Children still at work

Print edition : April 29, 2000

In the sweatshops of Sivakasi, India's fireworks capital, children continue to be employed, despite claims to the contrary.

* Sumathi, 11, of Ammapatti village rolls 2,300 paper pipes a day at home for a fireworks manufacturing unit, and earns a daily wage of Rs.20. She had earlier been working for a year in a fireworks unit. She has never been to school.

* Chellaiyan, 12, has been fixing fuses on to crackers in a factory at Anaikuttam village for two years now. He earns Rs.30 a day. A factory vehicle picks him up at 6.30 a.m. and drops him back at 7 p.m.

* Subanna, 13, works in a shed in Tiruthangal, dyeing paper pipes and placing them in rings after they dry. He earns Rs.30-40 a day. He has been working in the shed for two years.

SUMATHI, Chellaiyan and Subanna are among the thousands of child labourers who, contrary to fireworks manufacturers' claims, continue to work in the fireworks capital of India, Sivakasi in Tamil Nadu's Virudhunagar district. Investigations by Frontlin e give the lie to the claim by the Tamil Nadu Fireworks and Amorces Manufacturers Association (TFAA) that there is no child labour anymore in the fireworks units in and around Sivakasi.

In villages across the district - Thiruthangal, Ammapatti, Alama- rathupatti, Thayalpatti, S.Anaikuttam, T.Ramalingapuram, Kottaiyur, D.Duraisamypuram, Viswanatham, Meenakshipuram, Sankaralingapuram and Meenampatti - children continue to work in - or for - fireworks-making units. Increasingly, owing to the strict enforcement of the law, the children work from their homes. As a result, and because they are paid on a piece-rate basis, the children end up working long hours.

The Sivakasi area accounts for almost all the fireworks and 75 per cent of the matches produced in the country. A number of presses, which mainly print matchbox labels, too operate in Sivakasi. Being an arid region, Sivakasi was climatically suited for t he fireworks and match industry. Additionally, in the absence of adequate alternative employment opportunities in agriculture, labour, including child labour, was cheap.

At Tiruthangal, children engaged in dyeing and cutting paper pipes for a fireworks manufacturing unit.-PICTURES: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

According to Deputy Chief Inspector of Factories K. Sidhaiyan, the TFAA has 152 member-units; 300 other units operate outside the association. The All India Match Manufacturing Association has 130 member-units; over 700 units operate outside it.

Until the mid-1990s, children were employed in all fireworks units. But in a landmark judgment in 1996, the Supreme Court ordered the enforcement of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986, which forbids child labour. Following that ord er, on a public interest petition filed by activist-lawyer M.C. Mehta, a survey of industries that employ child labour was conducted nationwide. In Virudhunagar district, 1,126 erring factories were identified and cases were filed against them; 150 of th em were later acquitted and none was prosecuted.

In October 1999, the TFAA issued newspaper advertisements that claimed that fireworks manufacturing units no longer employed child labour and challenged anyone to locate child labourers in any of the 152 registered units.

To get around the law, fireworks manufacturing units in Sivakasi have introduced changes in the work pattern. Processes such as paper pipe-making were given out to contractors, who in turn hired children to work for them or subcontracted the work to hous eholds that employed children in large numbers. Also, children were tutored to say that they were over 14 years of age (the age bar imposed by the Act); employers procured "medical certificates" as "proof of age" in respect of children who worked in the factory premises.

The production structure too changed, particularly in the smaller units with less than 10 rooms. For instance, one person may procure a licence for a unit and then lease out rooms at Rs.25,000 a room a year to two or more people. Each of the leasees oper ates independently, contracting out some jobs (say, making paper pipes or cracker fuses). The contractors may hire workers to work in their sheds or subcontract jobs to households.

Children are employed at every level in this process. A team of members from the Campaign Against Child Labour, which went to Sivakasi on October 26-27, 1999 to verify the TFAA's claim on the absence of child labour, reported that about 30 per cent of th ose employed by contractors and subcontractors were children and over 50 per cent of the factories' work done at home were by children.

Investigations by Frontline confirmed this. For instance, at a fireworks unit at S.Anaikuttam, the owner has leased out his nine rooms to two people, who employ children. When this correspondent entered the premises, she saw four children running out of the back door. At one end of a shed, Shanmugam, 11, was filling rings with paper pipes.

At a "tube works" unit in Tiruthangal, children were dyeing and cutting paper pipes and filling them in rings. Ramu, 12, who was dyeing the pipes, said he worked from 7 a.m. to 6-30 p.m. and earned Rs.30 a day on a piece-rate basis. The unit processes or ders from at least eight fireworks units in Tiruthangal.

