There's Still Time for India to Take its Child Labour Problem Seriously

As the world moves from global to more one-on-one trade deals, India’s patchy record on child labour is likely to become an issue.

Children’s Day came and went, quietly. Official celebrations were muted at best. This was a pity. India’s Children’s Day is/was celebrated on November 14, while the UN-designated day is November 20. The decision to celebrate on a different day was not to cock a snook at the international community, it was to underline the point that the welfare of children was a political responsibility.

Last week, India’s patchy record on human rights was under the international scanner, during the UN-mandated once in five year Universal Periodic Review. India chose to send her solicitor general to make the submission. And countries had just under a minute (55 seconds) to give their recommendations. There’s a script which gets followed at these events. Your friends are gentle in making a point, and others are not. Everything was going according to script, when the British representative ended with the comment: “I will end by not mentioning the cricket.”

For those who don’t know, India had just been comprehensively beaten by the British. The 10-wicket victory told the true story of how that game was played and won. The British over the weekend also comprehensively defeated Pakistan, emerging as deserved world champions.

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What the British ambassador ended with was not just the dig of all digs – it was a warning to not overlook the seemingly marginal. Among the flurry of recommendations, two should have stood out. Both Zambia and Mozambique, all-weather friends with similar problems, flagged the issue of child labour. It was a timely reminder.

Trade and child labour

A child labour warning was issued by trade unions over the India-UK trade deal, reported a British newspaper last month. That warning got overlooked in India. Not really surprising. This was the time when much of the chatter was on whether Number 10 should be advertised as an Airbnb, or if a revolving door should replace what is certainly the most photographed front door on the planet. So the call by one of the UK’s more powerful trade unions didn’t get the attention it should have. Given the timing, it should have.

India and Britain have been in talks for a free trade agreement since the British voters opted to leave the European Union in June 2016. That the British find it difficult to leave is something we know well in India. It was February 2021 before the British finally left the European Union, and soon after in May, India and Britain entered into an Enhanced Trade Partnership agreement. That’s the equivalent of an engagement, before the Free Trade Agreement (the wedding) slated for December  2022. Four UK prime ministers later, the FTA now looks likely only by June 2023.

In their statement calling for the scuttling of the free trade agreement, the TUC had been careful in identifying sectors. Low pay and exploitative conditions are widespread in India, with forced and child labour found in a number of industries including textiles, silk, brick manufacturing, shipbreaking, embroidery, hospitality and tobacco. As the list of UK’s imports from India shows, the sectors red flagged together make up a small proportion of total trade. Not enough to politically make a difference.

That doesn’t mean the concerns should not be taken seriously. In the past decade, the stability of incomes of most Indian families has become more precarious. There have been a series of policy shocks. Demonetisation led to the near wipe-out of the cottage and small industries. This was followed soon after by the world’s longest lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. At present home budgets are staying in the red, due to ongoing energy prices-led inflation, catalysed by the war in Europe.

Also read: What a Real Commitment to Making India Child Labour Free Means

Together, all of these suggest that the political economy of the sectors that have used child labour in the past may have reached a tipping point, where the slide back to the past has begun. The International Labour Organisation in 2021 pointed out that globally, the number of children working has risen, particularly in the younger age groups. This reversed the trend of the past two decades, when the number of children working had been decreasing, year on year. Is there anything from the past that we can learn, to arrest the trends now evident? And what role can trade unions of the importing countries play in stopping a return to an unwanted past? As the world moves from global to more one-on-one trade deals, India’s patchy record on child labour is likely to become an issue.

India’s Children’s Day was more than the birthday of India’s first prime minister. It was the time to renew a pledge. It could have been the day India put issues related to child labour front and centre, while renewing the pledge for a different politics and economics. She chose not to. Unlike the dropped catch, that cost us a berth in the finals. We have the time, if we have the intent, to make that wrong right.

Vijayalakshmi Balakrishnan is the author of Growing Up And Away: Narratives of Indian Childhoods. Her email is baroquepodcast@gmail.com.