Sreelatha Menon: Don`t ban labour, give them schools

Sreelatha Menon: Don`t ban labour, give them schools
Sreelatha Menon / New Delhi August 14, 2006
Extending the ban on child labour is aimed at protecting the government, not the children.

Last week, when the Union labour ministry issued a notification under the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, to ban children under the age of 14 from working in residences and in the hospitality sector, it seemed to raise more questions than it succeeded in providing a solution to.

The ban, while much awaited, is being looked at with cynicism as many believe that the addition of two more kinds of work to the list of hazardous work that already stands banned under the law is not the same as banning child labour. The reason is simple: the new categories constitute a mere 5 per cent of the 70-million child workforce of in the country. The majority of children, 85 per cent, are in agricultural labour, which is allowed.

Again, the addition of two more kinds of work does not necessarily mean that the ban on those would be enforced any better than the rest of the Act has been.

The ban alone will also not ensure well-being of the child. What about his rehabilitation, education and so on?

The notification has not been accompanied by any measures to strengthen the enforcement system or the existing rehabilitation system — the National Child Labour Project — to generate optimism. The fact that the whole range of children-related issues is linked to at least six ministries also makes it a complex matter that cannot be solved by the labour ministry alone.

In fact, child right activists say that the whole Child Labour Act, 1986, is fallacious and correction is urgently needed at the level of the law itself. Pradeep Narayanan of Child Relief and You, who hails the new ban, says,

“The notification is as unenforceable as the law itself. Both suffer from ambiguity.’’

“The law which bans child labour in hazardous activities, fails to define ‘hazardous’ in terms of the child. The term is defined in terms of an adult Act, that is, the Factories Act. Besides, it takes months of judicial work to establish whether a hazardous work has been involved in an offence,” says Narayanan. The notification also leaves out household manufacturing industries, he adds.

Commenting on the implementation, he says the inspectors for enforcing the Child Labour Act are the same as that for the Factories Act or Minimum Wage Act or 15 other labour Acts.

Inakshi Ganguli of the NGO Haq believes that the addition of the domestic labour and hotel industry does not solve the problem of child labour. The basic flaw is with the law which needs to be redrafted, she says. Haq has gone to the Supreme Court with this very demand.

The notification brings with it no guarantee of rehabilitation. Worse, there is no guarantee that the children removed from houses and dhabas will go back to schools.

In fact, according to the 1999 Public Report on Basic Education survey of 188 villages in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh by researchers led by economist Jean Dreze, it is not child labour but bad schools which keep away children. Banning child labour cannot ensure zero dropout rates.

The PROBE report also showed that out-of-school children only perform two hours of extra work per day, compared with school-going children.

It is ironic that the UPA government’s sudden realisation of the hazards involved in household chores and hotel industry work for children has come at a time it has washed its hands off having a Central legislation on free and compulsory education and passed the buck to states. A Central law would have meant an annual bill of Rs 40,000 crore for the UPA government.

The notification also comes when it is expecting a rap on its knuckles from the Supreme Court on a petition pleading for ban on child labour to make the right to education a reality.

MV Foundation and Haq have filed the petition in the Supreme Court and a hearing is expected this month.

And the notification rather than protecting the children, will serve to protect the government. Ingrid Srinath, CRY’s CEO of puts it bluntly: “Without strengthening both enforcement mechanisms and provisions for rehabilitation, this step has little meaning.”

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