At another small shed in Tiruthangal, about 10 people, including six children, were rolling paper pipes. Working for a contractor, each earned Rs.20-40 a day. The story was the same at Ammapatti, Tiruthangal, Anaikuttam, T.Ramalingapuram and many other v illages. In almost every household, children were rolling pipes. In a few households in the interior villages, children were making cracker fuses, a process which involves handling hazardous and poisonous chemicals, including sulphur.

At a shed in Sivakasi, where paper pipes are dyed, cut and filled into rings.-

In a few villages, people who spoke to Frontline did so with great reluctance and caution: they were worried that if the news of children making cracker fuse, which is a banned activity at that age, got around, they would lose their only source of livelihood.

According to J. Laser, secretary of the Sivakasi unit of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), in some interior villages, crackers, "flower pots" and "zameen chakkars" are made at home for the local market. According to him, children are involved in loading flower pots, fixing the fuse, making paper pipes, filling rings and making boxes - in short, in all the activities except that of mixing the hazardous and poisonous chemicals. In Viswanatham and Meenampatti villages, it is not uncommon to see chi ldren being bussed to work at 6-30 a.m.

According to M.N.S. Venkatraman, Virudhunagar district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), children aged between 8 and 14 years work in fireworks, match, printing, spinning, weaving and quarrying units. Following the clampdown on firewor ks units, children took up employment in other industries, he said.

A large number of children work in the printing units, of which there are over 350. In a printing unit in Sivakasi town that Frontline visited, three children were working. They do screen-printing (using phosphorus), varnishing (using thinner), c utting, lamination and scoring (punching work).

In the match industry, where there are over 1,000 small and tiny units, child workers, mainly girl-children, are common. They do filling, packing, labelling and box-making jobs. Filling and box-making are mostly done in the houses, where children work in large numbers.

ACCORDING to the 1981 Report on Child Labour in Indian Industries, in 1966 there were over 40,000 children below 15 years working in and around Sivakasi. The 1991 Census put the number of child workers in Sivakasi in the 6-14 age-group at 30,000. In 1994 -95, a State Government study sponsored by the United Nations Children's Fund and conducted by R. Vidyasagar put the figure at around 33,000 (of whom 30,000 were employed in the match industry and 3,000 in the fireworks industry).

In 1981, a major accident at Aruna Fireworks at Mettupatti killed 32 workers, including women and children. Over the years, there were a series of other fatal accidents, which exposed the hazardous nature of fireworks manufacture and the risk that the wo rkers, particularly the children, were subject to.

Since the mid-1980s, non-governmental organisations, academics, trade unions, lawyers and the press have undertaken a campaign to focus public attention on the exploitation of child labour in the fireworks units in Sivakasi. The State government set up v arious committees to examine the problem.

The first committee, set up in 1976 under the chairmanship of Harbans Singh, a Revenue Board member in the State, noted that children constituted 40-45 per cent of the labour force in the match units; girls outnumbered boys 3:1; children were transported from long distances and they worked long hours under unsafe conditions on a piece-rate basis; and that it was the parents' inadequate income that forced children into the work. The panel's recommendations aimed at amelioration of child labour - rather t han its abolition - as the committee felt that abolition would affect the families and the industry.

Subsequently, a district survey by the Area Development Programme Organisation put the number of child workers at 45,000. Mehta filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court highlighting the conditions of child labour in the match units in Sivakasi. In 1983 , another committee, with Land Reforms Commissioner N. Haribhasker as its chairman, was set up. That committee suggested measures for the implementation of the Harbans Singh committee's recommendations.

In 1986, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, which prohibits employment of children in match and fireworks units, was enacted.

In August 1993, a Tamil Nadu government survey of over two lakh households in Kamarajar and V.O. Chidambaranar districts found that there were 80,221 child labourers, of whom 66,000 were employed in match factories and 5,200 in fireworks manufacturing un its. It also reported that the children worked in extremely poor and unsafe conditions (Frontline, January 27, 1995).

Subsequently, a subcommittee was formed to work out a plan to eliminate child labour in a phased manner: its significance was that for the first time the focus shifted from amelioration to elimination. The committee recommended that the Integrated Rural Development Programme be targeted at the families of child workers and alternative employment opportunities be provided to the families. As a long-term solution, the committee recommended that the State exploit fully the irrigation potential of the area to increase agricultural productivity and introduce crops suitable to the arid region. The subcommittee also recommended a school enrolment drive.

