On July 19, the Rajya Sabha passed amendments to a 3-decade-old child labour prohibition law. The bill is expected before the Lok Sabha in the coming weeks and the United Nations already has something to say about the proposed changes.
It says that the proposed revisions in the child labour law which permit children to work in familial occupations and reductions in the number of banned occupations for adolescents will actually work to the disadvantage of vulnerable groups such as tribals and lower-caste communities.
But the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) said that allowing children to work for their families legitimised family work, while reducing the number of occupations in the hazardous list would result in more unregulated child labourers.
The tribal and lower caste communities are already affected with the highest child labour rates at 7% and 4% respectively. The UNICEF pointed out that the proposed changes would have an adverse impact on these especially marginalised and impoverished communities.
“Under the new Child Labour Act, some forms of child labour may become invisible and the most vulnerable and marginalised children may end up with irregular school attendance, lower levels of learning and could be forced to drop out of school,” said UNICEF India’s chief of education Euphrates Gobina.
“Secondary enrolment is still lagging behind, especially for the most vulnerable children, many who are working,” she added in a statement issued late on Monday.
A 2015 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) puts the number of child workers in India aged between five and 17 roughly at 5.7 million, out of 168 million globally.
Currently more than 50% of them working in agriculture and over a quarter in manufacturing—embroidering clothes, weaving carpets or making match sticks. Some restaurants and hotels too employ children as domestic workers.
The changes proposed by the government to the current law will extend the ban on child labour under 14 to all sectors. Currently only 18 hazardous occupations and 65 processes, such as mining, gem cutting and cement manufacturing are outlawed.
These changes may also introduce a separate category for adolescents between the age of 15 and 18, as well as stiffer jail terms and fines for those employing children.
While these changes have definitely been welcomed by child rights activists, the amendments proposed by Prime Minister Modi’s government are being viewed with scepticism.
For example, allowing children to work in family businesses, outside of school hours and during holidays, and in entertainment and sports, if it does not affect their education. Additionally, allowing children aged 15 to 18 to work in most other occupations except mines and industries where they would be exposed to inflammable substances and hazardous processes.
The government in its defence says these exemptions are aimed at striking a balance between children’s education and India’s economic reality, where parents engage their children to help with farming or artisanal work to fight poverty.
UNICEF pointed out that many times family or home-based work is hazardous and includes working in cotton fields, making bangles and bidis, rolling tobacco, carpet weaving and metal work. It urged India to develop an “exhaustive list” of hazardous occupations and also exclude family work from the proposed law.
“To strengthen the Bill and provide a protective legal framework for children, UNICEF India strongly recommends the removal of ‘children helping in family enterprises’,” it said.
“This will protect children from being exploited in invisible forms of work, from trafficking and from boys and girls dropping out of school due to long hours of work.”