New Delhi: While welcoming the Cabinet’s decision to ban the employment of children below 14 in any kind of commercial work and of children up to the age of 18 in hazardous industries — up from the current minimum age of 14 — child rights activists are unhappy about certain exemptions in the amendments to the child labour law approved on Wednesday which they say dilute the intent and open the door to continued exploitation.
The amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012, will allow children below 14 to work in non-hazardous industries only during holidays or after school hours. However, the government has made an exception in the case of employment of minors in family-owned enterprises as well as in the entertainment industry, depending on the fulfilment of certain conditions in the latter. According to a government release, “…exemption has also been given where the child works as an artist in an audio-visual entertainment industry, including advertisement, films, television serials or any such other entertainment or sports activities except the circus. This exemption is also conditional and stipulates taking up prescribed safety measures.” The Cabinet approval has paved the way for the government to move official amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012, in Parliament to effect changes in the original 1986 Act.
Opening doors to exploitation
As the proverbial devil lies in details, these exemptions have aroused considerable concern among child rights activists. Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, Co-Director of the HAQ Centre for Child Rights asserted that “these exceptions open the door to exploitation of child labour.” She pointed out that the current law too has a provision for family-based trades which was exploited by way of employment of children in the carpet industry and even hazardous trades since the definition of family and extended family remained blurred.” As per the latest Census figures, about 10.1 million children up to 14 years of age were engaged in “main and marginal” trades, said Thukral.
The child rights activist drew attention to yet another aspect to the exemption with regard to family businesses in that they “cement caste-based occupations such as of potters, cobblers and weavers, among others, as these allow children to be engaged in these trades.” Moreover, these exceptions go against the very spirit of the Right to Education Act which provides for the compulsory education of all children up to 14 years of age. “While it goes without saying that every child should be helping his or her family after school, the moot point was whether there was child labour through economic employment.”
Similarly, Thukral referred to the Cabinet decision approving the definition of adolescent in the proposed amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2012, as between 14 to 18 years of age, with the employment of adolescents prohibited in hazardous occupations and processes. According to the government release, “these provisions would go a long way in protecting adolescents from employment not suitable to their age.” In addition, the Cabinet has also approved a Child and Adolescent Labour Rehabilitation Fund for the rehabilitation of children or adolescents rescued.
Certain hazardous industries exempted
However, said Thukral, the list of what comprises a hazardous industry has been significantly whittled down, with “mines, inflammable substances or explosives; and hazardous process” finding a mention but many other trades mentioned in the earlier schedule of 16 hazardous industries being left out.
The earlier schedule of hazardous trades was quite detailed. It included “transport of passengers, goods or mails by railway; cinder picking, clearing of an ash pit or building operation in the railway premises; work in a catering establishment at a railway station involving the movement of a vendor or any other employee of the establishment from one platform to another or into or out of a moving train; work relating to the construction of a railway station or with any other work where such work is done in close proximity to or between the railway lines; and a port authority within the limits of any port.” There was also a mention of “work relating to the selling of crackers and fireworks in shops with temporary licenses; abattoirs/slaughter houses; automobile workshop and garages; foundries; handloom and powerloom industry; plastic units and fibreglass workshops; employment of children as domestic workers or servants; employment of children in dhabas (road side eateries), restaurants, hotels, motels, tea shops, resorts, spas or other recreational centres; and diving.” But now, with the proposed amendments, these trades have been thrown open for the employment of children as they are no longer considered hazardous.
Thukral stressed that it was important to recognize that increasingly children are being pushed towards the unorganised sector through family occupations. She cautioned against their exploitation through this mode.
Paltry penalty no deterrent
The other important aspect of the proposed amendments concerns the magnitude of punishment for the violation of the child labour law, which has been increased in some cases. While parents would not attract any penalty for a first time offence, repeat offenders could be fined up to Rs 10,000. Employers, on the other hand, would be liable for punishment even for a first violation in the form of a fine of Rs 50,000 (up from Rs 20,000). A second offence or more would attract a jail term of one to three years. “This is merely a cosmetic change, the penalty clause remains paltry as ever,” said Thukral adding that it would not dissuade employers of child labour in any manner.
On the issue of “total prohibition on the employment of child”, the government has taken the stand that “it would be prudent to also keep in mind the country’s social fabric and socio-economic conditions. In a large number of families, children help their parents in their occupations like agriculture, artisanship, etc., and while helping the parents, children also learn the basics of occupations.” By way of background the government explains why it is seeking to bring about amendments to the original Act: “The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act (CLPR Act), 1986, prohibits employment of a child in 18 occupations and 65 processes and regulates the conditions of working of children in other occupations/ processes. As per this Act a child means any person who has not completed 14 years of age. The Act provides punishment for the offence of employing or permitting employment of any child in contravention of the provisions of this Act.”
But as Maja Daruwala, Director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, pointed out, “Having children in the workforce depresses wages and puts adults out of employment. That is not good surely.” She also questioned the lack of proper implementation of laws: “We keep on making laws, amending them and tinkering with them here and there, but at best it regulates the tiny formal sector. Even here I am not sure how well that is done at the implementation level.”
Right to study, play, dream
Then again, the biggest employment of child labour is in the huge informal sector, in dangerous industries like mines for instance. How much genuine oversight and monitoring is there in the extractive industries, for instance, she asked. “On the ground what the government proposes matters little because either there is no implementation or you have poor prosecution. And penal provisions are selectively employed for many extraneous reasons.’’
The Cabinet decision came in for criticism from other quarters as well. Swami Agnivesh, Chairperson of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front), termed it a “dilution of the original act” which, he said, was not acceptable because it undermines a child’s fundamental right to childhood which includes not only classroom education but also playing and dreaming – in short everything associated with a normal childhood. Further, which well-to-do person or civil servant or even politician would like their child to perform any manual labour in their spare time or during holidays or vacations, he asked.
Stating that “we will go to the Supreme Court to oppose this Bill,” Agnivesh argued that the new law seeks to dilute the rights of the child (up to the age of 14) that B.R. Ambedkar had so zealously guarded. “ This law has clear imprint of market forces are out to legitimise child labour by putting children below 14 years of age to work.”
Further, said Agnivesh, the need of the hour was to follow in letter and spirit the conventions of the International Labour Organisation on the prevention of child labour as well as to extend the Right to Education to all children up to 18 years of age, not limiting it to children up to the age of 14 as at present. As he sees it, the years between the ages of 14 and 18 should have been dedicated to skill formation and enhancement as it happens in some countries like Germany.
Ultimately, say the activists, the debate boils down to a question of intentions. “If the government wants a policy to succeed, like getting all children out of work and into school, it can do it,” said Daruwala. “But I am not sure how much we want to do so. Until the superstructure of justice delivery and executive action becomes honest, fair, and accountable you will have child labour, child exploitation and child abuse. So, even as we allow it, let us not say that we care a great deal about this issue.”