Ten years ago Mehboob Hossain didn’t know the meaning of the word future. Ten years ago Hossain, now 20, worked in a zari sweatshop in Delhi’s Shahpurjat, embroidering glittery saris. “I know what it’s like,” he says about child labour. “We were beaten, abused, kicked and made to work 16 hours a day.”
Ten years ago, Hossain got lucky when he was rescued by Kailash Satyarthi’s Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) and reunited with his family in Birsinghpur, West Bengal. It was his father, a marginal farmer, who had agreed to pull him out of the 8th standard in school and send him to Delhi with a ‘recruiter’ who promised a ‘fabulous salary and a good life’, says Hossain.
After he was rescued, Hossain, the eldest of five children, told his father that he intended to go back to school. “My father did not support me, but I knew that if I had an education, I could at least get a good job,” he says.
Hossain is a voice that our lawmakers should have heard before passing the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Bill that restricts the employment of children below 14 in all occupations and enterprises — except those run by their families after school hours. It’s an exception that creates an enormous loophole.
Of the over 5,000 child labourers rescued by BBA in the past five years, one in five was part of a family trade. “This Bill uses Indian family values to justify economic exploitation of children,” said Nobel Laureate and BBA founder Kailash Satyarthi in a press statement.
‘Family’ includes uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. If a child is found working at a bakery and his employer insists that he is his nephew or niece, how will this be disproved?
There are concerns also about the reduction in the number of hazardous industries where children cannot be employed from 18 to just three — mines, inflammable substances and hazardous processes.
India employs 4.35 million children between the ages of five and 14, according to Census 2011. Three out of four of these children work in agriculture or in household industries, most of which are home-based.
The counter-argument by the government centres around ‘socio-economic realities’. Allowing children to assist their families in occupations such as agriculture or artisanship not only helps poor parents but also enables children to learn a skill, goes that line of thinking.
But it also condemns them to life in the same trade — a potter’s son, a potter, a weaver’s child, a weaver. It entraps them in low-paying, unskilled work. When you create an exception for allowing kids to work in family enterprises, it is the poorest and the most marginalised — those who most need skills and knowledge — who will lose out on education.
A child at work is a child out of school. Legitimising child labour above the age of 14 (and below, if employed by ‘family’) incentivises dropping out of school by the state, which is supposed to protect the rights of the voiceless. It also adds to the confusion of who is a child in India; 18 years for sexual consent but 14 as a source of cheap labour?
The links between education and population, health and economic growth are well established. Do children drop out of school because of poverty, or do they work because the system enables them to stay out of school?
Hossain is clear. “A poor farmer would rather have his son help in the field than send him to school,” he says. The law allows him to do that.
Last year Hossain says he topped his school 12th board exams. He then sat for the law entrance exam, but failed to make the cut. Undeterred he now plans to enrol in open university and will study law after he graduates because, he says, he wants to be a judge.
India’s Hossains are born into poverty, and yet we seldom see or hear them because we choose to render them invisible. Denied a vote, robbed of rights, we have, as Satyarthi says, once again failed our children.