The Ministry of Labour recently issued a notification banning children below 14 from working in residences and the hospitality sector. After agriculture, these areas are where children are employed in the highest numbers, and it is hoped that prohibiting their employment in homes and at waiting tables will address a large lacuna in the current laws against employing children. The prohibition was brought into force by adding these areas in the list of hazardous occupations, where child labour is already prohibited. The ban has been imposed under the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986 and will be effective from 10th October 2006.
The national child rights organisation Child Rights and You (CRY) has welcomed the Ministry's recent notification but feels it is an insufficient response. Many gaps still remain in the legal provisions against child labour, and even the ones already in existance cannot be effective without proper enforcement and rehabilitation provisions. Moreover, the group has pointed out that while this notification has been necessary, it is at best another in a long line of piecemeal efforts. For real change to occur the root causes of child labour have to be addressed causes like the lack of a coherent education policy, insufficient schools, poverty, marginalization, migration etc - situations that force children into work.
This broader demand apart, even within the notification's limited ambit, CRY has noted significant gaps:
The prohibition is restricted to servants at home, hotels, dhabas and other recreation centres. It is not clear whether this applies to the household manufacturing sector, where a vast number of children are employed in similar working conditions.
The conviction rate for the already existing Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986 is abysmally low - so low, in fact, that it is hardly a deterrent for employers. Without strengthening both enforcement mechanisms and provisions for rehabilitation, making additions to the list of prohibited employments for children has little meaning.
The notification is premised on the belief that that child labour needs to be prohibited in hazardous occupations only, but does not take a clear view of what children ought to be doing in their childhood - learning in safe and meaningful schools. An insular notofication of this sort totally ignores children's right to safe and facilitating environment for development, including health, nutrition and education needs.
It is also noteworthy that the government's notification is incongruent with another related issue pending before it - namely, ensuring the fundamental right to education. Legislation enabling this right to education is yet to be passed in Parliament, which raises the question - if children are to be stopped from working so that they may attend schools instead, why is there such a lack of poitical will in securing the right to education?
CRY believes, for this reason, that the notification on child labour has to be seen in this light - more than protecting children from hazardous employment, the government may be trying to ward off a Supreme Court decision banning all forms of child labour. The Court has already asked the States for their views on why child labour should not be entirely abolished. Its query to the state governments may have prompted this limited response from the executive.
Clearly, the journey is far from complete. The National Sample Survey 2000, reported 16.4 million Indian children aged 5-14 years were 'engaged in economic activities and domestic or non-remunerative work'. Another 46 million children of school-going age are unaccounted for, neither enrolled in school nor officially working. Giving India at least one reason to be #1 home to the largest number of child labourers on the planet.