The Union cabinet has cleared amendments to the child labour act, introducing stricter penalties on employers, outlawing all work done by children below 14 and banning children from doing any hazardous work — up from an existing list of 18 hazardous industries and processes. However, it makes an exception: children are allowed to help in home-based work, in fields or in forest gathering activities, and to attend technical training, so long as such work does not interfere with school attendance and does not include work outsourced and carried out at home.
In order to operationalise these amendments, the government would have to compile a list of hazardous occupations.
The exceptions spelled out for home-based work, however, may make little difference in practical terms. While these provisions reduce the threat of inspectors harassing families, in reality, it has always been hard to monitor work done by children at home, or determine whether such work has been outsourced to the household and is performed by children alongside their parents and older siblings.
The proposed amendments emphasise school attendance. But the relationship between children’s work and schooling is complex. In many situations, children’s wage-earnings can enable them to offset schooling and commuting expenses, and thereby attend school at all. Even when child labour is driven, not by the need to supplement household income, but by a desire to acquire skills, there can be complementarities.
My research found that, among gemstone polishing families in Jaipur, formal schooling was viewed positively by working children and their parents, as mathematics, basic science and English language skills improved career prospects. On the other hand, there is the obvious discordance: working after school can reduce children’s time for doing homework and revising lessons as well as for play and rest. Tiredness on account of tedious work, including domestic work, can reduce children’s productivity in the classroom.
Yet, in focusing on child labour as a threat to attendance, we should not ignore the more persistent problems in our schooling system. Despite increasing enrolment levels, the poor quality of teaching, high rates of absenteeism and low levels of accountability among schools continue to limit children’s learning and the value of the schooling experience.
The quality of teaching, a critical dimension, remains unaddressed by the provisions of the right to education act. This compels us to examine whether children aren’t in school because they work whether they work because they aren’t learning in school. The poor need better access to good quality schooling; they recognise its trade-offs and complementarities with their children’s work. Without ensuring better quality of teaching and learning, attempts to curb child labour can only contribute marginally.
By permitting technical training in non-hazardous work, the proposed amendments acknowledge the need for imparting skills, perhaps also underscoring another lacuna of our education system. Even as some, but not most, forms of child labour can impart skills and develop creativity, there remains a danger that certain exploitative forms of child labour will be disguised as technical training. Work done at home or on family farms need not always impart skills.
In the gemstones industry in Jaipur, for instance, while boys were able to acquire higher skills in preparation for future careers as craftsmen, girls concentrated on repetitive and lower-end gem-polishing tasks, mainly to earn wages. Agricultural labour can be particularly tedious — research by Oxford Policy Management found that children working in cotton cultivation complained of long hours in the heat, monotonous work, body ache and the risk of snakebite.
It is essential that the government draft clear guidelines listing the activities and industries that fall in the category of skill-imparting technical training. If done carefully, this could align well with the larger aim of improving young people’s skills and employability in particular crafts and industries.
The writer is at the Institute of Development Studies, UK