Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Banning child labour jeopardises working children’s right to survive

Trying to ‘eliminate’ child labour only pushes working children into the shadows

Kavita Ratna
18 October 2021, 9.17am
Andhra Pradesh, India
Werli Francois/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

About nine months before Covid-19 swept into our countries, in July 2019, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution declaring 2021 the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour. Its text says that member states should take immediate and effective measures to end child labour in all its forms by 2025, as stipulated by Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals. The International Labour Organization is to lead the charge.

Such international goal-setting exercises take place in a domain that is far removed from the daily social, political, and economic dynamics of our countries. These are, in the recent past, most often in a downward spiral. It is absurd that countries and agencies commit to development goals which all parties are aware are impossible to meet, yet it is increasingly the norm.

It is also indefensible. Setting unreachable targets at the global level and thrusting them downwards is not only ineffectual and misleading. It is also, in many situations, counterproductive. The target of eliminating all forms of child labour is no exception. The concrete policy and budgetary decisions that are implemented in its pursuit are gravely detrimental to the wellbeing of children, while the project as a whole grossly ignores the rights and needs of millions of children and young people.

Fighting for the rights of child workers in India

Even without COVID, the child labour-related goals set by UN were unrealistic.

Bhima Sangha, a union of working children in India, and civil society organisations that support them like ours have been shouting ‘Let anti-child labour not be anti-child!’ for decades. Our plea has largely fallen on deaf ears, yet the dangers are real. Most state responses to child labour, which treat children as criminals instead of survivors in an inequitable society, force working children to become invisible. This immediately puts them at higher risk of exploitation. At the same time, working adolescents and children usually belong to marginalised communities. Their families and their communities have to do all they can to stay afloat, including at times taking on work that is exploitative, underpaid, and incompatible with going to school. Making this survival strategy more difficult – and it is a survival strategy in the most literal sense – puts these children’s’ lives at risk.

When even the middle and upper-middle classes are feeling upheaval, the situation of those without any buffers is not hard to imagine.

The 1990s saw the growth of several working children’s movements like Bhima Sangha. Despite the challenges they conducted their own research and advocated for their own rights in local, state, national and international forums. They challenged societal prejudices and stereotypical notions about working children, and even fundamental ideas of what constitutes ‘childhood’. They faced up to the ILO and demanded to be heard during policy formulations. They highlighted the value that they found in work – which they clearly distinguished from exploitative labour – and demanded that their rights as workers and children be upheld. And they called for the root causes of child labour be addressed comprehensively.

However, in the years that followed and especially after 1998, when the ILO adopted the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182), ‘ban and boycott child labour’ consolidated into a key political project on the world stage. ‘Raid and institutionalise’ protocols were implemented at the national level in many South Asian countries, and from that point onwards it became very difficult for children and young people to identify publicly as working children or adolescents. Working children’s unions stepped back from visibility and hesitated to stand at the forefront of their own struggles and negotiations. Organising continued in some places at the local level, but mass mobilisation was hard to sustain.

The situation is slowly changing again. India’s child labour legislation was amended in 2016 to allow ‘safe work for adolescents’, which fostered greater acceptance and allowed some older children to step out of the shadows. Yet major challenges remain. One is that not all ‘safe work’ warrants the name, and many adolescents are brazenly exploited under the guise of ‘safe work’. The second is that labour rights are under the axe the world over, and even more so in South Asia. Collective bargaining has been curtailed like never before and the fear of losing jobs places all workers and their unions, including those of working adolescents, in very precarious situations.

Local governments, which are closest to children’s realities, have the potential to offer support but in practice they are often restricted in terms of autonomy, resources and agility. Right now, some of the more impoverished communities are seeing a high rise in the number of under-age marriages and in trafficking of children for work, yet local officials are struggling to respond adequately to these developments.

Across the levels of government India certainly has some officials and agencies with the integrity and courage to look at the realities head-on and commit to addressing the immediate concerns of children, but they are too few in number. They are also limited by their geographic or sectorial jurisdictions, and when they try to think beyond these boundaries they inevitably come up against other restrictions.

Covid has made a bad situation worse

The experiences of children in exploitative labour have turned even more alarming with the Covid pandemic, as even the minimal safety nets children had access to have been unravelling. In normal times they could at least rely on support from certain childcare institutions and open shelters, but such services have been shuttered for months. The government’s response meanwhile has been to categorise ‘vulnerable communities’ into different boxes and provide them with certain forms of emergency support. Working children and adolescents, as always, were excluded from this process. For instance, during the lockdown the Indian government decided to provide midday meals and free sanitary napkins to school-going children, while working children were left out without a thought!

Strategies to end exploitative child labour must be designed with a keen eye for each child and context while respecting the right of adolescents to survive with dignity and agency.

In countries all around the world health, education, and livelihood systems are bursting at their seams. Government mechanisms are pressed beyond their capacities. When even the middle and upper-middle classes are feeling upheaval, the situation of those without any buffers is not hard to imagine. The numbers of working adolescents and children have undoubtedly gone up as parents have lost jobs. Even children who were attending school full-time have now started working to supplement family incomes. And, even when the schools reopen, even conservative estimates suggest that globally almost 10 million children may not return to school. These communities are bang in the middle of a whirlwind which has stripped them of whatever positive developmental strides have achieved so far. Their future is nothing but precarious.

Working children and adolescents have done their best to call attention to their present struggle and, at least in India, to demand that the Indian government respect their rights as citizens. Last April eight child worker unions in the country, with a combined membership of some 3000 working children, met to discuss the situation at an event titled ‘Children Ambassadors of Change’. The statement they issued afterwards was released on 30 April – the day before Labour Day, which Bhima Sangha declared Child Labour Day in 1990 – because, as the children write, it was “the day to uphold our rights”. Anybody who genuinely wants to support these children would do well to read it. The children explain the problems they face and list dozens of practical issues (and solutions) that need to be addressed. There are worse places to start than there.

Perhaps the worst starting place of all is the grandiloquent global rhetoric about eliminating child labour in its entirety. It has feet of clay, and it has failed our children over and over again. Strategies to end exploitative child labour must be designed with a keen eye for each child and context while respecting the right of adolescents to survive with dignity and agency. We need to listen to young people and assess their realities. We need to empower local governments to respond speedily and with empathy. And we need to re-deploy funds and programmatic support with transparency and accountability, most of all to the children themselves.

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