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Child Labour in India: Effects on Education

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Published: Mon, 15 Jan 2018

Growing up, I truly believed that every child had the same advantages I did: clothes, books, toys, food, a home, and most importantly, the chance to go to school. I remember the first time I realized this wasn’t the case: I was seven years old, sneaking downstairs to watch Saturday morning T.V when I stumbled upon an infomercial urging people to donate on behalf of World Vision. I remember the commercial showing a little girl, approximately six years old and explaining how she went to work at a factory every day for little to no compensation. I was bewildered to say the least; I thought every child went to school. Naturally, this prompted several unanswered questions to my parents, and a general curiosity as to why there is this unequal divide between the affluent and those who are forced to work from as young as five years old. Child Labour is undoubtedly present in countries such as India. I am curious to research the implications on the life of a child worker in India- specifically the implications on said child’s education.

Child labour, according to Free the Children (2005), is seen as “work that is done by children under the age of fifteen (fourteen in some developing countries) which restricts or damages a child’s physical, emotional, intellectual, social and/or spiritual growth” (Free the Children 2005). Currently, it is estimated that there are upwards of 12.6 million child workers in India today, which is the largest number of child labourers under the age of 14 in the world. (CBC 2005: 2) Through my research, I intend to show that the employment of children, though used to advance the production of goods ultimately impacts a child’s ability to access education. I will argue this thesis by providing a brief history of the child labour laws in India, as well as providing a quotation by the Indian government describing the thoughts and laws concerning child labour. I intend to juxtapose this testimonial with one given by UNICEF, an international organization that is dedicated to ending child labour in the global south. I then intend to show the impacts of child labour on developmental indicators such as education.

India is currently one of the countries described in the Free the Children quotation that attempts to enforce child labour laws for children less than fourteen years of age. In 1979, the Indian Government formed the Gurupadswamy Committee; a committee that was formed in the hopes of suggesting measures to end child labour. While the Government has put forward several goals towards the end of child labour, it is recognizably a difficult endeavour. On the Indian Government Website, it states that “…poverty is the root cause of child labour [and] the action plan emphasizes the need to cover these children and their families…” (Ministry of Labour and Employment 2005) From this quote, it is clear that the Government of India recognizes that the amount of poverty in India is a determining factor in the amount of child labourers in the country. In a CBC article, “The End is within Reach?” (2005), speaks of the relationship between poverty and child labour in India, suggesting that one cannot exist without the other. If this is the case, and if the Indian government considers reducing and eventually eliminating child labour a concern and goal, then it becomes necessary to consider the factors that lead to poverty in India before pursuing the elimination of child labour.

A law enacted in 1986, based upon the recommendations of the Gurupadswamy Committee, states that “children less than fourteen years of age cannot be employed in hazardous occupations.” (Ministry of Labour and Employment 2005) Hazardous occupations, according the Government, refers to any work that involves unsafe activities or working conditions, and includes such activities as operating transportation vehicles, work that involves proximity to a railway line and work that involves handing toxic and hazardous substances. These are only some examples of hazardous occupations that are part of an expanding list. Since this law, several others, for example the Legislative Action Plan, a plan for enforcing Child Labour laws in India, have been enacted and are now referred to as The National Policy on Child Labour. According to the 2005 Indian Census, the National Child Labour Projects now covers 41% of the country.

The Indian Government, in the attempt to enact long term legislative changes on the subject of child labour, acknowledges that these changes will take time to fully come into effect. The Government also acknowledges that the amount of poverty in India is a definite factor to this debate in that the revenue gained from the work of children is necessary income to their families’ welfare.

