Rescuing children from bonded labour from the saree making shops of Jaipur
Sudatta Khuntia | June 11, 2016
Glittering zari sarees bring to mind wedding and other festive occasions. But now when I look at a beautiful glittering saree, I can see the lost childhood of so many children embroidered in it.
Rescue work can be tough and emotionally draining and I can never forget the scary experience of rescuing bonded children from the dark and dingy saree making factories in Jaipur City, the royal city which the world loves to visit. Apart from being a beautiful city for tourists, Jaipur also is home to large numbers of sweatshops that produce zari sarees that Indians love to wear for occasions such as marriage and festivals.
However, the sequins, beads, stones and laces of sarees often hide the story of the workers that stitch them on to the saree especially of the children who work in such factories under inhuman conditions of bondage and ill treatment.
India is a signatory to Child Rights Convention, and children are protected by laws including the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, its amendment and orders under it. However, the reality of millions of poor children is very different. On the outskirts of Jaipur, several saree making workshops house hundreds of children brought from West Bengal working for up to 17 hours a day for little or no money in dark rooms known as addas. Often there is no rest, no play, no study, only a 10 minute break in a typical 17-hour day. The dinner is usually served as late as 1.30 am. Rajasthan, a state with many popular tourist destinations, has a vibrant market for zari embroidered sarees. There are many workshops producing such sarees, especially in the cities of Ajmer and Jaipur. Few years back, I was part of a child rescue operation as an ActionAid team member and we were able to rescue nine children from one such factory.
After receiving a desperate letter from a group of parents with the support of human rights activist, Jharna from Amrataliya village in West Bengal, concerning complaints about an employer, ActionAid's Jaipur team intervened taking the case to the state labour department.
However, the department refused to take action feigning ignorance about the existence of such workshops and denying the prevalence of inter-state child migration. Posing as potential seekers of child labour, we were able to trace the children and contacted their parents who immediately mounted a rescue operation. The parents’ arrival together with a formal complaint to the top district official helped spur the labour department into action.
At 9 pm on March 22, 2006, a twenty-strong team – comprising of labour department officials, police, activists, media personnel and parents of few children, raided the place and freed 9 workers aged between the ages of 13 and 17.
I still remember the teary faces of the children. Parents and the children were immensely happy to see each other. They couldn’t stop crying. This was the greatest reward in lieu of all the risk that was taken.
The children told horrifying tales of harassment at the hands of their employer. "I will never come back to this place," says 14-year-old Khagen Hansda a tribal child. "It is my fault," says his distraught father Kishen Hansda, an agricultural labourer. "It is because I am unable to feed my children that he underwent such torture and pain."
Many of the children told how they worked for up to 16-17 hours a day often for meagre wages and even those were almost never paid.
Legal actions against the employer were filed immediately. I was the case applicant and witness on behalf of the children. The labour department accepted claims and assured the parents that an investigation would be carried out soon.
ActionAid India provided me the legal support to pursue the case and had also urged the labour department to carry out more raids on workshops where children were known to be employed. The administration acknowledged that most of the children fell under the category of 'bonded labourers' with very exploitative wages.
In the long drawn legal battle, as the children appeared before the labour court for testimonies, they were scared initially, but with our help and Jharna, they appeared before the court due to which they have had the initial victory. The employer of course fought to prove that they were not child labour and that they were not bonded to any degree as all of them were his distant relatives from the native village. After five years of continuous legal battle, the Jaipur Labour Court gave a verdict – that all the 9 children be paid their full due wage amounting to Rs. 3.32 lakh and the employer was also asked to compensate them with 13.29 lakh as per the Workmen’s Compensation Act.
As child rights activists across the country take great risks to rescue children from such factories, more and more employers are taking an easy way out. They are converting their work from being factory based to home based. Adults take assignments on piece rate system and its little children who do much of the work. They could be sometimes their own children, children who are closely or distantly related to them, or children claimed to be relatives like in the instance above.
Embroidering sarees is not the only work employing such children, there are many such home based hidden industries employing millions of such children from poor and marginalised families.
The proposed amendment to the Child Labour Act hopes to align it with the Right to Education Act, 2009. It prohibits child labour up to 14 years and regulates the employment of children between the ages of 15 and 18 years. But the proviso that children can help in the family occupation after school hours or in the fields, home-based work, forest produce gathering or attend technical institutions during vacations, will surely be misused.
The definition of family has been expanded from the immediate family (mother, father, brother, sister) to extended family to include also father’s sister and brother to mother’s sister and brother. And the definition of family enterprise has been expanded to include any work, profession, manufacture or business which is performed by the members of the family with the engagement of persons. This is will be detrimental and will lead to perpetuating child labour. It will also lead to reinforcing the practice of caste-based occupations as family occupations are often caste based.
The opponents of a total ban on child labour often point out to the need for children to accompany their parents and guardians to the agricultural fields to learn farming, to the forests to learn about forest produce, the rivers to learn about fish, the loom to learn about warp and weft and to timber to learn about carpentry etc. The justification given is that we should keep in mind the social fabric and socio economic conditions of our country. But such reasons can be actually dangerous in nature as it allows employers to run their enterprise employing and exploiting children and legitimately robbing them off their childhood, denying them education and putting their future at risk.
Thus, in this context, one key demand by the civil society is to remove the proviso in Section 3 of the CLPRA Amendment bill 2012 which legalises use of child labour in family occupations and family enterprises as it will be misused by employers under the guise that the children belong to their families.
According to the data from census 2011, the total number of child labourers up to 18 years of age in India is as high as 23.8 million. Of this, 10.1 million are children in the age group of 5 to 14, while 13.7 million are children in the age group of 15-17 years. Within this too, SC and ST children together constitute 35% of the total child labour. More importantly, the incidence of child labour is 9% among the STs (i.e. 9% of all ST children are child labour) as compared to 4.8% for non-SC/ST children. This reflects clearly in the present case where all the rescued child labourers were tribal children. Similarly the incidence of child labour among ST girls is 8.9% as compared to 3.8% among non-SC/ST girls. Thus ST girls are more than twice as likely as non-SC/ST girls to be engaged in child labour. The data clearly reflects the vulnerability of the most marginalised our society.
Can we eliminate child labour in India today as we claim to be in the process of building a modern nation?
The author is a child rights activist currently working as programmes manager with Child Rights Knowledge Activist Hub of ActionAid India.
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This piece is based on a previous article by the authors published in Geoforum [Elsevier] in May 2019: available online: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/ S0016718519300764?via%3Dihub
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