Child workers are exploited and often abused
The vulnerable are liable to be exploited, specially when laws are not enforced properly. In fact even when the legal system works well, these aberrations take place. The most recent example is that of a rich Indian American couple from Long Island, New York, who have been accused of slavery. A New York Times report says:
The couple, Varsha Mahender Sabhnani and Mahender Murlidhar Sabhnani, who run a multimillion-dollar perfume business from their home, are said to have given the women little food and forced them to sleep on mats on the floor and to hide when visitors came. Mrs. Sabhnani, according to court papers, often beat one of the women with a stick, scalded her, cut her ears with a knife and burned her with cigarettes and scalding water. In one instance, prosecutors said, she forced her victim to choke down hot chili peppers.
In this case it was the illegal status of the two Indonesian maids which made them vulnerable. In fact, illegal immigrants in developed countries are often at the mercy of their employers. Exploitation of illegal workers in hotels and restaurants in America is not uncommon. However, if illegal immigrants work as domestics, the chances of them being discovered are far less as they are isolated from public view.
If slavery can take place in a country like America, where the legal system is far better than India’s, one can imagine what happens in India, where the courts are slow and ordinary people are not that conscious of the rights of domestic servants. Ofcourse, today there are a few organisations which fight for their rights but invariably children escape their protective net. In any case few domestics actually join these organisations as a large number of them are illiterate.
If illegal immigrants are the most vulnerable group in developed countries, in India its the children.
We have a law which bans the employment of children in hazardous industries but the law to ban them from working as domestics is new. The new law bans kids under 14 from working in restaurants, hotels and as domestic servants and this law is as recent as October 2006! It provides no protection for children aged 14 to 18, who also face exploitation and abuse by their employers.
Compare this to other countries in the world. England used children as cheap labour as far as back as the Victorian times. The US, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand also did this sort of thing in the nineteen century. But a social reform movement led to the enactment of several Acts and Laws which protected young children. Education was soon made compulsory and today children are not allowed to work during school hours. Children above a certain age however can make an extra buck delivering newspapers, or other such work which does not interfere with their studies.
In India the awareness that children should not work is new and incomprehensible to some. The world is forcing us to acknowledge that child labour is bad. But the idea that poor children should not work to support their parents is not digestible to many people, including parents of the children. One of the reasons why poor people in India produce more children is because they want the children to contribute to the household income – as early as possible. Its the desperate poverty that forces them to do so.
As for the employers of children, many believe that they are doing a good deed by taking in poor children and looking after them. True, many families are kind to the children they employ, but really, its quite subjective as to what constitutes ‘kindness.’ Some people feel that as long as children are given enough food and decent clothes, there is nothing wrong in making them work for 8-10 hours a day, even if they are ten years old. The logic is that the child would starve if he were with his parents. And employers of children do not think anything is wrong if the child is denied an education. After all, the child’s own parents are unable to provide for it, so why should anyone else bear the responsibility?
Well, in that case, the government has to bear the responsibility and it has failed miserably. Even when free education, free books and even free meals are provided, its not been enough. Families are so poor that they avoid sending their children to school because they want them to earn. Parents selling their children for a few hundred rupees to feed their own stomachs is not unknown.
Unfortunately, this makes the children a prime target for exploitation. Often the parents are not aware of how badly their children are treated as they live in the villages and the kids are sent to urban centres. Child domestics are a specially vulnerable lot. Not surprisingly, there have been cases of torture, rape and murder.
Desperately poor parents leave their children with strangers to work as domestic help. All that they expect in return is that a monthly pittance is sent to them in their village which is usually miles away and that their children are fed and clothed. They too are not aware of the rights of the child.
But really, what are the rights of a child? As this site explains, they have the right to:
1) sufficient food, clean water, health care, and an adequate standard of living
2) be with their family, or in the best caring environment to ensure protection from all physical, mental and other abuse
4) to special care or training necessary if they have a disability or handicap
5) to play.
I am not blaming the parents of the children – in fact in this scenario they are the least to blame. However, each individual case is different.
Let me give you just one example. Two sisters (aged 13 and 14) in a colony I know of are supporting their twenty year unemployed school drop-out brother (who thinks its below his dignity to do domestic work), his wife (who does all the domestic work at home), their younger brother (who is 8 and goes to school) and their parents (who are too weak to work). These girls work from eight in the morning till eight at night in several households and manage to earn about Rs 5000/- between them. Plus they get to take home stale food and used clothes. If they are lucky they get an yearly bonus.
That is the harsh reality.
(Photo in the above article were taken on the streets of Mumbai and are copyrighted to me)
Update 8th August ’07: If you know of any child below the age of 14 working in a household contact the following people (Nos appeared in the TOI and refer to Mumbai):
Labour Commissioner: 23520333
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