Child labour is hardly a new phenomenon. Some countries have attempted to address and curb this prevailing issue and yet, the number of children engaged in child labour continues to persist and climb. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), there are reportedly 246 million children trapped in child labour in the world, out of which approximately 70% of them toil long, hard hours under exploitative and perilous conditions.
To begin with, let us examine the definition of child labour. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) refers child labour to “work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.” In particular, India has been on the receiving end of media attention for its longstanding struggle against child labour. The country alone is said to account for the largest number of child labourers in the world.
Indeed, in a bid to rein in the number of child labourers in India, a blanket ban was imposed last year by the government to prohibit the employment of any child under the age of 14. Previously, children were permitted to be engaged in non-hazardous industries such as agricultural work. However, with the enactment of the Right to Education Act in 2009 – which states that schooling is mandatory (and free) for children between 6 and 14 years old – it meant the preceding child labour law was not aligned with the new education legislation and this called for an urgent review of the child labour legislation.
Hence, with the revision of the child labour law, the blanket ban serves to reinforce the education legislation laid down by the government to hinder the growing number of child labourers and ensure that education is not being sacrificed at the expense of work. However, it appears that the new legislation has done little to clamp down the occurrence of child labour as the nation continues to be plagued by countless horror stories detailing the plight of these child labourers.
Why is this so?
First of all, poverty forms the primary motive as to why children engage in child labour. As such, child labour becomes a source of livelihood for the family. Because Indians adhere to the caste system, it has become a challenge for the government to tackle poverty. The caste system is a social hierarchy whereby the Indians are born into either of the four caste groups to which his parents belong to. This means that children born into a lower caste group are more likely to be born into poverty and as such, be driven to child labour. Although India has been trying to get rid of the caste barriers and discrimination, poverty has nonetheless remained widespread.
In addition, child rights advocates lament that the child labour laws lack teeth when it boils down to authorities seeing it through with the reforms, resulting in various implementation gaps. Although the Right to Education Act stipulates compulsory education for all children, there is an evident lack of teachers in schools and no sanctions are currently imposed on families who fail to comply with the regulation. Moreover, since child labourers are highly susceptible to organised criminal activities such as human trafficking, plans to protect the marginalised group remain to be seen. Not to mention, the prevalence of corruption and bribery in India has consistently obstructed such reforms.
In hindsight, given the magnitude of the issue, the Indian government faces the daunting task of coordinating their resources in order to achieve the goals of such reforms. Unfortunately, unless India begins stepping up on its efforts to enforce its reforms and tackle the prevalence of poverty, the child labour phenomenon is not likely to go away. Yet with so many pressing issues to attend to, India should first and foremost work towards filling in the potholes in the education reform before addressing others.