India Comes Under Pressure to Get Serious About Child Labor

India Comes Under Pressure to Get Serious About Child Labor

Asha’s day starts at 8 a.m., when she wakes up and makes breakfast for the family she lives with as a nanny in Noida, a suburb of New Delhi. She takes the kids down to play, feeds them, bathes them and puts up with their tantrums. Asha is around 14 years old — a few years older than the children she minds. Neha, 12, works as a daily maid for a family in New Delhi. her day starts in the kitchen, where she struggles over the high sink every morning to wash the breakfast dishes. Like Asha, Neha has never been to school, and like Asha, she is one of hundreds of thousands of child laborers believed to be working as domestic helpers in homes across the nation.

Hiring young children to work as nannies and maids in India is increasingly common. It’s also illegal. In 2006, India banned the employment of children below the age of 14 in homes and restaurants. And though the law has gone largely ignored by thousands of employers, it is getting more attention on national and international levels. Earlier this week, a U.S. State Department report on human trafficking indicted India for its lack of commitment to the issue, coinciding with a June 15 statement by a trial court in Delhi about the need to punish agencies that recruit children, along with child workers’ family members. “We have lost our national conscience,” says Shantha Sinha, chairperson for the National Commission of Protection of Child Rights . “Otherwise why would educated people break the law at every moment by employing minors as domestic help and behaving like they are doing the children a favor”

The Trafficking in Persons Report 2009, released on Tuesday, gave India a Tier 2 rating for the sixth consecutive year, citing that India has not been able to suppress human trafficking, “particularly bonded labor.” According to a 2001 census, an estimated 185, 595 children are employed as domestic help and in small roadside eateries, a number that is believed to have grown today. Most child domestic workers in India are trafficked by placement agencies operating in poor states like Orissa, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The agencies pay families in advance for their children and then place them at jobs in cities, tying the child to the agency until he or she pays off the money given to his family. The June court statement issued out of Delhi was over the case of local couple who had been accused by police of hiring and ill-treating a 15-year-old girl working as their maid. The couple pleaded that they did not know the girl was a minor, and that the placement agency told them that she was over 18. The case put the spotlight back on the thousands of illegal agencies operating in the Delhi and surrounding region, and the need for a regulatory body to monitor their activities. Out of the 5000 odd placement agencies in the area, only 33 are registered.

India’s existing laws on child labor haven’t been effective for a mixture of legal and cultural reasons. The Child Labor Act prohibits any child below the age of 14 to be employed as a domestic help or in eateries, carrying a punishment for employers of up to 3 months of imprisonment and a fine of about $200, or both. The legislation, however, is in conflict with the older Juvenile Justice Act, which is also applicable in prosecution of child labor cases, but defines children as under 18. The conflicting ages make prosecution a cumbersome process, and the pervasive social and cultural acceptance of poor children working in India hasn’t helped. A 2006 UNICEF report showed girls between the ages of 12 and 15 are the preferred choice of domestic help in 90 percent of Indian households. Mohammad Aftab of Save the Children says child domestic labor can be curbed only by making it, “socially and culturally unacceptable.”

What would a better law look like The Delhi court suggested that because children are usually put to work by their families, a more effective legal tactic to fight this kind of human trafficking would be to prosecute the family members as well as the placement agency. Sinha of the NCPCR says that the court’s suggestion — though not legally binding in any way — could be a step in the right direction. “When you are talking about child Labor, no action is trivial,” she says. “Every action is important because it is a step forward.” Vikram Srivastava from Save the Children, however, feels punishing the families is “anti-poor.” Because child labor is linked so closely to the economic conditions their families live in, activists say it will be difficult to reign in the practice until poverty is also tackled head on.

So while the Indian government fumbles its way through amendments and observations and laws pitted against each other, Asha learns to cook in the microwave, to operate the washing machine and to stack the dishwasher, instead of learning the alphabet or math. Sitting in a park, keeping an eye on the children she minds, she talks about running in fields near her home town in West Bengal, playing hide and seek with her sister, and collecting raw mangoes and eating them with salt. And suddenly, from a children’s nanny, Asha returns for a moment to what she is — a child.

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