$1.20 a week the lot of India’s 115m child slave labourers

Rhys Blakely; 16/10/09

India has the largest population of child workers in the world, with an estimated 60 million to 115 million minors forgoing education to earn money. So great is the problem that activists suggest it is nigh impossible to spend a day there without using some goods or services — from domestic help to mined minerals — that do not rely on under-age labour. India’s woeful record of tackling illegal child labour has been laid bare by official records obtained by The Times under the country’s right-to-information laws. Only 138 cases were brought against people employing child workers from October 2006 to April last year. The child labour law, passed in 1986, bans the employment of children under the age of 14 in a swath of industries, from working on factory floors to waiting on tables.

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Many of India’s child workers, such as Mohammad, 10, who was rescued from a sweatshop in Delhi two weeks ago, endure miserable existences and are paid a pittance. He was trafficked from his home in the impoverished northern state of Bihar to Delhi, where he spent nine months working 16-hour -days, making cheap garments. He was paid 50 rupees ($1.20) a week. “We bathed outside, otherwise we were kept in one room without windows,” he told The Times.
In the child labour debate, one apologistic argument is often raised. This posits that many poor people rely on their children to work to support the family and it would be naive to think this situation could be reversed quickly.
Which is preferable, proponents of this line of logic ask: a family able to feed itself, or a starving child in school?
It is the question that passes through countless Western heads when they see small children hawking magazines at Indian traffic stops or serving chai at tea stalls.
Those with greater insight into the scourge of child labour, however, think differently.
Bhuwan Ribhu has rescued hundreds of child labourers from Delhi’s sweatshops and brothels. His stance is unremitting: child labour must be stamped out.
First, Mr Ribhu says, most child workers make a pittance. The average wage of 35 children he rescued from a sweatshop this month was between 50 and 100 rupees a week, plus meals.
This is not family-supporting employment but slavery. For the most part, children are employed because they are easily bullied and beaten, demand fewer rights than adults and can be paid next to nothing.
There is no moral defence of an economy that rests on these conditions.
Second, Mr Ribhu believes India has at least 60 million unemployed adults. Why, he asks, can they not take the place of their working children (especially if some of these children are earning enough to help to support a family)? Indeed, there is a provision in Indian law that says the roles occupied by child labourers must be offered to an adult member of their family — and another law that says that children must go to school.
Here, of course, lies the rub: India has reasonably good laws, but they are seldom enforced. Laws are a very good start — but if the country is to take its place as a true global power, it cannot afford to be weighed down by millions of uneducated young people.
The nation’s future depends on the laws being acted upon — now.