UNICEF is one of the organizations, governmental and non-governmental, that has taken a strong interest into the affairs of the millions of children currently being employed in India. UNICEF sees child labour as a violation against a child’s right to education. They are of the opinion that, though the Indian Government has implemented such efforts as the National Child Labour Projects- more commonly referred to as NCLP-intervention by organizations in the pursuit of partnerships with the national, as well as state governments are necessary. They believe that in order for a child to have a nurturing childhood, they need “to build a protective environment in which children can live and develop according to their fundamental rights.” (UNICEF 2007) .UNICEF provides three examples of intervention plans in order to provide children with fundamental rights that they see as lacking due to working from a young age. Their primary focus is to promote a child’s right to basic education; second is the implementing of community initiatives in order to empower communities to be active against child labour; and thirdly “addressing [the] existing attitudes towards child labour and facilitat[ing] people’s behavioural change towards a more protective environment…” (Ministry of Labour and Employment 2005) Through such projects and initiatives such as the World Day against Child Labour, these groups aim to raise awareness in the hopes of ending child labour.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines child labour as follows: “the “official” definition of child labour as…(1) activity which violates the minimum standards of the 1973 Minimum Age Convention, and (2) activity which is considered prohibited child labour under national law.” (Simolin 2000: 942) The ILO runs the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), which was created in 1992 “with the overall goal of the progressive elimination of child labour” (ILO 2008). Currently they have partnerships with several NGOs, as well as the governments of nations where child labour is prominent. With their partnerships, IPEC and their partners have operations in 88 countries, including India. They believe that child labour perpetuates poverty, and have therefore come up with several priorities to combat the “worst forms of child labour” (ILO 2008), such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage, as well as practices of slavery, amongst others. IPEC is also in partnership with UNICEF and assists in the annual World Day against Child Labour.

In recent years another form of child labour has risen in India. Bonded Child Labour refers to the “phenomenon of children working in conditions of servitude in order to pay off a debt. In India, there are an estimated fifteen million bonded child labourers, and possibly more.” (Tucker 1997: 574) According to Lee Tucker, author of “Child Slaves in Modern India: The Bonded Labour Problem” (1997), bonded child labour occurs as a result of the Government spending less than half its budget on primary education, spending it instead on high school and secondary education institutes. As a result, “India is subsidizing the maintenance of a small class of highly educated people, while simultaneously marginalizing the literacy needs of the majority”. (Tucker 1997: 576) Secondly, is the lack of employment opportunities for children who have gone to school, which therefore not only makes working in the labour industry a more alluring choice, as well as a last-resort option for children and their families.

In this same report, author Lee Tucker also addresses the myths surrounding all areas of child labour in India, specifically that of the “nimble fingers”:

“Nimble fingers” theory is applied to some of the harshest industries employing children. This includes the carpet, silk, beedi [1] , and silver industries. This theory asserts that children make the best product in these occupations, thanks to their small and agile fingers, which are, theoretically, better able to tie the tiny knots of wool, unravel the thread from the boiling silk cocoons, or solder tiny silver flowers to thin chains. Under this view, child labour is a production necessity. (Tucker 1997: 570)

Tucker believes that this myth makes it so that more children ultimately sign up for labour positions, as children are encouraged to view their bodies are a needed commodity. This then creates a situation where more children are forced to work long-term; in an environment that can be highly exploitative, as well as emotionally and physically harsh. Another myth surrounding child labour is the need to be trained at the right age, which is usually around six or seven. This myth “contends that children who go to school…will either be unable to adequately learn a skill or will be at an irreparable disadvantage in comparison with those who did begin working as younger children.” (Tucker, 1997: 577) By this quotation, Tucker discusses the implications behind the choice to attend school from a young age and how that decision can affect a child’s schooling, and by extension literacy, as well as choosing job opportunities and that child’s marketability into later life.

In “Child Labour and Education for All”, Lorenzo Guarcello (2008) argues that when children are forced to work, it is a direct violation to their right to education. Guarcello states:

Education is a key element in the prevention of child labour; at the same time, child labour is one of the main obstacles to Education For All (EFA). Understanding the interplay between education and child labour is therefore critical to achieving both EFA and child labour elimination goal. (Guarcello 2008)

Guarcello continues to say that there is an overwhelming consensus among such organizations, such as UNICEF and the International Labour Organization that “the single best means of stopping child labour is to improve school access and quality” (Guarcello 2008) When education costs are high, families are less likely to send to send their children to school, and are more likely to pull them out of school at a young age. The costs involved in a child’s education can be high for a number of reasons, such as a country’s minimal investment in primary education, living costs being too high in areas surrounding schools and the unavailability of public transportation for the majority. Additionally, school fees can be incredibly pricey, and therefore school cannot be an option for some families.

