India's New Child Labor Law Doesn't Actually Ban Child Labor

Though the Indian government has technically made labor for children under the age of 14 illegal, adolescents are still allowed to work for their family members—in potentially harsh and unregulated conditions.
August 12, 2016, 5:01pm
Photo by Daniel Berehulak via Getty

Last month, the Indian Parliament passed contentious amendments to the country's 1986 child labor law, making it illegal for a child under 14 to work. (The original law only banned children under 14 from working in certain hazardous jobs.) Unfortunately, the amendments make an exception for child labor in family businesses, which includes work for aunts and uncles.

While the amendments do dictate that children can only work after school or during holidays, critics warn that its nebulous language fails to protect children by effectively allowing them to work under harsh conditions and potentially encouraging them to drop out of school in order to make money—all under the guise of helping their family. A petition, signed by more than 1000 people, including Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker, asks the president of India to review and change the bill.

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Although some critics may argue that child labor in any form is unacceptable, proponents of the bill say that working for one's family engenders a sense of discipline and responsibility. In a statement released on July 29, the Indian government also noted that the bill establishes safeguards that were previously absent from Indian labor law, which did not restrict work for children under 14, nor did it place any bans on working during school hours and holidays.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), too, characterizes the legislation as a step in the right direction, saying that it "will bring India into the ambit of the regular supervisory mechanisms and provide opportunities for further improvements."


But Sherin R. Khan, the ILO's senior specialist on child labor for South Asia, says that while "generally the ILO has welcomed the amendments, it has raised concerns." She, like many others, points to the exception for family-based businesses as the bill's main problem.

Critics say that since "family-based businesses" can refer to a number of jobs, this exception effectively green lights unregulated child labor in harsh workplaces, including doing agricultural work, weaving carpets, and more.

UNICEF expressed similar concerns in a statement, explaining that the bill "legitimizes family work and could further disadvantage children from poor families." The amendments' loose definitions are partially to blame. As Joost Kooijmans, the senior advisor for child labor at UNICEF, told me, "For a child to help out in the family environment to a certain extent is perfectly acceptable because it's a part of growing up."

However, it becomes an issue "when the law allows this but does not set any parameters for how much [work] is acceptable and how much is not acceptable, or what is family and what is not family." Without parameters, some critics of the bill caution, children could be vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of relatives—exposing them to unregulated working conditions, such as long hours and harsh environments.

The most vulnerable and marginalized children may end up with irregular school attendance and could be forced to drop out of school.

As Ruchira Gupta, the founder of the non-profit Apne Aap, noted in an op-ed recently published in The Hindu, "Most of India's child labor is caste-based work, with poor families trapped in intergenerational debt bondage." In other words, she argues, most of the country's child laborers are already engaged in family work, meaning the new legislation doesn't protect them.

UNICEF India's chief of education Euphrates Gobina seems to agree with this characterization. "The most vulnerable and marginalized children may end up with irregular school attendance, lower levels of learning, and could be forced to drop out of school," she said in a statement.

Indeed, the amendments also fail to define what after-school hours or holidays are—which means that children may be forced to work when they could be resting or studying. "How is a child supposed to work until midnight then show up to school the next day?" Gupta asks in an interview with Broadly. "She won't have the stamina—physically or mentally—to be able to attend school and help with work."

In the July 29 statement, the government emphasized that a child's school attendance will not be affected. It says that the amendments' main objective is to guarantee "no hindrance in the school education and hence even help in family or own family enterprise has not been permitted at the cost of education." But it's hard to trust this sentiment, as the government recently reduced education budgets significantly.

Kooijmans also says that the law's vague language also makes implementation hard. It's too difficult to enforce work that takes place in family homes and out of the public eye, he notes. "There are limited options for law enforcement [to have] control over these situations. It's a very weak spot in the law."

Currently, UNICEF says there are about 10.2 million children in India between the ages of five and 14 who work. If India wants that number to go down, it must improve on the amendments and add specific protections. Kooijmans guesses that some concessions had to be made in order to pass the amendments, but hopefully, "now that the amendments have gone through, the next phase of legislative work starts… [and they can] move towards closing these gaps."