In respect of child labor, India alone has 33 million child laborers in the world according to the data provided by UNICEF in 2011. Among these 33 million, a staggering 80% belong to the socially outcast sections of the society also known as Dalits. Another alarming factor is that India ranks 4th in terms of modern slavery (which included work like sex work, child labor, manual labor and forced marriages) as per the Global Slavery Index. The major cause of concern is when we see that among these child laborers, 4 million are less than 14 years of age. The Government of India has passed the child labor law in 1986 because of the constitutional mandate under Article 24 which prohibits children below 14 years of age to work or be employed in hazardous work situations and also the Directive Principle of State Policy under which the state has been directed to ensure that the health of workers is taken utmost care of and no exploitation of workers should take place. In 2016, significant changes in the laws related to Child Labor were made by promulgating amendments to the Child and Adolescent Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986 which became effective from the date of July 30, 2016.
The first noteworthy change that has been brought about by the amendment is that the previous restrictions on employment of child labor in certain industries like fireworks, automobiles, carpet weaving, mines; etc has now been converted into a blanket ban for children under the age of 14. The only exceptions to this blanket ban is in respect of “own account enterprises” like family business and entertainment industry. These exceptions are also allowed with the rider that the education of the child in question doesn’t suffer. The major reason for this blanket ban is the Right to Education Act enacted in 2009 providing for free and compulsory education to children up to the age of 14 years.
The second change that needs to be mentioned is creation of a new class of persons comprising of people in between the age bracket of 14 to 18 years by the name “adolescents”. This class of persons can be employed or given work but not in hazardous workplaces like mines, fireworks industries, automobiles, etc.
The Act has been amended to empower the Central Government to add or omit any occupation listed under the hazardous occupations list and the penalty provisions for contravention of the act have been enhanced. A penalty for employment of adolescents in hazardous occupations had also been added and the existing penalty for employment of children for employers has been raised from Rs. 20000 to Rs. 50000 and the imprisonment clause has been enhanced to two years. In respect of parents, however the penalty has been reduced. However, separate and stricter provisions for both employer and parents have been included to deal with repeat offenders.
In order to check whether the act is being implemented properly or not, powers may be given to a District Magistrate for ensuring the same. The Act also confers the power of periodic inspection of places by the government where adolescents or children cannot be employed. A grave issue is in respect of the rehabilitation of children who were illegally employed and so, the Act has provided for setting up of the Child and Adolescent Rehabilitation Fund for rehabilitation of those children.
The present amendments can be lauded as a progressive step but it is marred by a lot of drawbacks. The first noteworthy point is the cutting short of the list of hazardous occupations from 83 to merely mining, explosives and those occupations mentioned in the Factories Act. This removes various important hazardous work places like brick kilns, chemical industries from the ambit of hazardous work, thus, exposed the children to huge risks.
Secondly, the blanket ban on employment of children less than 14 years seems to be marred by the very exception of family business or entertainment work. The census on child labor itself shows that most of the child laborers come from the socially deprived sections of the society and hence, would continue the inter-generational child labor among them. Data also shows that one fifth of the child labor is seen prevalent among families and the children had to be rescued from their own families. Such an exemption will therefore kill all hope for such children.
The provision of exemption of family business also raises eyebrows with the fact that no limits have been prescribed on the number of work hours and simply the term “after school or vacations” have been used. It is also more difficult to determine whether a particular enterprise is a family business or is merely a façade to trick the law. This exemption will also work contrary to the intention of providing education as the education of the child in the long run may be marred as the moment the child crosses the threshold of 14 years, he will be pushed into work as a full timer and he would never complete his elementary education.
Another important drawback is in the form of contravention of international obligations by accepting a definition of child labor which goes contrary to the definitions given under ILO’s Minimum Age Convention (International Labor Organization) and UNCIEF’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. India is a signatory to both the conventions. The Convention on Rights of the Child in the Kundapura Declaration also goes on to provide consultations with the children to make laws better and recognize their needs but the child labour laws even this recent amendment seemed to have overlooked this aspect.
Hence, the need of the hour is not to go into passing of new legislations and amendments but to collaborate with the key participants in this path who are committed to achieve this goal, like the non-governmental organizations and civil society so that the act is effectively implemented and the loop holes of the act are plugged by effective and efficient implementation. It can be achieved by keeping a proper check on the working conditions of the adolescents and the children in situations including family businesses.
LexisNexis India’s Student Ambassador