On Child Labour Day, It's Clearer than Ever that Lockdown, Weakened Labour Laws Spell Doom

Thanks to shoddy record-keeping, in various places the number of children rescued by ChildLine during the lockdown far exceeds the total number with state governments.

Chennai: In May 2020, an underage domestic help from Jharkhand was thrown out of an elite Mumbai household after she developed a fever.

The girl had worked there since the age of seven, without ever getting paid. With the help of Ranchi based child rights activist Baidyanath Kumar and the Mumbai Police, the matter reached the public and the girl was later adopted by a family from her hometown.

According to Baidyanath, around four lakh domestic child labourers from Jharkhand alone, are employed across Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. “Of these approximately, 78% are from the tribal community and 85% approximately are girls. Young girls aged 7-8 are sent off to the employers in these cities, some return in their late teens and others serve a lifetime. The series of lockdown enforcement has seen unpaid children stuck in factories and as domestic workers,” he said.

Another 21-year-old girl in Uttar Pradesh, who worked as an unpaid domestic help since the age of 10, escaped her confinement during the lockdown. She was helped by a guard who put her in touch with police officials and an NGO who helped reunite her with her guardians. “The guardians hired a four-wheeler to get her from the state of Uttar Pradesh to Delhi and then to Jharkhand. In such cases, a FIR is never registered and the powerful employers of the child labourers go scot-free,” said Baidyanath.

Baidyanath himself was a child labourer. When he was seven, he was trafficked from Jharkhand and continued to work in garages and hotels till he decided to crusade for the cause himself. So far he has filed 240 FIRs for missing children and has managed to break the nexus of child trafficking agencies by sending many kingpins to jail.

Also read: Abused, Married Off and in an Emotional Crisis: Children Bear the Brunt of the Lockdown

“Every month, a minimum of 20 children go missing as per newspaper reports. The real numbers are much higher as the paper-work to pass under aged domestic worker as adults from Jharkhand to other cities is in the range of Rs 50,000 to Rs one lakh depending on the age of the child. Local placement agencies take advantage of poverty-stricken families with whom child traffickers fixate deals for a lifetime of slavery. Children mostly go unpaid. Child labour would now be cheaper than ever and large scale trafficking will take place as soon as transport facilities start for cities,” said Baidyanathan, also a member of the Child Welfare Committee.

There are 10 million child labourers in India, of which 5.6 million are boys and 4.5 million are girls, according to the 2011 Census.

Child labourers rescued from the Jaipur bangle making factory on May 25. Photo: By special arrangement

On the night of May 24, child activists were waiting at Bihar’s Gaya Railway station to receive around 118 child labourers – 28 of whom were bonded child labourers – who had been rescued from a bangle making factory in Jaipur. They were baffled when they saw an additional 1,000 children. Around 50,000 child labourers are stuck in the Jaipur bangle factory. In another incident, in Bihar’s Madhubani district, 20 children who were rescued were accompanied by 18 other child labourers.

“With no income, their owners didn’t want to take care of them. They are still under the control of employers as once normalcy returns, these children might get back to work. So far, many letters have been exchanged at the ministerial level to map the children but nothing has been done for these children. During the lockdown, clueless child labourers have been dumped in trains and sent off to their hometown too,” said Suresh Kumar, executive director of the NGO Centre Direct in Bihar which works in 33 villages across Bihar.

Yogendra Pratap Singh, a former member of the Child Welfare Committee, and founder of Chhattisgarh Voluntary Action Network, said that rice mill industries and others continued to function during lockdown, and employed many child labourers. “Once 3-4 child labourers were rescued from an affluent person’s house. I quickly got a call from an MLA as I was a CWC member back then to spare his friend but I ensured he was booked. According to the Labour Department here, there are only 90 child labourers in Chhattisgarh but the fact is that children rescued by Childline alone can beat this number. These children do not even account as statistics,” he said.

V.V Rao, a volunteer with the MV Foundation, an NGO working out of Telangana said that students from class sixth to tenth in the Jogulamba Gadwal district have started accompanying their parents for cotton cultivation which starts by June and extends till October. Around 30% of children had always been involved in cotton farming after school. Right now, around 3,000 children accompany their parents for the initial phase of cotton farming.

Also read: COVID-19 Crisis Will Push Millions of Vulnerable Children Into Child Labour

Ramon Magsaysay awardee and founder of MV Foundation, Shantha Sinha said that children have been left with no other option as livelihoods and food security are at stake. While the younger trudge on small pieces of land, the older girls below the age of 18 have already begun work in NREGA programmes. Children from marginalised communities are at a higher risk of dropping out of school, so the gram panchayat level bodies should be mobilised to track and help every child, and safeguard them from trafficking, early marriages and child labour. This can happen only by helping out the family economically.

Ahead of the World Day Against Child Labour, child rights body Child Rights and You (CRY) had organised a webinar on June 11, titled ‘Covid-19 and Child Labour in India: Challenges and Way Forward’, in which the experts revealed how India may see a rise in child labourers in the aftermath of coronavirus. The experts pointed out how recent labour law relaxations in some states could deeply impact child labourers.

Puja Marwaha, CEO at CRY stated that the marginalised families can get stuck again in the vicious cycle of sending their children to work. “In a freefalling economic situation, we need to ensure that we are not just vigilant but create new spaces of safety. Focus should be on using the laws effectively and a full-fledged rehabilitation package to address child labour, keep children in school and focus on their enrolment and retention,” she said.

At the Dharur Mandal in Jogulamba Gadwal district, Telangana, the gram panchayats make an everyday call to the parents to not send their children to work in cotton farms. Photo: Author provided

Priyank Kanoongo, Chairperson of National Commission for Protection of Child Rights said that the key lies in effective implementation of laws as the number of FIRs filed are poor and compensation received by the rescued child labourers, frugal.

Meanwhile, at the Dharur Mandal in Jogulamba Gadwal district, Telangana, the gram panchayats make a call every day to parents to not send their children to work in cotton farms.

Nalini Ravichandran is an independent journalist who has worked with The New Indian Express and Mail Today and reported extensively on health, education, child rights, environment and socio-economic issues of the marginalised. She is an alumna of the Asian College of Journalism.