Accessibility links

India Tightens Child Labor Laws, Activists Question Impact


India has announced it will ban the employment of children under the age of 14 years old in households and restaurants beginning in October. Social activists are skeptical if the move will dent the massive problem of child labor in the country.

Thirteen-year-old Reena Chander spends the day cleaning homes in an up market Delhi neighborhood. She returns home in the evening to cook and clean for her family. Reena says she began working two years ago.

She says her mother is sick, and she has no choice but to work both outside and at home.

Life may be about to change for Reena and millions of young girls and boys like her, who work as domestic help or in eateries and shops in India's burgeoning cities.

The Labor Ministry announced this month that starting in October anyone employing children under the age of 14 years old in homes, roadside eateries, restaurants and motels could face a two-year prison term or a fine of up to $425.

The government says the ban aims to help millions of children who are often subjected to physical violence, psychological trauma and sexual abuse as they work in homes and food stalls. It says those working in highway eateries are the most vulnerable to sex and drug abuse.

Social activists welcome the ban, but question whether it will eliminate child labor or improve life for youngsters like Reena.

India has already banned young workers from hazardous industries. But tens of thousands of children remain at work in factories making firecrackers, matches or glass.

Neera Burra, the author of a book on child labor, says the new labor ban is not likely to show results until it is coupled with a broader strategy to address why children go to work.

"What are you going to do with these children? After all, a lot of children who work as domestic servants come from villages, they are brought by labor contractors through their own networks, they'll go somewhere else because there is no blanket ban on child labor," said Burra. "The right strategy is really to strengthen the formal school system and make sure there is schooling available across the country for every child."

Victoria Rialp, with the United Nation's children's fund, UNICEF, agrees the issue is complex and cannot be fixed with a simple ban.

"Sometimes they end up worse than before they were rescued, we know that. We will want to remind everybody about taking a very focused child's rights approach to this. You are looking at child's right to be with family, child's right to education, child's right to play," she said. "What we will be supporting and what we'll be doing is engaging open discussion with government, with employers, with families."

Social activists say the key is giving children access to free primary education and mid-day meals in school.

Millions of children in India never attend school, and tens of thousands drop out. Schools are often far away from villages, the teaching is of poor quality, and students get little help with books, lessons and meals.

Reena's father, Mahesh Chander, says the ban will do little to help families like his who need money brought in by children to supplement meager earnings. He works as a street cleaner.

Mahesh says his monthly income of $50 barely feeds and clothes his four children. He says he has never been able to afford schooling for them because he has no money to buy books and uniforms.

The government says there are almost 13 million child laborers in India. Child activists say the figure is much higher.

XS
SM
MD
LG