By Rashmi Saksena
Many of us have seen under fourteen boys and girls scrubbing floors and cleaning in homes, cooking, being ordered around by children younger or their own age and running errands for their ‘masters’. Many of us have been served tea and snacks by innumerable ‘chotus’ at roadside dhabas. How many of us have reported the matter to the police? Shamefully we have to admit that not many, though most of us know that employing children means breaking the law. Indians, by and large, have remained insensitive to child labour. And that is one of the main reasons why people around us get away with hiring children as domestic help.
It is only when cases like the one of the Delhi doctor couple, who went on a vacation after locking their 13 year old maid, hit the headlines that we are jerked into tut tut tuting about child exploitation in the form of child labour. The truth is that we feel that if the neighbour, friend or relative employs a child as domestic help it is his private affair. We do not and should not poke our nose in it. In fact it is considered impolite to even take note of it, leave aside pointing it out as a violation of the law. Reporting the matter to the police or concerned authorities is not even remotely considered.
If the 13 year old child servant of the doctor couple in Delhi had not shouted for help from the window of the fifth floor apartment she may well have starved to death. The domestic help had been locked in the house while her employers went off on a foreign week long holiday. The police rescued the girl and the couple arrested on their return. They have been accused of confining and ill treating a 13 year old. Neighbours, relatives and friends of the couple should be asked why they did not report to authorities the fact that they had seen a child labourer at the doctor’s home?
“The tragedy is that most people think that it is normal to have underage domestic help. In fact they are doing a favour to the poor family by employing one of the children” says Dr Shanta Sinha, chairperson of the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights. In Sinha’s opinion the major reason for the high number of children employed as domestic help is the “double standards of the middle class which is looking for cheap 24×7 help. They don’t care if a child has to slave, is denied education and is even tortured as long as their kitchen needs and that of their children are met with”.
A UNICEF report states that child domestic labour is “culturally accepted and widely prevalent in India”. The recent case of the domestic servant at a Delhi doctor’s residence highlights two other issues. One is of torturing a child and the other of child trafficking. The girl had reportedly been supplied by a placement agency and the mother paid Rs 18,000 by a man who convinced her that he would get the girl a “decent job” inDelhi. The International Labour Organisation has defined the worst form of child labour where it is exploitative, includes trafficking, slavery or practices similar to it, work that is hazardous and likely to harm the health, safety or morals of the child.
In October 2006, a notification to the Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act 1986 came into effect. This brought a ban on employment of under 14 children as domestic servants, at dhabas, restaurants, hotels, motels and spas. Says Sinha “there are adequate laws to curb child labour but we need their strict enforcement”. She reveals that most of the children who work as domestic servants are bonded labour from Jharkhand, Odisha and Bihar. They are the ones who have been “sold” by parents to ensure income or pay off debts. In fact a large per cent of child labour comprises children working in homes as domestic help. India has the highest number of child labourers in the world who are under 14 years of age. The 2001 census showed 12.6 million child labourers in India with 0.12 million in hazardous jobs. But informal labour force statistics are more dismal as they put the figure to 60 million. These are the “hidden workers “in homes or underground economy. Child labour is prohibited in 18 hazardous jobs or work including domestic work.
A common refrain is that if children from poor families were not given employment the family would starve. Often these children are the sole bread earners of the family. They work in sweatshops and homes for the upkeep of large families which can afford little and definitely not educating them. There is no doubt the link between poverty and child labour cannot be debated. But people fail to realize that when they employ children to work for them it is at the cost of the child’s education. This traps them further into poverty. According to the law whoever employs or compels a child to render labour for remuneration without sending the child to school, “shall be punished with imprisonment…“.
Sinha’s point that “suo moto action should be taken instead of waiting for a child to cry for help from a 5th floor window” is valid. But how many homes can authorities peep into to detect child labour? Society has to come forward to exert peer pressure to discourage child domestic labour. A citizen from Delhi has brought to my notice the case of a minor girl from Assam being kept as domestic help by a family. The concerned citizen was told about it by the girl’s family and she went to investigate. The domestic help was there and was told that the girl had been brought to Delhi by an uncle. Her family wanted to take her back home. The employer agreed but only after he was reimbursed the Rs 8000 he had paid to a maid placement agency. The agency was traced to a basement in a south Delhi locality. The owner of the agency was missing. The girl remains with her employers as the family is trying to collect money to reimburse him. Why not go to the police or any other concerned authority? I asked. “I have spent enough time on this matter and don’t want to get into a police case. They don’t have the money to pay up”. With all the laws in place is it a dead end for this child domestic help? (IPA Service)