Dialogue July- September, 2005, Volume 7  No. 1

Social Dimensions of Child Labour

Panchanan Bhoi

Child labour periodically gets projected in the media when there is a conference to discuss how to abolish it or when investigative articles highlight the inhuman conditions under which children toil in various hazardous occupations. Poverty is the main reason for the existence of child labour. The employers who prefer child workers for many occupations further aggravate this issue. They provide a docile or submissive work force of unorganised and non-unionised put up with low wages in children and exploitative conditions. Again juvenile work force is characterised by long working hours in subhuman conditions, very little money and practically no freedom nor any kind of social security. Children work in factories, mines and agricultural farms as a forced or bonded labour. The carpet industries of UP and the fireworks units of Sivakasi are widely known for their ruthless use of child labour, but apart from these, there is a wide range of occupations in which children are engaged for survival. They make matches and fireworks, weave carpets, roll bidis, attend domestic jobs, work in brick kilns and other small industries and are subjected to victimisation. They are exposed to a number of health hazards and deprived from their right to education.


There exist certain myths regarding child labour. First, it is believed that child labour occurs only in the poor world and rich world is free from this problem. The fact is that children work throughout the world. There are several instances of exploitative child labour in rich countries also. The only differences between the rich and poor world is the difference of degree. Child labour problem is more acute in poor countries, whereas it is not so in the rich countries. The second myth about child labour is that it always adversely affects the health and personality of the children. However, it is not always, but true in most of the cases, because some of the work performed by the children can be beneficial for them, both in the developed and developing countries. Children learn traditional skills through working with their parents. The third myth is that child labour occurs primarily in export industries. However, the studies have revealed that only about five percent of employed children work in export industries. The forth myth is that the only way to eradicate child labour for consumers and governments is to use boycotts and sanctions. Boycotts and sanctions generally hurt those, to whom they are intended to help, the children themselves. For instance, after the introduction of a bill into US Congress by the Senator Thomas Harkin to prohibit import of goods made by child labour led to removal of child labourers in the garment industry of Bangladesh. As a result most of these child workers who were girls, finally were forced into prostitution.

Western Thought

Western countries frequently resort to trade embargo and boycott to highlight the problems of child labour in the third world countries. In this process, they have also resorted to labelling of the products and they have introduced ‘Rugmark’ for carpets imported from third world countries. ‘Rugmark’ signifies that carpet has been made without using child labour.

Western countries have raised the bogey of child labour only in those sectors where third world countries have advantage over the west. Textile, garment, carpet, leather, toy and sport equipments are some of the important industries, which have been singled out by the west for trade embargo and consumer boycott. These are labour intensive industries and because of abundant cheap labour the third world countries have edge over the developed countries. For combating child labour, developed countries crave to freeze the import of these items in their countries with the objective of protecting their own industries.

Consumer boycotts and labelling of a product or trade sanctions are new instruments of moral and cultural imperialism, which hurts the victims most, whom they are intended to help. However, in past child labour has been used in the initial stages of development of all the countries. Ill-conceived boycotts may harm rather than help children. Most child labour is not in export industries and consequently is not much affected by trade sanctions. In fact, child labour has not ceased in developed western world. The developed world is resorting to paternalism, moral and cultural imperialism through child labour. With 250 million children working today, child labour is vast in scale and grave in its consequences. It is one of the most hated forms of abuse and exploitation in the world today. The recent western effort for the eradication of child labour is paternalistic, culturally insensitive and socially irresponsible. The criticism of child labour in third world countries by the developed countries is a kind of moral and intellectual manifest destiny.


Various constitutional and legal provisions prohibiting child labour have existed since long but the phenomenon still persists and has even increased. While estimaties vary, the 1985 ORG figure of 343 million child workers in India (which must have gone up substantially by now) appears acceptable to activists fighting for the abolition of child labour, because its broad definition covering children between the age of five and fifteen who are doing paid and unpaid works, within and outside the family.

A 1988 International Labour Organisation (ILO) document, Combating Child Labour, classifies child work in four categories: domestic work, non-domestic, non-monetary work, bonded labour and wage labour. According to the ILO, in developing countries as many as 250 million children below 14 years of age are engaged in some kind of economic activity. Further, the ILO claims that the biggest problem zone is Asia, which has 153 million child workers. Africa comes second with 80 million and Latin America third with 17 million child labourers. However, it is India, which has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of child labour force in the world. India has 100 million child workers. India also has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of legislative measures for the eradication of child labour. Periodically target dates are fixed for the abolition of child labour but the problem remains, where it was.

Reams can be written about the ways in which child workers are exploited and why the laws banning child labour remain un-enforced. Indeed, reams have already been written on both aspects, while more research is going on to document the phenomenon even more exhaustively. In brief, child labour exists but it ought not to exist. Child has a right to education and should not be forced by poverty to forego this right. Therefore what is to be done? What is being condemned is exploitative labour by children. There is nothing wrong with ‘doing work’. In fact it would do the children of rich and middle-class homes a lot of good if they were taught and encouraged to make themselves useful to home and society by learning the dignity of manual labour. Work too is a form of learning, part of education for life. But work become unjust when it was to be done by young children at the cost of access to literacy and basic education, in conditions which are both emotionally and physically cruel, and dangerously hazardous to health.

