Fashionable nonsense to whitewash child labour

Rajeev T. K. May 12, 2012

Image credits: The Hindu


When it comes to poor taste and judgment, it's difficult to imagine the Nobel Peace Prize search committee getting any worse. We have seen how the 2009 winner went on to unleash a murderous blitzkrieg of drone attacks, extra-judicial killings and war mongering. Well, they just did. Among the organizations shortlisted for this year's Nobel peace prize is a Bangalore-based NGO called Concern for Working Children (CWC) that believes "child labour is a part of the solution, not the problem".

What does CWC think of child labour? One of their funding NGOs say that central to CWC's programme is a belief that "children have the ability to decide what is good for them". Peel away the top layers of rhetoric and NGO-speak, one will find rather disturbing ideas and proposals. They are rather proud that they have set up the world's first children's labor union. Nandana Reddy, the founder and Director of Development at CWC, said in an interview with the Free Speech Radio Network on the eve of the International Workers day,

Children should have choices. Children should not do work that is intolerable, that is harmful, that is hazardous. But children should have avenues where work and learning can go together at least until poverty is eradicated.** If I cant eat, I need to work**. There are many many children who work to go to school. Work has to be perceived in the right context.

If you don't see in her words an outright call to eradicate child labor, you are not alone. No, CWC does not believe in that. Look at one of the policy briefs that they had prepared in response to The Karnataka State Government's State Child Labor Action Plan 2010

A policy that refuses to acknowledge the role of work in a person’s life and ignores the fact that many children (above 14 years) need to work and are working and will work, is suffering from the ostrich syndrome. Preparing children for the world of work should be an essential element in the Action Plan and not a sentence in passing.

On paper, CWC claims that one of its strategic objectives is to "solve child labour problem and be able to declare areas 'child labour free'". On their website, they repeat the same platitudes of avoiding exploitation of children. However, in a recent interview to Times of India, the CWC founder says

Reddy admits that it is often difficult to explain CWC's position on child labour to those unfamiliar with its work. She first asks people to make a distinction between 'work' and 'labour' . "Work is enabling, it is a good ethic. It develops confidence and self-esteem. It is a healthy contributor to development. Labour is what you do for a living , an economic activity. In themselves , neither is bad, even in the context of children. It is when blanket decisions are made, nuances are lost, and we fail to protect children or create environments that are conducive for them to work in that labour becomes all bad,'' says Reddy.

What do they recommend as a policy alternative? Not much, except talk of "bringing the right to children’s participation and self-determination into focus". Free and compulsory education, stricter enforcement of labour laws are all frowned up on as too compulsive and counterproductive. In their policy briefings, CWC experts put forward a rather peculiar and perverse form of a rights-based approach. It is as if on the issue of labour, poor and disadvantaged children have a right and ability to determine what's good for them. They frame the question of child labour against the liberal narrative of individual rights and free-will, as opposed to more critical perspectives that identify the systemic causes like predatory capitalism that force poor children and their parents into making these choices.

Unfortunately the right to participation of children is barely recognised in the letter and in practice it is largely believed that using compulsion to make children ‘participate’ in services that are provided – be it health care or education – without allowing children to determine the nature and quality of these services, is a fulfilment of children’s rights. We, adults by and large, still think that we know what is best for children and that children don’t. This is why we feel that this is a cross cutting right that enables children to fashion their present and future and shape their lives.

A century after the legendary workers struggles in the west to limit the working day to 8 hours and largely successful attempts to end the cruel exploitation of women and children as cheap labor in factories, one would have hoped there is at least a notional consensus among the policy makers to ban child labor. India has the vast majority of child laborers (around 60-70 Million according to some estimates) and is one of the few countries to not yet ratify ILO conventions on child labour. The reasons attributed are mostly "complexity of law making" and pragmatism of "letting children and families having to deal with poverty". Predictably, any questions about why children have to work if adults in their family can have the same jobs at a fair wage, are brushed aside as utopian or impractical. Instead NGOs like CWC are trying to rollback the public discourse on child labor to make it more palatable. Approaching child-labour from this "non-dogmatic" position, CWC argues, will enable children to imbibe an "honorable work ethic" and open up avenues out of poverty for poor children. After all, what is more honorable than to submit yourself as fodder for capital in these neo-liberal times. Education is reduced to a part-time engagement, in many cases recast as vocational instruction, something that can be provided at the worksite after countless hours of back-breaking labour.

The nexus between NGOs and the neo-liberal juggernaut has been well understood. As James Petras notes

There is a direct relation between the growth of social movements challenging the neoliberal model and the effort to subvert them by creating alternative forms of social action through the NGOs. (..) In other words, as the neoliberal regimes at the top devastated communities by inundating the country with cheap imports, extracting external debt payment, abolishing labor legislation, and creating a growing mass of low-paid and unemployed workers, the NGOs were funded to provide “self-help” projects, “popular education,” and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of poor, to co-opt local leaders, and to undermine anti-system struggles.

