Despite the Right to Protection from Exploitation being one of the Fundamental Rights in our country, the statistics around Child Labour still remain bizarre. In 2011, the Census counted 4.35 million children between the ages of five to fourteen as child workers. Such a high figure, despite the fundamental right and a separate legislation The Child Labour (Protection and Regulation) Act, 1986 being in place.
There have been talks of making amendments to the 1986 act and on 20th July 2016 (as part of the ongoing Monsoon Session of the Parliament) the Rajya Sabha unanimously voted in favor of the amendments. Known as The Child Labour (Protection and Regulation) Amendment Bill 2016, was introduced by the current Labour Minister BandaruDattatreya and will now be taken up by the Lok Sabha for discussion. The Amendment has provisions to make child labor a cognizable offense attracting a jail term of up to two years and also puts fourteen to eighteen-year-old children in a separate category of ‘adolescents’.
The controversial and much-debated clause in the Amendment Bill is its provision for allowing children both below and above fourteen years of age to work in ‘family enterprises’. The logic being given by Dattatreya and the like who are supporting the provision is that in a large number of families, children help their parents in occupations such as agriculture and artisanship and simultaneously learn the basics of such skills. They maintain the stand that this exception is necessary to make keeping in mind the social fabric of the country while aiming for the larger goal of total abolition of child labor. Explaining the exception, Dattatreya said – “family has been exempted as the relationship between employer and employee does not exist and that a law should be framed keeping in mind the ground realities as well as ensuring that it is implementable”.
However, there is another side to it. While the Bill has provisions for barring employment of children and adolescents in hazardous occupations and processes, there is the exception of family enterprises which gives rise to certain ambiguities and raises concerns. There is no clarification as to what will happen if family enterprises are the hazardous occupations from which children need to be saved. Moreover, even if agriculture is a family enterprise and children are allowed to work in fields after school hours and during holidays, the chemicals and pesticides used in the fields are harmful to them. The exception can also be problematic since it is based on the assumption that the ‘employer-employee’ relationship doesn’t exist in family structures. This not only implies in a way that parents are free to exploit their children, but also gives them legal validation to do so.
For obvious reasons, child rights activist and Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi is not happy with this provision. “The amendment in child labour law may have good intent and moves gradually towards our destination, but I cannot say I am happy for the millions of child labourers in our country. This day has come after a long struggle, which began in 1986 when the child labor law was enacted,” Satyarthi said after Rajya Sabha passed the bill.“A weak law on child labor may have severe implications on economic, social, human rights and moral well-being of society. It seems to me that a political scene has been set to fail our children once again due to the existing apathy, complacency, and old-age mindset,” he added.
If our larger aim is the total abolition of child labor, and if we genuinely want to pursue the same, isn’t it time for some radical legislations rather than sticking to regressive one?