India’s new landmark child-labor bill should be a reason for children and human-rights advocates to celebrate, but it’s the bosses who are celebrating instead. Between the lines of a seemingly progressive law, some loopholes officially sanction child exploitation in one of the world’s major bastions of underage labor.
The law on the surface seeks to restrict child labor that continues to pervade unregulated low-wage industries, ranging from brick making to tea harvesting. However, an exemption for certain “family”-based businesses effectively leaves a soft spot for household-based industries fueled by kids’ cheap labor, including traditional trades like cigarette rolling or cutting cobblestones.
While it is in some cultural contexts acceptable for children to contribute economically to household-based enterprises, advocates inside and outside India fear the reforms simply allow purported cultural tradition to mask, rather than eradicate, a social scourge.
The Child Labour Act, which amends a 1986 child-labor statute, aims to be one of many measures India’s government has undertaken as part of its supposed “opening up” to the global economy, driven by rapid industrialization and international investment. However, social-welfare programs have lagged in advancing basic social rights and addressing deep inequality, leaving the poorest communities even more vulnerable to growing economic disruption. The lack of an effective safety net have pushed children into some of the country’s most precarious labor markets, and as much as 30 percent of child workers’ families rely on their labor to survive.
The law specifically enables children under the age of 14 to work in “family enterprises,” outside school, so children would be able to ply the family trade as long as they comply with the government’s education mandate. So preteens won’t be able to get roped into full-time employment to help their parents fill their labor contracts. The law does include more robust bans on “hazardous” work like mining, and increases fines for violators, but for many other home-based cottage industries, families could continue exploiting children’s labor.
In some agricultural industries, the line between “family-based” and industrial work is perilously blurry. India Committee of the Netherlands (ICN) recently reported that in cottonseed cultivation:
Children below 14—of which two-thirds are girls—are employed in the seed fields on a long-term contract basis through loans extended to their parents by local seed producers, who have agreements with the large national and multinational seed companies. Children are made to work 8 to 12 hours a day and are exposed to poisonous pesticides…. Most of the children working in cottonseed farms belong to poor Dalit (‘outcaste’), Adivasi (tribal) or Backward Castes families. Around 70 percent of the children are hired or even trafficked from other states while 30 percent is ‘family labour’. Most are school-dropouts.