Earlier this week, the Union cabinet passed amendments to the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986, imposing stricter penalties on employers of children, expanding the ban on employing children below 14 years of age to all “hazardous” occupations from the 18 defined as such previously and barring adolescents — those between 14 and 18 years of age — from employment in hazardous industries.
At the same time, acknowledging the complex socio-economic realities that drive child labour, the government will now allow children to work in family-owned businesses and at home, and also in the entertainment industry, so long as this does not harm school attendance, in accordance with the right to education. In effect, this decriminalises parents forced by impoverishment and lack of options to employ their own children. It also recognises the fact that it is, and has always been, extremely difficult to monitor work done by children inside the home.
Still, although these provisions are an improvement, they do not go far enough. Parents will continue to be penalised for allowing their children to work, though not for the first violation. The threat of labour inspectors remains and “raid and rescue” operations, after which working children might be taken to rescue homes, can be traumatic.
The amendments still do not consider instituting preventive measures and address the problem in isolation, without appreciating the need to, for instance, set up a proper child protection system or create better rehabilitation homes with trained staff. In some cases, a complete ban might have the opposite of its intended effect, if children are forced to continue working to keep their families out of extreme poverty.
Every child should, of course, be given the opportunity to go to school. But the link between school and labour is more complicated than the simplistic assertion that children work at the expense of schooling, perpetuating poverty for poor families. For instance, one study found that a school enrolment subsidy that would protect income increased schooling much more than it reduced child labour, implying that poverty is not the sole reason for children to work.
A number of other factors can contribute to that decision, including market imperfections and even parental preferences. No one policy instrument, then, can eradicate child labour on its own. Instead, the state must also ensure access to flexible and, importantly, quality education, address gaps in land and labour markets and design schemes to support those at subsistence-level poverty.