There are two schools of thought to tackle the problem of child labour. One is there can be no compromise on its abolition, it should be declared illegal and government must exercise all its political will to do away with child labour entirely. The other is child labour is a harsh reality which cannot be wished away. While it is necessary to prohibit it in occupations, which are hazardous, it should not be declared illegal but should be ‘regulated’ so as to prevent exploitation. The latter view reflects current government thinking where in regulation of child labour is envisaged to include welfare programme for the health, nutrition and education of working children. The two divergent approaches became sharply defined around 1985 when government announced its intention to introduce fresh legislation to regulate child labour, with academics and activists concerned with child labour strongly opposing such a move. The latter felt that government was only legitimising and perpetuating something, which ought to be totally done away with.

Anyone who read any of the media exposes on child labour would wholeheartedly go along with the demand for total abolition. And anyone who has interacted with poor families, where children are not sent to school but help their parents by doing various forms of paid and unpaid work, would wonder how a law abolishing child labour can be implemented and how it could improve the reality of these people’s lives. This is thus one of those issues where in principle one can have no doubt as to which side to take but when it comes to actual action one does not know where to begin and how the problem can be rationally tackled.


Those who argue for legal abolition of child labour acknowledge that the factors, which have so far prevented enforcement of existing labour laws, are formidable and that better way of tackling it is ‘indirectly’ by making attendance at school legally compulsory. They argue that the right of children to education is enshrined in the constitution and that child labour logically cannot coexist with compulsory education. Myron Weiner, a social scientist who is a strong advocate of this approach, has shown that even the countries of the west could not eradicate child labour until they enforced mandatory school attendance. He also argues that these countries adopted these measures at the pre-industrial stage itself, when they were not economically advanced, and therefore poverty is no excuse for allowing child labour to continue.

Over the decades, the ILO has adopted at least 18 conventions plus many recommendations, specifying the minimum age of entry to work, and defining the conditions under which children may be allowed to work. The ILO acknowledges that a law on compulsory education is one way of tackling child labour but points out that problems in the structure, availability and quality of education are the obstacles in making such a law effective. When schooling does not provide the kind of skills or training needed by the job market, indignant parents obviously prefer to send children to work rather than to school. Besides, universal primary education is possible only when there is an accessible school in every neighbourhood both urban and rural. When one goes through the reports and analyses on child labour, one is overwhelmed by what seems to be stark despair of resorting to any sort of legislation-whether it is a law making child labour illegal or a law making schooling compulsory. Neither law can make any dent unless certain other initiatives in related areas are concurrently taken.

The ILO document stresses that unless child labour laws are accompanied by measures to enhance adult employment and implement educational reform they cannot be effective. Further, a 1986 report, prepared by the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi when the proposed new legislation was being debated, suggest some possible approaches to deal with child labour:

         ²   Implement the existing child labour laws in hazardous industries and ensure that the jobs go to adults. It may be mentioned here that employers usually threaten to close down their units whenever there is any move to implement the child labour law.

         ²   Encourage cooperatives so that children can learn a traditional craft in its entirety as part of a non-exploitative family unit. At present they are exploited as wage labour to perform only certain tasks for which their ages and nimble figures are regarded as useful and when they grow up they become unemployed.

         ²   Increase Plan allocation for primary education and set right the present distortion in favour of higher education for the better off. The report also calls on the trade union movement to take up child labour as a cause, since it is the existence of this phenomenon, which is partly responsible for adult unemployment.

         ²   Finally it stresses the role of voluntary agencies in reaching innovative forms of non-formal education to working children, near their homes and place of work, since attendance at distant schools is largely reduced feasible.


The ill-conceived consumer reactions and trade embargo have caused considerable loss. Usually the removal of children from work has not been carefully planned. Often they are pushed into a far worse situation. They and their families suffer starvation. It is not possible to eradicate child labour without eradicating poverty. The regions where child labour flourishes are characterised by inadequate economic growth, poverty, unemployment, over population and lack of basic social services, such as education and health care. Legislation and education have an important and necessary role to play, but they will fail unless poverty is eradicated or reduced through supportive action. Child labour issue must be addressed globally. It is not only an important issue of human rights but at the same time it is also a development issue, which is closely related to the problem of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. We have to adopt a comprehensive approach for its eradication. One can’t compromise with abolition of child labour as the actual goal, but one needs to adopt realistic intermediate measure, which will make the achievement of this objective more possible within a time bound plan. Besides, the problem should not be seen as a concern of the Labour Ministry alone, the Education department too has a crucial part to play. One may ask what benefits does the New Education Policy offer to the vast neglected section of working children? And how does it propose to utilise the potential of voluntary agencies in tackling a problem, which clearly needs a far more committed approach than the conventional school system and bureaucratic machinery are capable of?


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Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

              Astha Bharati