Guarcello continues in his analysis of child labour and the relationship to education in reflecting on a child worker’s ability to attend school in countries where child labour is common. He identifies the work settings that he believes are the most detrimental to a child worker’s attendance” (Guarcello 2008) and by extension success in the education system. Firstly are children that are solely responsible for non-economic, household duties. These children, according to Guarcello, are the least impacted in terms of school attendance, as their duties can be more flexible and less binding than economical work. Additionally, families are less likely to interfere with their child’s education. The second category of working children is broken up into three groups: children that will never enter school, children who enrol late into their childhoods and those who are forced to leave school early. Children who are never enrolled in primary school are the worst off, says Guarcello, as they are “denied the benefit of formal education altogether, and therefore constitutes a particular policy priority” (Guarcello 2008). The Third and final category of child workers are those that attend classes irregularly. Though these groups differ in terms of how much school is actually missed, Guarcello believes that the lack of schooling is ultimately a determent to the learning of a child, as a working child is less likely to learn at school due to the irregularity and lack of repetition that comes from attending class on a daily basis. Furthermore, child labour does not only affect a child’s ability to getting to school, but also their ability to absorb material, thereby learning effectively, while at school. To sum up his findings, Guarcello states that his findings supported the notion that child labour, both economic work, as well as household duties is a detriment to a child’s education, and suggests that more work should be done to integrate more child workers into the education system.

In addition to putting a greater effort into incorporating more child workers into the education systems, some scholars believe that more work needs to be done in western nations if child labour should be eliminated. In “Buying out Child Labour”, Stéphanie Pallage and Christian Zimmermann (2007) discuss their views concerning child labour. Through economical calculations, these authors suggest that countries that trade with the West ultimately have a high comparative advantage in the production of goods if they choose to pay children minimal compensation. Due to the low cost of employing children, the product efficiency is high because these companies can sell these goods at a cheap rate and at the same time, pay their workers close to nothing. A solution, according to these authors, is for countries, such as India, to shift a portion of their GDP to reinvest into their own economy as well as education sectors, and to slowly attempt at distancing themselves from trading nations.

In conclusion, the material that I reviewed largely supports the notion that that child labour, in terms of both economic work, as well as household duties serves largely as a detriment to a child’s education. Child labour does not only affect a child’s ability to getting to school, but also their ability to absorb material, thereby learning effectively. Moreover, families who are in an economic state where they require their children to work are less likely to afford the necessary costs involved in a child’s education such as transportation, a uniform, supplies, as well as tuition. However, the impacts of going to school versus a child’s work involvement remained largely unanswered in the literature I reviewed. More research needs to be done in this field in order for any solution to be successful. Additionally, more programs that integrate child workers into education systems should arise in India in order for current child workers to have the opportunity for literacy.

Although the Indian Government has successfully enacted laws, such as The National Child Labour Projects to protect their minors from hazardous working environments, more time is needed in order for these laws to be enforced to serve the entire country. The partnerships between the state and such organizations as UNICEF and IPEC, through their mission to end child labour, should continue to work closely in order to enable more children the opportunity for an education. However, if these missions are to be successful, they should ensure the proper research as to India’s reasoning for employing child workers and understanding the broader implications behind the need for child workers before suggesting such solutions. As for the more economic solutions, being the reinvestment of GDP into national markets and distancing from international trading nations; I believe that more time, as well as more planning is needed before cutting off all economic ties with the international corporations, as the disruptions could easily provide huge detriments to India’s economic sector. Perhaps India could begin with reinvesting more into primary education, while remaining an international trading nation, and slowly progress to becoming economically independent.

In terms of initiatives intended to raise awareness, such as the World Day against Child Labour, there needs to be included the same research into India’s reasoning for employing children stated clearly on the websites of organizations, rather than just a statement that it is simply a cruel practice against children going against child’s rights. If awareness in western citizens is the goal of these initiatives, then a more inclusive report on child labour in India is needed in order for the issue to be fully understood.


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