategies discussed to eradicate child labour include banning it, providing universal elementary education, providing learning facilities at workplaces, and offering mid-day meals in schools. While the state has to implement effectively the laws against child labour, it also has to play an important role to empower economically the disadvantaged sections that are dependent on children's earnings.

The children of migrant workers, female-headed households, agricultural labourers who migrate in search of work, children of brick kiln workers (who are most often from Dalit and tribal households), children of commercial sex workers, street children, children of home-based workers, and children of nomadic tribes constitute a broad target group for state intervention. The effectiveness of the intervention will, however, depend on the removal of poverty, availability of long-term employment, and the removal of class and caste barriers to employment and other opportunities in society.

Child workers as a segment of the labour market, employed at discriminatory wages in low-productivity sectors, counteract interventionist strategies such as universal elementary education and mid-day meal schemes and other incentives to the children and their parents. While these and other, more elaborate, initiatives need to be sustained, particularly by the state, it is important to underline the processes that provide the seed-bed for child labour. A society divided along lines of caste and class, where opportunities are limited, leads to the negation of any positive impact of measures for keeping children away from work. These children from the poorer sections are disadvantaged from their childhood as they suffer from malnutrition, ill health, unhygienic living conditions, illiteracy and the limits set by factors like class and caste. These are further compounded by the economic policies of the state, which serve to marginalise large sections of the population.

Shakti Kak teaches in the Department of Economics, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi.

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