The desperate conditions affecting the rural as well as the urban poor
in India are forcing growing numbers of children to toil often in subhuman conditions.
They are deprived of their most basic rights as children, including education
and a joyful childhood. Most have never been to school or dropped out at very
Estimates of the number of child labourers vary widely. According to a 1991
census, 11.2 million children aged between 5 and 14 were working in India. But
other estimates put the figure far higher. In a supreme court case last December,
Ashok Aggarwal, an advocate for a group of non-government organisations, submitted
that 100 million children were out of school and working—half of India’s
200 million children.
India has the largest number of child workers in the world. They are employed
in many industries and trades, including garments, footwear, brick kilns, stainless
steel, hotels, and textile shops. Many work in export-oriented hazardous industries
like carpet weaving, gem polishing, glass blowing, match works, brassware, electro-plating,
lead mining, stone quarrying, lock making and beedi rolling.
The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has a large concentration of child labourers.
An estimated 100,000 children—three quarters of them girls—are employed
in the match factories, tobacco mills, tea houses and rock quarries located
on the drought-prone plains of interior Tamil Nadu (see http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/journals/latitudes/4india.htm).
Small hotels account for much of the child labour in Chennai (Madras), Tamil
Nadu’s capital, according to a survey by Peace Trust, a non-government
organisation. “As much as 43.28 percent of Chennai city’s total
child workforce work in small hotels and are badly exploited, while medium hotels
employ 29.10 percent, and nearly 27.62 percent are employed by large units.”
It adds: “Nearly 52 percent of child labourers in the city are between
12 and 14 years of age and these children have been subjected to poor working
conditions, long hours of work, low payment and sexual abuse”.
A study by the Pasumai Trust, Tiruvallur, and the Peoples Forum for Human Rights
in Chennai in 2005 found that children working in brick kilns in Tamil Nadu
suffered prolonged exposure to sand, dust and heat, leading to skin and stomach
problems. They also experienced wheezing, asthma and stunted development, as
well as menstrual dysfunction among adolescent girls. Accidents were also common,
leading to face fractures and other major injuries.
A Madras School of Social Work study found that among children employed as
mechanics, factory and construction workers and weavers, 31 percent worked 10
to 11 hours daily and 22 percent worked 12 to 13 hours. In the unorganised sectors,
children were paid piece rates, resulting in even longer hours for very low
WSWS correspondents spoke to some child labourers in Chennai about their working
and living conditions. Ramesh, 14, lives with his mother and younger sister
in Ayanavaram, a Chennai suburb. His mother works in an embroidery company and
earns 100 rupees ($US2) per day. “Her work starts at 10 am and she returns
home at 9 pm. There is no work for her many days. I studied up to 6th standard,
but I found it difficult to continue my studies. When I was 11 years I took
this job in order to learn mechanical work. My work starts at 9 am and finishes
at 7 pm. I get paid 50 rupees ($1) per week”.
Parvathi, 12, lost her parents at a young age. Her elder sister Selvi is 16.
“Our mother’s elder sister sent us to a Christian mission hostel.
There we ate only low quality rice and rasam every day. Apart from study time,
we used to do washing and cleaning. Since we didn’t want to stay in the
hostel any longer, our auntie took us home. She persuaded my sister to get a
job in a leather company and I found a job in an export company. I get paid
800 rupees ($16) per month.”
For her work in the leather factory, Selvi gets 900 rupees ($18) a month. “Since
I started this job I have been suffering from breathlessness. I often fall sick
and have to go to a government hospital for treatment. I have become slim as
a result,” she said.
Geetha, 14, lives with her parents and a younger brother. “I studied
up to 3rd standard only as I couldn’t continue my studies due to poverty.
My father is a load lifter but doesn’t get regular work. My mother works
at five places as a domestic maid. Generally she cooks only dinner at home,
and at other times we eat food that she brings from her workplaces.
“She has been doing domestic work since she was young. As a result, she
falls sick frequently. She suffers from headaches and sores in her hands and
feet. Unable to afford proper treatment, she just buys medicine at the medical
shop for 5 rupees (US10 cents). Although we are both working, we are struggling
to pay the rent and other family expenses.
“Because of our poverty, my parents wanted me to become an apprentice
at an embroidery company when I was 10. Then I was paid 15 rupees (US 30 cents)
per day. My normal working day is 11 hours, from 8 am to 7 pm. Now after four
years I get 50 rupees ($1) per day. When I do overtime from 7 pm to 10 pm, I
get an extra wage of 20 rupees (40 cents).”
Governments turn blind eye to sweatshops
In India’s commercial capital, Mumbai (Bombay), there are thousands of
small units known as “zari factories”. Boys aged 6-14 work 20 hours
a day, seven days a week, kneeling at low tables sewing beads and coloured threads
on to vast lengths of fabric. A “zari factory” is a 3 m x 3 m room
with dirty floors and hardly any ventilation. The boys have to work, wash, eat
and sleep in the same room, with a small smelly bathroom in one corner. They
are given only two meals a day.
Following the deaths last year of 12-year-old Afzai Ansari and 11-year-old
Ahmed Khan, child workers in “zari factories”, the Maharastra state
government was forced to carry out some raids, which “rescued” over
16,000 children and sent them back to their villages. However, many of the “saved”
children have returned to the sweatshops. “This is nothing but recycling
of child labour,” Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer and civil rights activist, said.
According to the Maharastra labour department, most of the boys are migrants
from very poor districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in northern India. There
are no schools in their villages or even close by. Their parents have no land
for cultivation and work for pittances like 10-20 rupees (20-40 cents) a day—that
is, if they can find work. Parents send their children to work in Mumbai mistakenly
believing that they would escape misery.
Regardless of various legislation and court orders to “abolish”
child labour, it has continued for more than a half century. Civil rights organisations
insist that child labour violates the fundamental rights of children under the
Indian constitution. Yet, Indian governments have consistently refused to ratify
an International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention that seeks to outlaw the
worst forms of child labour.
The ILO convention defines a child as one below 18 years of age and stipulates
that the minimum age for employment shall not be less than the age for completion
of compulsory schooling. Indian legal provisions define the maximum age for
compulsory education, and also the minimum age for employment, as 14.
Indian laws, such as the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986,
do not prohibit child labour but ban it only in certain sectors such as hazardous
industries. But even if tougher laws were introduced, they would not substantially
reduce the use of child workers because the root causes lie deeper, in the terrible
poverty of their families.
In 2003, the previous Tamil Nadu government of chief minister Jayalalitha Jayaram
pledged to end child labour in hazardous industries by 2005 and abolish it altogether
by 2007. The central United Peoples Alliance government’s Common Minimum
Programme also promised to put an end to the practice. Instead, the barbaric
exploitation of children is intensifying.
During the recent Tamil Nadu election campaign, various political parties promised
assorted welfare measures to deceive the people. Not accidentally, none of them
even addressed child labour. The first step in ensuring tens of millions of
children are able to continue their education is ensure a decent income to their
parents—something that the capitalist class is organically incapable of
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