Written by Malvika S
Over the past few months, the media has been tackling the world one catastrophe at a time — Covid deaths, cyclones, floods, disastrous decline in the economy and unemployment. But one very important issue it seems to have turned a blind eye to: the effect of pandemic on vulnerable children.
On July 14, 2021, two child labourers aged 15 and 16, employed illegally in a fireworks unit at Sivakasi were rescued by officials. A complaint was lodged against the fireworks unit and the child labourers, both boys, were handed over to the welfare community where they were given counselling. On June 22, a seven-year-old boy was bought by a man for Rs. 5000 and forced into labour in a village near Ettayapuram in Tuticorin district. He was rescued by officials and the district collector ordered a probe. Earlier in February, four illegally employed minors were rescued from a construction site in Trichy. In 2020, 174 children were rescued from a single garment factory in Tirupur. Several such instances took place over the course of the pandemic. However, no further developments of these cases were reported by the media.
#Inequalitymatters.— BehanBox (@BehanBox) April 20, 2021
The ongoing pandemic has pushed more children into labour. A recent study by CACL shows an alarming 280% increase in child labour in Tamil Nadu. But the impact is not evenly distributed, exacerbated by existing inequalities. #Thread pic.twitter.com/Dri7yAq12f
When the Child Labour Amendment Act was imposed in 2016, a positive trend was observed in child labour. However, it has had reversed effects over the past few months with the pandemic majorly contributing to the reversal. According to a survey done by Camapaigns Against Child Labour (CACL), child labour in Tamil Nadu has seen an increase by 280% and more than 94% of the children belonging to vulnerable communities in Tamil Nadu, claim to have started working due to financial difficulties and family pressures.
The Child Labour Amendment Act of 2016, prohibits employment of children under 14 years of age in all occupations and adolescents that are 15-18 years of age in hazardous occupations and processes. Despite the implementation of the law, child labour still seems prevalent in many parts of Tamil Nadu such as Virudhunagar, Coimbatore, Erode, Namakkal and Tiruppur. One major possible reason could be the loopholes in the Amendment Act that seem problematic and to a large extent, contradicts what the Act stands for.
The Amendment Act of 2016 comes with exceptions such as allowing a child to work as a child artist and in family-run businesses. Majority of the family-run businesses in rural parts of Tamil Nadu belong in the agricultural sectors, manufacturing sectors, service sectors and home-based cottage industries.
In agricultural sectors, children are subjected to severe mental and physical risks as they come in direct contact with pesticides, insecticides and are exposed to high temperatures for long hours. Documented reports show that exposure of children to hazardous chemicals can affect their physical and neurological development and cause cancer.
Home-based cottage industries such as Bidi making, handloom and garment manufacturing can exploit the aptitude of the child.
House-hold work environments can have detrimental effects on the mental and physical well-being of the child and could subject girl children to potential sexual abuse.
Children being pushed into the Entertainment Industry as child-artists are exposed to over-working and harmful lights for long hours. However, these effects are hidden under the glitz and glamour that the industry seems to harbour. Children are often made to play the roles of child sex-workers and victims of sexual, physical and mental abuse. In the case of such roles, the child must go through a psychological screening process where their mental stability is tested. The child must be given counselling and provided only with specific portions of the script and the production company and co-actors must be held responsible for the child’s physical and mental well-being.
These exceptions make the line between non-hazardous and hazardous labour blurry and the Act that was supposedly established to prohibit child labour actually seems to allow the same.
The pandemic does contribute to the rise in child labour. The economic decline leading to more families being pushed into the cycle of poverty, does contribute to the rise in child labour. But neither of these factors are justifications.
The actual underlying cause of child labour lies in the policy making. Records show several reports of child labour but no action has been taken against employers. Surprise visits and inspections by local authorities have become a rarity and reports show absence of authorities in around 21 districts in the District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) in Tamil Nadu and these positions have been vacant since May 2020. There has been no support from the government to ensure 3 meals a day to vulnerable children and no social protection schemes or proper monitoring mechanisms have been implemented so far.
According to Article 45, free and compulsory education must be provided to all children till the age of 14. However, to accelerate income, families below the poverty line force their children to stop school and push them into labour and as a result, children either stop going to school or are put in a position to juggle between the two. This is due to lack of awareness among the vulnerable communities and improper implementation of law. The media should take the responsibility of prioritising such stories and bringing them to the foreground. We, as citizens, can stop the act of crime by reporting such cases, as and when we witness them.
It is impossible to disassociate child labour with immutable concerns such as poverty, inequality and illiteracy as they largely contribute to the existence of child labour. However, they, in no way contribute to its growth. With the right policies, awareness, social attitudes and sensibility, child labour can be eradicated.