World Day against Child Labor | Small hands can handle a pen better

Children have a right to voice their views on matters affecting them
"Neighbors in the suburban housing complex looked up and saw a child crying for help from an upstairs balcony." [Image for representational purpose only]
"Neighbors in the suburban housing complex looked up and saw a child crying for help from an upstairs balcony." [Image for representational purpose only]Picryl [Creative Commons]

We start with the slogan No to child labor – YES to quality education. The International Labor Organization (ILO) defines child labor as employment of children in any work that deprives them of their childhood, interferes with their ability to attend regular school, and is mentally, physically, socially or morally harmful.

Child domestic labor refers to children employed to carry out household work. The International Labor Organization has found that India has 12.6 million laborers between the ages of 5 and 14, with roughly 20 percent working as domestic help.

Many of these children come from India’s poorest states, mostly through shadowy job placement agencies. It is true that in a number of cases, child domestic workers are carrying out light work - are, in fact, helping hands - but on the other hand in the vast majority of cases this is hazardous and exploitative work - for many hours, at too young an age and under difficult conditions - and therefore we would count it among the worst forms of child labor.

A 13 year old girl worked as a maid for a couple who had gone on vacation to Thailand. They had left her locked inside their apartment. The girl’s screams were brittle and desperate. Neighbors in the suburban housing complex looked up and saw a child crying for help from an upstairs balcony.

After a firefighter rescued her, the girl described a life akin to slavery. Her uncle had sold her to a job placement agency, which sold her to the couple, both doctors. The girl was paid nothing. She said the couple barely fed her and beat her if her work did not meet expectations.

She said they used closed-circuit cameras to make certain she did not take extra food.  The case of the 13-year-old maid is a reminder that the exploitation of children is also a symptom of India’s rising wealth, as the country’s growing middle class has created a surging demand for domestic workers, jobs often filled by children.

India’s upper and middle class were growing flabby and indolent through their dependence on cheap household help, and that they also wrongly held “an implicit belief in possessing an intrinsic superiority, an assumed right to lord it over someone lesser. 

Thirteen -year-old Khalid works as a domestic help in the house of a Srinagar-based government employee in Nowshera. His younger sister embroiders shawls in an unregistered textile venture in her native village of North Kashmir. Khalid said “when my father first brought me here, my employer promised to send me to school but till date I don’t know when the day will come and I will go to school”.

An 11-year-old Nepalese girl, working as a servant, said that her employer had beaten her with a rolling pin. Scores of the non-locals especially children can be seen collecting plastic, metal, and other waste on roadsides. As such the department said that the practice of rag-picking was promoting child labor in the valley.

In its latest draft of the Rehabilitation Policy for Children in Street Situation, the social welfare department has asked the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) department to make the occupation of rag-picking an organized sector so that these families do not employ children in this highly unhygienic work. 

ULBs shall make all the efforts to bring the occupation of rag picking into the organized sector so that the families can sell waste and plastic materials to the people at a fixed price and earn their livelihood. 

The bank account of such families should be opened so that the occupation of rag picking can become a source of income for them and would keep their children off the child labor.

In this regard BEd students Distance Education of district Ganderbal created a Self-help group who are involved in identifying such families who are rag pickers. They arrange Counseling for them. They try to ensure that the children who are involved in such works get  enrolled in schools and attend classes regularly.

Children selling maize cobs, sub standardized fruit on the Jammu Srinagar national highway is a common scene. Other children work as mechanics, restaurant and domestic help, besides being employed as bus conductors.

Lately professional beggars in Srinagar have found a new tool to gain public sympathy. These are being seen carrying infants and young children, who would demand money on their behalf. While all this happens in the public domain, no governmental agency seems to be bothered.

Carpet weaving, the so-called pride of Kashmir presents the ugliest story of the exploitation of little hands that weave beautiful carpets. Based on their research entitled Child labor in Carpet Industry of Kashmir’, authors Dr A Gani, and Dr AM Shah, report that “Carpet industry draws highest number of child laborers in Kashmir”.

