July 19, 2015

The Child Labour Amendment Act

Archana Prasad

A JOINT meeting of the Indian School of Women’s Studies and Development and Apne Aap (an organisation against the trafficking of children) was held on June 10, 2015 in Delhi to consider the different aspects of the Child Labour Amendment Act, 2015. The proposed amendments to the Child Labour Act are one amongst the many labour reforms being enacted by the corporate backed Modi government. They seek to allow children to work in the entertainment and family based enterprises after their school hours. The child rights groups have been campaigning against these amendments because this legislation will ‘legalise child labour’ and also violate the child rights that are enshrined within the Constitution and other international conventions. But little attention has been paid to these amendments from the point of view of their impact on labour rights. The question to be asked is why this amendment has been proposed and what will it do to the labour markets? In this sense the discussion on the amendments needs to be contextualised not only in the debate on child rights, but also within the debate on labour law reforms. JOBLESS GROWTH AND CHILD LABOUR The amendments to the Child Labour Act are being enacted in the context of qualitative shifts in the macro-economic policy since the formation of the second NDA government. The first feature of this shift is an intensification of the process of jobless growth where the employment rates of both men and women have been falling since 2005-06. Working conditions are increasingly informed by informal labour relations and the casualisation of work. This spurt in the casual workforce is largely a result of the displacement of rural workers from agrarian based livelihoods and a considerable increase in the migration of female workforce. Given such an environment where there is a large labour reserve, it is not surprising that both men and women are increasingly getting into low wage employment. The employment survey of 2013-14 (Volume 1) shows that only 52.5 percent of the people above the age of 15 years are in the labour market, and of them a majority ie, 51 percent of men and 49.2 percent of women workers are self employed. About 29.3 percent of men and 36.5 percent of women are casual workers. Of the casual workers only 42.9 percent of the workers get 12 months of work, whereas more than half the casual workers and at least one fourth of the self employed workers do not get more than six months of employment. In this situation, the legalisation of child labour will only worsen the situation because it will induce the employment of children in place of able bodied adult workers. Hence it will create conditions for augmenting unemployment and increasing the labour reserve which will further depress wages. This proposition is further buttressed by the fact that the Census of India, 2011 shows a decline in child labour, but this decline is misleading because the same data shows that the number of children seeking work has also gone up. This obviously indicates an increase in unemployed child labour and further indicates that the legalisation of child labour is aimed at creating even more low wage employment, rather than decent work and employment. DISMANTLING FACTORY PRODUCTION & CHILD LABOUR The current form of capitalism is also characterised by an increasingly decentralised production systems that are aimed at dismantling the conventional factory system and also the trade unions that organised workers at the site of production. These production systems are aimed at gradually shifting the work to small self employed units and homework where households are linked to big exporters through contractors and traders. The work groups within these enterprises are largely family based and invisibilise the work of both women and children. This is especially true of homework where women do piece rated work for several supply chains and their children help them in completing their orders. Statistics show that home based work as a source of employment for both women and men continued to grow in numbers across 12 years in India. It grew from 23.3 million (1999-2000) to 37.4 million workers in 2011-2012 and in that 16 million were women home based workers. Nearly 15 percent non-agricultural workers above the age of 15 years are home based workers. Nearly 32 percent of total non agricultural women workers are home based workers. Manufacturing was the most important branch of economic activity for women home based workers in India and nearly 73 percent women are involved in this branch (2011-2012). Within manufacturing the largest number of women home workers are involved in the sectors of wearing apparel, tobacco products and textile. The number of children employed as unpaid helpers and labour is unknown because officially only the woman is meant to be working for the contractor. But with the legalisation of child labour in non-hazardous family enterprises, this amendment will only legalise what is an illegal, unrecognised and highly exploitative practice by the employers. It will also give a boost to the conversion of factory production into unregulated and uncounted family enterprises that enable cheap production. Therefore the debate on the amendments to the Child Labour Act needs to take this into account. AMENDMENT AS PART OF LABOUR LAW REFORMS One of the main ongoing efforts of the Modi led NDA regime is the push towards policy and legislative reforms to benefit corporate capitalism. In particular it is making a concerted effort to bring about labour law reforms in order to facilitate labour market flexibility and carry out the biggest attack in the history of independent India. The non-consultative character of the reforms has shown that the government is keen on weakening the tripartite system of negotiations and is pushing ahead the proposed Labour Code and Wage Code despite the objections of the trade unions. That these reforms are aimed at attracting cheap labour is evident from the amendments undertaken in both the factories act as well as the apprenticeship act. The amendments to the child labour act can also be seen as a part of this exercise and its implications for the labour market are yet to be properly analysed. The child rights groups and labour rights activists are coming together to jointly oppose labour law reforms which include the amendments to the Child Labour Act.