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Global Report - A Response

May 2006

I must at the outset thank the ILO for giving me an opportunity to be a part of the release of the Global Report. In stating that it is possible to ‘end child labour’ and that it is ‘within the reach’, ILO the sole international agency on behalf of the poor and the working class resonates with the aspirations of millions of poor parents and their children in India, and in all the other countries where children face a similar predicament.

Poor parents- Explosive Demand for Education
We must recognize that there is crying and explosive demand for education among the poor today. They see it as invaluable for giving their children a chance to break the tradition of backwardness and vulnerability. It is their faith in education as an indispensable means of attaining freedom towards equity and justice that has propelled them to send their children to schools. Indeed, it is their battle for schools against all odds that has been responsible for the reduction of the numbers of child labour today. In telling such parents that ‘we are with you in your struggle for freedom of children and in winning the battle for education’ and that ‘we will join you in your movement for education’ is the need of the hour.

Market Demand for Child Labour
There is at the same time an enormous demand for child labour as a source of cheap, docile and unquestioning labor force. Market forces take advantage of the fact that there are weak legal instruments to rescue children in work. Lack of social a norm that finds child labor unacceptable and a tolerance of them not being in schools make it convenient for the market to continue to exploit children. The government, civil society and international organisations must make all efforts towards changing this norm in favor of children and their right to education. Unless this happens children will be available for the market and child labour would perpetuate itself.

Need to address ALL forms of Child Labor and ILO
It is in this context that those in authority and responsible for abolition of child labour must work towards building a social norm for a total abolition of child labour. Insistence on focusing on the worst forms of child labour first, would only give legitimacy for the governments to ignore majority of children who are out of schools and engaged in some form of work or the other. This would in turn render a majority of child labour invisible and hidden. In fact such a vast army of child labour that is left untouched would result in the persistence of child labour, even in the ‘hazardous sector’.

Unless a policy of abolishing child labour in all its forms is made, a new set of children occupying the ‘hazardous’ labour force will not be prevented. Further, it is only when the rights of ALL children to be away from work and at school become a public issue that children in armed conflict, sex work and in illicit activities will find a congenial environment that would accept them back into the fore of the society. Without a social norm in favor of children’s right to education such children would find it difficult, if not impossible to get reintegrated into the society without being stigmatized and tabooed. It is therefore impractical to focus on children in only certain sectors alone, as long as a larger environment that accepts child labour in all its forms continues to exist.

It is the responsibility of the ILO to act as a conscience keeper and provider of vision to categorically state that every child must be in school in order to abolish child labour in all its forms. The ILO rightly states in its report that ‘perhaps the greatest progress has been made in recognizing the link between child labour elimination and education for all’ and that action should be taken against child labour in order to realize the right to education. This, along with the Minimum Age Convention 138, must become the basis for laying out plans of action in a systematic manner.

Child Labor Integral to Daily Lives of All
It is seldom appreciated that much of the lives of ordinary citizen’s in our country are so integral to the lives of poor children and their sweat and toil. It is their long hours of work, under conditions of total submission and servility, without any support, fear of abuse, insults and humiliation, risks to health they work for our upkeep. In fact the ‘roti, kapda and makaan’ (food, clothing and shelter) in our lives must have child labor at some stage or the other in the production chain which are local and global at times.

Young girls work under scorching heat, with blistering sore feet dug into the marshy land; these children do the sowing, weeding, harvesting of vegetables, lentils, cooking oils and all the food we relish. When they are not working in the fields they are burdened with the monotony of work at home cooking, fetching water, carrying siblings and doing all the domestic chores. Children are also engaged in tending to cattle, sheep, goats, in fishing and work in the poultry, contributing to producing milk and milk products, and all other food items. Children’s labor is mixed in most of the food we eat in our country.
The clothes we wear too breathe child labour. Hundreds and thousands of children work in production of hybrid cotton seeds, wrapped in violence, embedded in worn out bodies, nausea of daily lives, knocking headaches, giddiness and mental depression, wasted childhood toiling relentlessly and getting burnt under heat and dust.
The cotton ginning mills, handloom weaving looms as well as the spinning machines and power looms too employ children. The silk one wears, and the process of sericulture has an abundance of children working in damp, dark, poorly ventilated, and have loud, deafening music playing in the background.

Our homes, offices, business centers, entertainment places, in fact every building owes its creation to children and at the cost of their childhood. With growing demand in the building and construction industry, children leave their villages to work on sites without water, sanitation and shelter, around brick kilns lifting head loads, brick by brick on the head and piling clay moulds to bake under the heat and dust.

The homes of most middle and upper classes too depend on young girls and boys working as domestic servants. They are either full time workers trafficked from their homes or part time workers living with their parents in the same town. There is an undercurrent of suspicion about their honesty and are rebuked more often than not for being lax and untidy in their chores.

However, if one were to focus on children in the worst forms of labour, none of these children would find their way to schools at least until 2016.

Government of India-What must be done?
Being a host to the maximum numbers of child laborers in the world today, our country must demonstrate that it is indeed possible to abolish child labour in all its forms. This would require a legal framework that finds all forms of child labour unacceptable and therefore an amendment to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. It would need to have laws on child labour in consonance with the 86th Amendment to the Constitution of India that guarantees right to education as fundamental right. The education system must be prepared to remove all barriers for enabling every child to survive in the school system without any disruption at least until she reaches class X. It must respond to the demand for education and provide for all that is necessary in terms of infrastructure, schoolteachers and sensitivity to the first generation learner. There must be a total conviction to bring the huge backlog of children who have missed out on schooling and are engaged in work into the mainstream school system. Every arrangement must be made to help them integrate with the school system. The policies for abolition of child labour must be linked to the policies for compulsory education.

It is in this context that I see the role for the ILO as a leader of a movement against child labor in all its forms. It must galvanize the energies of one and all in support of children’s right to education as a non-negotiable. It can privilege multiple layers in the society from local to global, trade unions, teachers unions and employers associations, governments and multilateral donor agencies to give a wholehearted message for abolition of child labor. In fact it is positioned in a manner that it can transcend all other interests in the best interest of the children and their rights. It must take the voices and aspirations of the poor for educating their children to those in power and establishment. And in doing so it would certainly build the strength, to end child labor in all its forms giving children their right to education.

Shantha Sinha
Secretary Trustee
MV Foundation

The full report of the ILO is availaible on

India Committee of The Netherlands / Landelijke India Werkgroep - May 5, 2006