According to the researchers, “Poverty, distress, illiteracy and traditional occupation compel parents to send their children to these workshops. These children are robbed of their future, childhood, education, mental and physical growth and overall development. They are exploited to the maximum extent and in a much-dehumanized way.”

This act needs to be followed in letter and spirit.  The investigator conducted the interview of many child labors. One interview was conducted with a 12-year old Nepali girl, who was “sold off” by her father along with her brother, narrated her excruciating story as a child domestic helper at a tender age.

Narrating her story, in tears, the visibly wounded girl told the investigator that the family, she was working with physically abused her, made her work till night to dawn.

She alleged that even when she fell sick, she was forced to do the works of an adult. In the family there was a bed ridden old lady suffering from dementia and immobility.

This small girl had to take care of this old lady for 24*7; she never saw the light of the day. She had to change the diapers of this old lady and it was very painful for her to shift this overweight lady to bathroom for a shower. This child had to spend sleepless nights as a care taker, but she never complained as there was no one to listen to her woeful story. 

All the good clothes were either given to their own children or relatives; she was always given the old and rugged clothes. The girl said she was made to sleep in the old lady stinky room which was ill ventilated and that she would often go hungry as she got to eat only the leftovers of the owners. She had been kept in slave-like conditions behind closed doors.

On some occasions, the family reviewed footage from the cameras in the apartment and beat her if they found behavior that displeased them. I shall share another case study of a working couple who had brought a small girl from the village with a promise to her parents that they will send her to school. In the evening she will be required to do some light domestic chorus.

The couple enrolled her in a local nearby school but never send her to school. She the lady was herself a principal she managed to get her promoted to next grade. The girl was locked inside the house when the couple went to duty. She had to take care of the wheel chair borne old man who was paralytic.

Rabia, just a year back was a school going child with a bag on her little shoulders and was a student of 3rd standard in a Govt. Middle School. But the family burden of domestic works stopped her from studying and snatched from her innocent hands pen and put in them the domestic works of her family. The family which is supposed to be the first guardian of the rights of children. But in Rabia’s case, it became the cause of depriving her from the right to education.

The study was conducted  by the BEd trainees during field practice  in one of the tribal villages of district Ganderbal Case study research design supplemented with the methods of interview schedule and non-participant observation was used in carrying the investigation.

In spite, of two schools in the village, large number of children is outside the schools and engaged in child laboring. The study highlighted familial poverty, ignorance of the parents, lack of support by parents, community passivity and children’s passivity towards education as key factors responsible for child laboring in the village.  

A few years back media reported on Tehmina, a 12-year-old domestic worker who was left paralyzed after being pushed off a balcony in the house she worked at following a brutal beating by her employers. Her death never saw true justice as her father was eased with an out-of-court settlement.

Across Kashmir child laborers can be found in a variety of industries: in brick kilns, carpet weaving, garment making, domestic service, food and refreshment services (such as tea stalls), agriculture, fisheries and mining. Children belong in schools and playgrounds, not kitchens.

They are meant to dream and not mop floors, they need to be given education and not a beating for a job undone.  Child labor deprives children of their right to go to school and reinforces intergenerational cycles of poverty.

Child labor acts as a major barrier to education, affecting both attendance and performance in schools. Listening to children is vital to achieving success in the fight against child labor.   

A key message in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is that children have a right to voice their views on matters affecting them and to have these taken into account. With Labor Day just around the corner, let us pledge not to let childhood be stolen anymore.

Media and civil societies may also play an effective role in highlighting how child domestic labor robs children of their childhood. Collectively we must fight the employment of children as domestic workers.

This World Day against Child Labor, June 12, 2023 we are calling for

Ø  Reinvigorated international action to achieve social justice, particularly under the envisaged Global Coalition for Social Justice, with child labor elimination as one of its important elements;

Ø  Universal ratification of ILO Convention No. 138 on Minimum Age, which, together with the universal ratification of ILO Convention No. 182 on Worst Forms of Child Labor achieved in 2020, would provide all children with legal protection against all forms of child labor;

Ø  Effective implementation of the Durban Call to Action.

Dr Showkat Rashid Wani, Senior Coordinator, Directorate of Distance Education, University of Kashmir

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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