Tuesday, February 27, 2007

India’s infant workers

Above Girl, age 9, Brick Kiln, India - Child Slaves Owners prefer young girls as laborers because they're obedient.

Over here, sprouting up where once were matted lawns and soggy drives, are spanking new patios, apparently made of slabs of distinctive blue-grey York stone, yet costing only £35 per square metre.

Five thousand miles away, children as young as six hammer away at rocks in Rajasthan, India, to provide the blue-grey substitute that will be shipped to our garden centres.

We save a fortune - York stone is scarce and pricey - and they live short, brutal lives of overwork, undernourishment and loneliness.

As you would expect in a working environment so poorly regulated that tiny children are allowed to work long days for around 82 pence a day, there is no health and safety in the illegal quarries of Rajasthan, no hard hats or dust masks, no statutory breaks or subsidised meals, no rights, no work records, no first aid.

The workforce is mostly migrant labourers, up to a fifth of whom are children (under 14 in Indian law), who pick over the vast slag heaps, or dart down the dangerous, illegal mines with chisel and hammer, to work out the rock at a rate of 100 gitti (slabs) a day.

Babies and infants sit by while their parents and older siblings work.

Many are bonded labourers, who paid to secure a job, or whose parents were given a loan in exchange for their child’s labour.

These sums are not huge - often as little as 1000 rupees (around £10) - but the astronomical interest charged on them by employers, combined with wages that would make you weep, mean that they are never paid.

The debt lives on and endlessly on, passed down to younger siblings, back to parents, sometimes even onto the child labourer’s own children.The cycle of life is harsh, and brief.

Children who begin lives of hard labour at four and five, grow up - if such a term can be applied here - to be undernourished, chronically sick adults. Many don’t make it past 40.

Laws exist, a whole host of laws, dating back to the 1933 Child (Pledging of Labour) Act, but are rarely enforced and even when they are, and employers are convicted and charged, they receive only fines, and not particularly heavy ones.

According to Indian Census figures for the late 1990s, there were 12.05million children in child labour in India.

NGOs and other agencies say the figure is probably nearer 60 million, making India the world’s biggest employer of child labour.

These youngsters work in factories, restaurants, the home. Some 12 million are believed to be domestic servants, children employed - or rather, sold into bondage - to cook and wash and clean and even nanny their employer’s children, doing everything from nappy-changing to carrying their schoolbooks to the bus for them.Child labourers get no education, have no freedom, no contact with their families, and barely enough food to live on.

Being effectively invisible, they have no rights, and are frequently abused, mentally, physically, and sexually.

In 1996, the case of Arshad received international attention, thanks to the National Human Rights Commission taking up his case.

He was burnt on a stove and then branded with a hot iron by his master for drinking some leftover milk that his master’s son had left in a cup.

His master was a government employee, adding to the scandal.

Yet it took ten years for domestic labour to be included in the laws prohibiting the employment of children. And it continues.

Kailash Satyarthi, chair of Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), says neither local nor national governments are bothered enough about child labour to do anything about itBBA is a grassroots organisation, founded in 1980, comprising over 780 NGOs, trade unions and human rights organisations, seeking to end child labour.They don’t just campaign, they organise and execute daring raids to physically release children from bondage and into rehabilitation programmes that enable them to learn vocational skills in an environment that nurtures rather than numbs them.

In 1999, they established a four-step strategy to ensure all children went to school, called the Child-Friendly Village or Bal Mitra Gram (BMG).

Step one of BMG is the withdrawal of all children from child labour to allow them step two, to enrol in school.

Achieving step one is no easy matter, not least because employers can be very aggressive when threatened with the loss of cheap labourBut the conditions exposed by these raids make it clear why such work is necessary.

On 6 June 2005, in the congested district of Raghunagar, Dabri in West Dehli, 29 children were released in a raid of a sari factory, following a plea from 8-year-old Waib Ansari, one of the child labourers incarcerated in this dreadful sweatshop.

The children, aged 7-12, were mostly trafficked from their home villages, their desperate parents having been conned into believing they would be educated and well-treated.

They weren’t. Rather, they worked a typical 9am - 3.30am day, six days a week, were kept locked up night and day, for 40 rupees (around 50 pence) a month.

Many had developed rashes and allergies as a result of chronic overcrowding

They were malnourished, and their vision was strained through endless close embroidery work. If they made mistakes, they were horribly thrashed.

Child labour is often justified as part of the natural way of things.

A justification only if you accept that abject poverty, so that other people can live lives of privilege and luxury, is also part of the natural way of things.

Child labourers, say the apologists, are suited to certain jobs, thanks to their ‘nimble fingers’ - a justification once used in the dark, satanic mills of Lancashire.

In fact, the really skilled work, for instance in carpet-weaving, is done by master weavers. Children are just cheap, and helpless.

BBA, when it releases children, provides them places in rehabilitation centres where they regain some sense of what it is to be a child, coupled with training in the work-skills that should enable them to live economically secure lives as adults.

The organisation works to create space for children to be heard in communities and families.Step three of the BMG is the formation of a children’s parliament, or panchayet, and step four, systems to ensure children’s voices are heard in adult panchayets.

They are mindful of the gender gap.

Two thirds of India’s child labourers are girls, so girls are given priority in elections for panchayet leaders, thus most are headed by female children.

There are also BBA campaigns for better schools, which see local villagers donating money and building materials to build the schoolhouses and provide the resources, including staff.

One such campaign in Ramchandranagar, 50km from Patna, saw a village where none of the 200 children had ever attended school transform into one where every child received a decent education.

And every July and August, there is a campaign to encourage children to go to school.

In 2003, some 20,000 children across seven states took part, and 9000 children, released child labourers, were enrolled in primary schools.

Government should provide, but doesn’t. Until its hand is forced, organisations like BBA must do the work, so that India’s poorest children don’t have to.

by Roz Paterson

Source: Scottish Socialist Voice

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