Nuanced Approach needed for Child Labor Laws

Posted on October 12, 2014


The Nobel Peace Prize to Kailash Satyarthi has brought to light child labor issues with a big bang. This is fantastic news.  Kailash Satyarthi has done seminal work around “atrocity labor” that distressed children in India are involved in. He is a true karma yogi, in that he has gone into the bowels of the darkest places where these children are employed to rescue them.

The asymmetry between suppliers (the poor parents & missing children) of this labor and those that utilize this labor (the employer, agriculturist, mine, brothel and other owner) has led to extreme exploitation, which would be hard for us armchair types to comprehend. I will not expound on that, since this write up needs some distance and the nature of misery these kids go through would have any normal person baying for a ban on child labor, let alone people like Satyarthi who have gone into hell to bring them back.

The clamor has risen for a blanket ban on child labor in India (under 14). The worry is that this debate is being hijacked by the NAC type of cadre, which constitutes of true armchair gasbags with funding from and linkages and alignment with western agencies of dubious intent towards India. Such average IQ and over recognized individuals have been responsible for gifts like RTE & the plum on the pudding NREGA. So one does feel nervous when the framing of the argument is taken over by such cunning duffers whose main job is to copy laws that exist in the homogenous west, which is at a very different place from where we Indians are at. The answer to Child Labor issues for these people is a Super Nanny State. That is surely a road to bankruptcy and civilization destruction.

Taking a step back, a blanket ban on child labor in India could have an opportunity cost and repercussions that far outstrips any benefit and relief. I sincerely hope a day will come when we can have a blanket ban but the day is not now. My ideas below may not be the best ones or even the right ones but we must expand this discourse. Child labor laws need to viewed as a continuum for now, with constant evolution. Take for example the following scenarios where the consequences of a blanket ban might hurt-:

Mother works in construction and cannot leave young children at home They accompany her to the construction site where she can keep an eye on them and because they are with her and she gets to step back, slow down and watch over them, they help her out to make up for any deficit. You ban labor in this situation and the mother is left with no option but to leave the kids with an alcoholic husband, alone or in other tenuous situations.

I remember how my aunts house help brought her two daughters over to help her (11 and 9). These girls did go to school but were still illiterate (given the conditions of the school). My aunt being a school principal, vehemently objected to these kids – domestic labor, yada, yada. One line from her maid shut her up – If I leave my daughters alone in the jhuggi, bad things can happen to them. After that the girls came with their mother after school, helped their Mom so that she could clean more houses, sat in front of the TV and once a week got free tuitions courtesy my aunt. Now, not everyone is like my aunt but the fact is that there are certain necessities that propel these people to bring their kids along to work. They make a trade-off and a law should not take that way from them.

Another example is our neighborhood bidi/ kirana shop near family house whose 10 or 11 year old son comes straight from school to work in father shop. I have seen him study at the back sometime and much of the time he helps his father bring goods, keeps accounts (yes at this age since he is more literate that his father). His father’s explanation is that this keeps him out of the trouble that boys in the badlands get into. He is monitored all the time but he is also working.

Mother with 5 kids has a husband who passed away The eldest kid is sent away to town (he is 8 years old) to provide income for the rest of the family. It is a trade-off. The loss of childhood for the elder child so that the younger kids don’t die of starvation or get sold off to traffickers because the family is under duress.

Family is illiterate but self employed making incense sticks to supplement their income The kids help parents make incense sticks and that margin allows the family to barely survive. Where would something like this fall under labor laws?

I could go on and on but the reader should get the gist of what one is trying to communicate by now.

The crux of the matter is that parents make a trade-off and they should be allowed to make this trade-off. The state should attempt to remove the demand and supply asymmetry through better laws, information and enablers vs. taking away this intrinsic choice from parents. Parents try and optimize given situations and information. I will try and explain this through more scenarios. Some might already exist in the mountain of Indian laws but we need significant excising and highlighting in that case -:

Better Law Scenarios

Regulate outside employment for child labor and not the work children do at home That is best addressed through enablers. Destruction of family/ self employed businesses as “Rugmark” did, leads to exploitative labor & child trafficking. Picture a poor child working at home vs. being sent to a bangle factory to work because his family’s weaving business is destroyed. Most important is to enable the child to get a formal education and good nourishment in parallel. In the “Rugmark” situation it ended up being like Marie Antoinette “let them eat cake” for family businesses. The weaving communities which needed every hand on the loom were destroyed against industry competition and weavers from Pakistan and Afghanistan where “auditors” cannot randomly walk into someones home and see if a child is engaged in family weaving. “Rugmark” achieved with factories that employed child labor and where children were losing their eyesight at an early age due to this exploitation, but a nuanced approach would have been helpful with regards to self employed businesses.

Extend ban on Child Labor in hazardous industries and put the onus entirely on the employer This ban should extend till 18 years of age. 14 years is too young and allows too much manipulation. This should include factory work, mining, cooking equipment and other categories. This could include begging and prostitution as well.

Put the onus of education on the employer for remaining industries (for above a certain age and 14 years) i.e., the child who is employed has to attend school and have minimum school attendance. If the child is not attending school the employer will be penalized.

Constrain the hours of work so that no child is employed during school hours and say after 8 pm. Nightime work can be most dangerous for it’s exploitative nature (again under 14 or whatever is right). Something like this is actually fairly straightforward to monitor.

Make it conditional that a child will always be working in the vicinity of parents and again put the onus on the employer The vicinity can be defined based upon distance or otherwise.

Make an employer register with a simple form Let the form contain all the relevant information about the child, parents, wages, timing of employment, child’s school etc. Not having this form should result in punitive action. Make this form simple and easily accessible.

Information & Enablers

Potentially provide extended hours at schools For situations where parents are away from kids and end up leaving them in tenuous conditions or taking them along, extended hours in a government school with some teacher supervision is a potential lifesaver. No one is looking for frills but if the child can stay till 3-4 pm with two meals for the day, it will cut down on child labor and make school much more attractive to both parents and kids. Again, the school truly needs no frills but just needs to provide a safe environment for the children.

Explain the benefits of schools to parents in transactional terms English speaking armchair gasbags try to communicate the long term economic value to these parents. Thankfully there is an innate decency in Indians that these parents just smile and listen. If you are surviving day to day, who the hell cares about long term value. The key is to communicate the day to day benefits of school – proxy daycare while parents are working, free meals.

Keep the monitoring and laws simple.

The ultimate goals of any child labor regulation are to prevent abuse and sustain a child. Infact, well structured child labor laws in a country like India can be a liberation to a child. Picture a distressed family where a child can go to school and also work a few hours to get some income – such a scenario will have a greater impact on poverty reduction than a blanket ban when may result in parents hawking the child or human trafficking excesses.

The discourse needs to shift from Child Labor to Child Abuse. The idea that labor is evil is very western entitled society. We simply cannot afford it at this juncture.Additionally, it is important to distinguish between labor through coercion and deceit vs. truly voluntary. Much of the labor through trafficking of children and lying to parents cannot and should not be classified as labor. It is a crime. The conflation of the two in the usual circles is really worrisome because in some ways it diminishes what human trafficking (abduction etc) really is. Separating the two will actually make the laws easier to execute and monitor. Human trafficking and child labor are separate issues. It is dismaying to see how “child domestic help” has hijacked the entire issue of Human trafficking which is much graver and needs more attention.

However, we cannot afford the sustained abuse that our children are going through. It is unacceptable by any human parameters. As such, the nation must be grateful the likes of Kailash Satyarthi and the many faceless warriors who are fighting for childhood. The people who execute have to take a more nuanced and layered approach and prioritize the right issues.