No wonder CWC says if you can't eat, you need to work. American neo-conservative leader and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was recently in the news when he tried to argue for replacing unionized janitors in schools with poor student workers from low-income, minority communities. Why pay market-rate for adults who are unionized (not just "collectivized" in 21st century NGO parlance) when you can recruit their children at half the rate. Perhaps, Newt should take a leaf out of CWC's playbook and use their sophistry to make his case. After all, it's what goes around as Nobel Peace Prize-grade activism these days.

child labour, India, Labour, Neo-liberalism, Note, Poverty Share this Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

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The issue of the 'best interest of the child'

Rajeev,

While I do agree with your contention that much of the NGO's ideas or interventions are just 'fashionable libertarian nonsenses', there is one critical issue that is often seen missing from the 'child labour' debate- the best interest of the child. The typical debate revolves around the perimeter of providing free and compulsory education, health care, food etc. for the child, but then we do impose our own ideas regarding 'well being' and push policies which are at best non-workable due to implementation catches. Child labour is the result of the huge disparity with respect to access to resources (extremely poor parents or abandoned child) or the result of extremely bad parenting. The later has a totally different dynamics and need to be treated separately. With regard to the former, so long as we are unable to remedy the resource access inequity a law prohibiting child labour in itself cannot work. We have seen this many a times, when the choice become that a child could starve or work for some goons (and in turn become one of them) or be at a juvenile centre where it could be sexually exploited against working at a local dhaba as a supplier, its own best interest is in working. The real problem is that in our country the choices for a child are that bad.

We need to look at the problem beyond the rhetoric. One way to make the prohibition work is to give healthy food for children at public schools and this has been implemented in many a places. But why has it still not brought down the child labour drastically?

Unionizing or legitimizing 'child labour' cannot be the solution, because it doesn't address the access to resource problem at all. In fact, it further widens the disparity by compelling poor to work from early years without education and thereby taking away most of their chances to move ahead in life. Further, the tyranny of tolerating such a system doesn't have a measure.

The crux of the issue as far as I can see lies with our delusion that we can bring changes by passing laws alone. Whether RTE or Child labour prohibition act, the legislation will remain a piece of paper which could even be used against the children, as long as there is no shift in the policy direction.

Ayyappan, I completely agree

Ayyappan, I completely agree that passing laws alone is not the answer. It has to be accompanied by rigorous enforcement(especially penalization of employers not children and their families), adequate increase in spending on social services (specifically free and compulsory education, nutrition, healthcare targeted at children), establishing a social protection floor, better enforcement of labour regulations in the informal sector, household work, etc.. This is not rocket science, from Brazil to Kerala, such approaches have shown to work to substantially reduce, if not eradicate, child labour. However when our country has a defence expenditure that is more than six times its education expenditure, clearly there is have a problem. Brazil's education expenditure is 2x its defense budget!

Moreover, concern that society should not unilaterally impose its ideas on the child's right to choose is not only misguided, but potentially catastrophic. The implicit assumption is that a child is a rational actor capable of exercising his/her choice amongst options. As you said, the choices that are offered to a poor child (ie, work vs hunger) are false and indeed dangerous choices. The focus should be on what can be done to ensure that children don't have to choose between work and poverty. Moreover, this narrative around poverty leads to child labour is itself heavily disputed. Jayati Ghosh has written on how some of the most prosperous states lead in child labour. Even more reason why CWC's "they can't eat, so they have to work" argument is outright ridiculous.

My focus in this short note was to show retrograde proposals by such NGOs are actually rolling back gains accrued over a century of labor activism and progressive policy making. Employing child labour is a crime, there can be no two ways about it. Children belong in schools and homes, not at the workplace. It's everyone's job to keep them out of the labour market.

and to add, if we allow

and to add, if we allow choice for a poor children to choose work, it will be at the cost of another working adult loosing his/her job, since child labour is cheaper and preferable due to many other reasons. In result the dependent children of the adult who lost the job against this working child will become poorer forcing them as well to choose work over education. never ending circle.

+1. Yes, it's a race to the

+1. Yes, it's a race to the bottom esp in terms of wages. Free market fanboys will brush aside these concerns, saying so what we have to be competitive in the international markets. If China can employ kids to manufacture iPhones and tablets, why shouldn't India? It's perverse dehumanizing logic to say the least.

Firstly i would like to

Firstly i would like to congratulate the Author for bringing to light such an important and urgent issue.

It seems that CWC has ventured into a field in which it lacks the expertise. They have understood the concept of child labour as it is in books and newspaper but what is required is an indepth analysis of ground reality to understand the situation.

I would like to contend the CWC notion that children have the ability to decide what is good for them. Let us take a hypothetical scenario in which children are allowed to vote whether there should be schools in this world or not. I have no doubt that majority of the children will vote for no schools. Hence according to the argument given by CWC all schools should be closed and children may be allowed to do what they want to. What a world would come into scene were this idea to be implemented, courtesy CWC? Whole of Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan will collapse once this argument were to be accepted.

In the above article founder of CWC Ms.Nandana Reddy has been quoted that children should not be allowed to work in harmful and hazardous condition and should have avenues where working and learning should go hand in hand. To this argument i would like to say that it is for the children to decide whether the work they are doing is hazardous or not since according to Ms. Reddy children can decide what is good for them. Hence by her own argument she loses the right to decide what is good and what is bad for children. I would like to bring to light that avenues are available in which children can learn and work at the same time in the present legislation for example children are allowed to work with their parents in non hazardous occupations.

It has been brought to light that maximum children become laborers to earn money but what they get is only exploitation. Firstly children should be made to grow in a healthy environment and then should be allowed to make choices in their life.

I unequivocally oppose CWC's point of view and endorse the Child Labour Prohibition Law which was endorsed by Union Minister for Labour and Employment Mr. Mallika Arjun Kharge in a National Consultation organized in Delhi.