“The child is the father of man.” This famous line quoted by William Wordsworth refers to the importance of the child for the development of society as well as for the all-round development of the human race. Childhood is the time to garner the best physical, intellectual and emotional capacity to fulfill this duty towards the nation and to one’s own self. However, this simple rule of nature has been crippled by the ever-growing menace of child labour. If one conceives the idea of child labour, it brings before the eyes the picture of exploitation of little, physically tender, illiterate and under-nourished children working in hazardous and unhealthy conditions.
About 250 million children between the age of five and fourteen work in developing countries. At least 120 million of these children work on a full-time basis. In India the conservative estimate is about 11.3 million (according to the 1991 censure), but the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated it at 23.2 million 1996. Both estimates include full-time and marginal child workers. Most working children in rural areas are found in agriculture; many work as domestic labourers; urban children work in the trade and services sector; while some other work in manufacturing and construction. Such children range from four-years-old doing petty jobs to seventeen0years olds helping out on the family farms. Denied education and a normal childhood, some children, confined and beaten, are often reduced to slavery. At times they are denied freedom of movement – the right to leave the workplace and visit their families. Some are abducted and forced to work. Instances of human rights abuses in such practices are clear and acute.
Child agricultural workers frequently work for long hours in the heat, haul heavy loads of grains, are exposed to toxic pesticides, and suffer high rates of injury from sharp, dangerous tools. Children working in factories often work near hot furnaces, handle hazardous chemicals like arsenic and potassium, work in glass blowing units where the work harms their lungs, damages their eyes and causes disease like tuberculosis, asthma and bronchitis. Some are injured in fire accidents. They become unemployable at the age of 20. if injured or incapacitated, they are mercilessly discarded by their employers. Child domestic workers, mostly girls, work for long hors for little or no pay. They are subjected to verbal and physical abuse, at times even sexual abuse. They may be fired from their work, losing not only the job but their place of shelter as well. Millions of children are involved in work that, under any circumstances, is considered unacceptable for children, including the sale and trafficking of children into debt bondage, serfdom, and forced labour. It includes the forced recruitment of children for armed conflict, commercial sexual exploitation, and other illicit activities, such as drug trafficking.
The prevalence of child labour is a slap on the conscience of society. It harms not only the present generation but also the posterity. The origin of the problem of child labour can be traced to some complex social vices illiteracy, poverty, inequality, failure of social welfare schemes, population explosion, etc. The root cause lies in the economic insecurity of families that results from job loss, natural calamities, and sickness of parents in poor families that are often in debt and have no savings. Children of the poor have become an expendable commodity. The children either supplement their poor parents’ income or are the only wage earners in the family. Discrimination based on gender, race or religion is also responsible for the problem of child labour. Domestic employers often compel poor children to work for minimal wages. Also, work is relatively easy to get in households. Thus, the household sector employs the largest number of children labourers. Sometimes, child labour is deliberately facilitated by vested interests to get cheap labour. Employers justify this with the logic that it saves children from starvation and prevent them from being sucked into the world of crime. The “nimble finger theory” holds that children are better producers of certain products such as knotted carpets and other such kinds of goods. Hence, poor children are hired, exploited and made to work and produce such types of goods.
The government says that it is not easy to completely end child labour. it, therefore, has only tried to improve their working conditions–reducing working hours, ensuring minimum wages and providing facilities for health and education. It can be said that the government measures have three main components legal action focusing on general welfare, development programmes for child workers and their families, and a project-based action plan.
The present Factories Act 1948 prescribes prohibitory actions for employment of children below 14 years of age in any factory. Indian Mines Act 1951 prohibits employment of children below 16 years in the any underground mines.
The main instrument for the regulation of child labour in India was launched in the year 1986. This was the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986. It came to being due to the requirement of ILO convention and foresee ability of the National Seminar on Employment of Children in 1975, to prevent exploitation of children. The Indian government felt a need to enact a single law to deal with the prohibition of Child Labour. In 1979, Gurupadswamy committee was set up to study the problem of child labour and evolve measures to sort it out. This committee also agreed to enact a single law to govern child labour. The Committee examined the problem in detail and made some far-reaching recommendations. it noted that any attempt to abolish it through legal means would not be a practical proposition. The Committee felt that in such circumstances, the only alternative left was to ban child labour in hazardous areas and to regulate and ameliorate the conditions of work in other areas. It recommended that a comprehensive policy approach was required in dealing with the problems of working children. based on the recommendation of this Committee, the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation( Act was enforced in 1986. The Act prohibits employment of children in certain specified hazardous occupations and processes and regulates the working conditions in others. The list of hazardous occupations and processes is progressively being expanded on the recommendation of Child Labour technical Advisory Committee constituted under Act. Further, Article 24 of the Indian Constitution also prohibits employment of children below the age of fourteen in hazardous works.
The Conventions of the ILO, the 1926 and 1656 Slavery Conventions, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are the major tools used for regulation of child labour. The other potent instruments used for the eradication or regulation of child labour are: Article 32 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which holds, “State parties recognize the right of the child to be protected form economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, mortal or social development.”
Successive governments have been aware of the need for release of these children from hazardous work and their rehabilitation through education. With this end in view, the National Policy on Child Labour was formulated in August 1984. The National Child Labour Projects were conceptualized and launched around the same time. Later on, it was further strengthened for the total liberation of all children in the age group of 5 to 14 employed in hazardous work and for their physical and emotional rehabilitation through a composite package under the National Child labour Projects which are to be administered under the Societies Registration Act, 1960. Many other organizations (both governmental and NGOs) are stepping forward for the upliftment of these children and regulation and eradication of child labour. Recently, the Parliament’s adoption of the right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Bill, 2009, has also ushered in a new ray of hope for the deprived children of India.
The problem of child labour must be recognized as a human rights problem, both directly (e.g. slavery) and indirectly (e.g. compulsory labour that results in denial of the right to education). It embraces not only “the rights of the child” per se, but also the broad panoply of entitlements across the whole spectrum of rights through which, at least civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights. The policymakers as also the ordinary citizens must understand that the future of children would not be secured unless their rights are clearly identified, redefined and restored. Seen from this perspective, it becomes a mandatory duty of all governments across the world to take all possible steps to put and end to the problem of child labour once and for all. Today’s children will constitute the backbone of tomorrow’s society. Hence, it is the obligation of every generation to bring up children, who will be citizens of tomorrow, in a proper way.