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The plight of domestic child workers
M Shamsur Rabb Khan

"Last night I got a thrashing, my master dragged me by my hair into the yard, and belaboured me with a shoe-maker's stirrup, because, while I was rocking his brat in its cradle, I unfortunately fell asleep." -- Nine-year-old Vanka Zhukov in "Vanka" by Anton P Chekov

Tiny hands working in hotels, polishing shoes at bust stops or railway stations, selling almonds in railway compartment or carrying loads in the markets are a common sight in India and other developing countries. They represent chained childhood. They are the among the 200 million child labourers worldwide, according to Global Report to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The same report says that with 127.3 million in total, the Asia-Pacific region harbours the largest number of child workers.
Also, we might have happened to come across small hands sweeping the floors or washing utensils or carrying household goods or serving tea to the guests within households. They are certainly child domestic workers or what ILO calls, 'helping hands'. Do these small children work according to rules or labour laws or as per the 'orders' of the employers? Do they get paid according to the rules or labour laws? Certainly not. There are thousands of such child domestic workers employed as maids, cooks, cleaners, gardeners, child-minders, and general house-helps all over India. The problem is undoubtedly enormous.
A UNICEF report on the status of the World's Children 2006 states that in India, which has the largest number of working children, 17 per cent of workers are under the age of 15 and that girls aged 12 to 15 are the preferred choice of 90 per cent of employing households. In some cases, young children are forced to work for long hours for low pay and in dangerous conditions (Convention No. 182).
The International Labor Organisation (ILO) has estimated that 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries -- at least 120 million on a full time basis. Sixty-one per cent of these are in Asia, 32 per cent in Africa, and 7.0 per cent in Latin America. Most working children in rural areas are found in agriculture; many children work as domestic helps; urban children work in trade and services, with fewer in manufacturing and construction.
Child domestic workers -- lonely sufferers are nearly invisible among child labourers. They work alone in individual households, hidden from public scrutiny, their lives controlled by their employers or masters. Child domestics, mostly girls, work long hours for a meagre pay. Many have no opportunity to go to school, or are forced to drop out because of the precarious economic conditions of their families. Above all, they may be fired for small infractions, losing not only their jobs, but their place of residence as well. It is also amongst the least regulated and most poorly remunerated profession in our country. The children -- especially girls working within the households as domestic helps, face various types of physical, mental and sexual abuses, as a large number of girls enter this unorganised sector. Girls are seen as natural domestic workers, seemingly trained at home in doing housework. These children are under the exclusive control of their employers and have little or no freedom, which leads to harmful effects on their psyche and health. In 1989, the ILO stated, "Youngsters working as household domestic servant may be the most vulnerable and exploited children of all, and most difficult to protect."
Sometimes, violence can be criminal and includes physical assault or injury -- hitting, beating, shoving, etc., sexual abuse -- forced sexual activity, or stalking. A study on human trafficking says India is fast becoming a hotspot for child-sex tourism.
The study sponsored by the National Human Rights Commission said, "In India, the abuse of both male and female children by tourists has acquired serious dimensions." The 748-page study called "Trafficking in Women and Children in India," also said "unlike Sri Lanka and Thailand, this problem has not been seriously tackled or discussed openly in India and has remained more or less shrouded in secrecy, making the likelihood of child abusers being caught and punished very low.
The ILO estimates that more girls work as domestics than in any other form of child labour. Yet they have received little attention, and even less protection. Government laws often exclude domestic workers from basic labour rights, labour ministries rarely monitor or investigate conditions of work in private households, and few programmes addressing child labour include child domestics.
The rescue of hundreds of child labourers in Delhi and Mumbai recently once again highlighted the scale of this violation of child rights. In November 2005, over 500 minors working in "inhuman" conditions were freed after a raid on 50 embroidery units in east Delhi. A few months before that, police rescued 465 children working in exploitative conditions in industrial units located in the congested Madanpura locality in central Mumbai.
The Supreme Court of India on February 2, 2006, while adjudicating on Public Interest litigation concerning 'Child Labour', the Honourable Judges stated that 200 million children in the age group of 6 to 14 'almost are engaged in child labour and are out of the school'. It is shameful to state that these millions of children who are 'out of school' are 'forced to do manual work.'
The Supreme Court ruling is contradictory to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), which is initiated for achieving universalisation of elementary education (UEE) in a time bound manner, as mandated by 86th amendment to the Constitution of India making fee and compulsory education to the children of 6-14 years age group, a fundamental right. SSA is being implemented in partnership with State Governments to cover the entire country and address the needs of 192 million children in 1.1 million habitations.
Although the constitution of India prohibits the employment of any child under the age of 14 years and Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Act, 1986, prohibits child labour, the geographical expanse and population make it very difficult to keep a track of all the households engaging children as domestic helps against paltry wages. The absence of official sources or data, actually limits a realistic assessment of the magnitude and nature of the problem.
The Consumer Utility and Trust Society (CUTS) International, in collaboration with Save the Children (UK), launched a unique project on Child Domestic Workers (CDWs) entitled, 'Hum Bhi Bachche Hain' -- We, too, are children in July 2005. The project aims to examine the issue closely and generate awareness about 'CDWs' through 34 selected schools in Jaipur city using a child-to-child approach aiming towards advocacy at the state level, involving various stakeholders to make it compulsory for all schools in the state to check and the government to prevent child domestic work.
Bangladesh has no less grim scenario: In 2002/03, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) conducted the second National Child Labour Survey (NCLS), which has been designed and conducted in the context of the commitments made by the government of Bangladesh, following the ratification of ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182) 1999. According to the survey, there are 4.9 million working children, 14.2 per cent of the total 35.06 million children in the age group of five to 14 years. The total working child population between five and 17 years old is estimated at 7.9 million.
The writer is the Editor of the Consumer Unity & Trust Society (CUTS) in Jaipur, India