In 1986, special schools were set up in Sivakasi under the National Child Labour Project (NCLP). To induce parents to take children out of work and send them to school, a monthly stipend of Rs.100 was paid to each child and a daily meal provided. The chi ldren were taught on a fast track: five years' elementary school curriculum was condensed to be gone through in three years. In 1991, 1,800 students, most of whom had been working in match units, were enrolled in 27 NCLP schools. Today there are 75 such schools. In order to create awareness and involve more people, the government has entrusted the running of over 71 schools to 20 NGOs. In a school at Tiruthangal, run by the Association for Sarva Seva Forms, V. Mahalakshmi, 12, in her second year, says: "I used to work in Vinayaka Fireworks, but after coming to the school I feel privileged and happy." Over 4,500 children in the NCLP schools apparently share her sentiments. The NCLP also provides vocational training for children in the 13-16 age group.

In May 1999, District Collector S. Krishnan organised a survey of 3.98 lakh households in the district, which showed that 20,011 children in the 6-14 age group were not in school and that 9,808 of them were at work. Following this, with help from the Int ernational Labour Organisation's international programme on elimination of child labour (ILO-IPEC), the district administration is in the process of setting up 80 Transitional Education Centres (TECs).

The national and international campaign that focussed on child labour in Sivakasi brought tremendous commercial pressure to bear on the employers. The number of international orders dropped, and sales fell by over 50 per cent last year. Krishnan said: "T he employers are falling in line willingly. It is the best time to involve them in the child labour eradication efforts."

TFAA vice-president Athi Ruban said: "We have been targeted for too long. The campaign against us is ruining our industry. We are willing to do anything that will help us continue." Asked about child labour in some factories which this correspondent visi ted, he said: "Please close units that employ child labour, but do not paint the whole industry with the same brush."

Athi Ruban claimed that by giving out contracts for making paper pipes, the industry was trying to help poor families earn more; if child labour was being used in the setting of the home, the industry could not be held responsible, he said. Asked about t he illegal manufacture of fireworks and cracker fuses in some interior villages, he said that they were intended for markets in north India. (The contractors in the villages had told Frontline that the fuses were for units in Sivakasi.) However, a s the fireworks manufacturers seem to be ready for a clean-up, they have been roped in to run some ILO-IPEC schools.

According to Sub-Collector Ashish Vachhani, 40 of the 80 ILO-IPEC schools are to be run by employers and trade unions, and the rest by NGOs. These schools are being set up in areas not covered by the NCLP. The ILO project is to run for only 24 months beg inning March 14, 2000. The idea, according to Vachhani, is to identify children who are not in school, put them through TECs and then enrol them in regular schools.

The district administration has also launched an Integrated Area Specific Approach against hazardous and exploitative forms of child labour in Sivakasi, Sattur, Virudhunagar, Vembakottai block and Tiruthangal town panchayat.

In Ammapatti, making paper pipes, at home, for fireworks factories. The girl has not been to school.-

ACCORDING to Krishnan, employers who hire child workers can be prosecuted under the Factories Act, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act and the Bonded Labour Act. In addition, fireworks manufacturers who employ child labour can be prosecuted under the Explosives Act and the Arms Act. But according to Sidhaiyan, 26 of the 55 cases that went on to trial in 1998 resulted in acquittals; in 1999, 34 of 125 cases that went on to trial resulted in acquittals. Sidhaiyan said that employers got away owing to loopholes in the law. For example, in 1988-90 a judge quashed 49 cases relating to employment of children on the ground that the Deputy Chief Inspector of Factories was not the competent authority to certify a worker's age. Further, the Child L abour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act does not prohibit the employment of children "with the aid of the family". Also, child labour is rampant in the cottage sector, which falls outside the purview of the Factories Act.

According to Sidhaiyan, the procedures for initiating prosecution under Section 200 of the Code of Criminal Procedure for employing children in a factory are cumbersome. Further, under the law a certificate from a doctor serves as sufficient proof of age of the child worker. There is no provision to send a child whose age certificate is suspect to a medical board for a review. Sidhaiyan said: "If the law is to be implemented strictly, a lot of loopholes need to be plugged."

Alongside the effort to enforce the law, however, an integrated effort - provision of universal and compulsory primary education, measures to increase wages for adults, alternative employment sources for the families and an improvement in the working con ditions for adults - is needed to help Sivakasi erase the dubious distinction of being the land of child labour.

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