Child ‘camp coolies’ in Tamil Nadu

Bonded children have become dispensable cogs in India’s feverish quest for global economic dominance


Researchers who manage to contact the children estimate that around a fifth of the workers are children below 14 years, whose employment is barred under child labour prevention laws. Photo: Reuters
Researchers who manage to contact the children estimate that around a fifth of the workers are children below 14 years, whose employment is barred under child labour prevention laws. Photo: Reuters

Tamil Nadu is one of India’s most industrialized states. But its hidden face is the employment of several hundred thousand impoverished children and adolescents—mostly girls but also some boys—in its spinning mills. The conditions are reprehensible; months-long confinement and gruelling daily schedules of long hours of toil. By employing what are called child camp coolies, their employers break many laws of the land and damage a great many childhoods.

The tall walls of their factories, often with electrified barbed wire, impound their young workers within their campuses. They also prevent public scrutiny of these factories by activists, unionists, journalists and researchers. But state officials are not prevented from entering these factories and enforcing the law. Their failure to do so makes them, and the political and administrative leadership of the state, gravely culpable in these many crimes against children.

Researchers who manage to contact the children estimate that around a fifth of the workers are children below 14 years, whose employment is barred under child labour prevention laws. Doctors medically certify that they are above 14, although they clearly look much younger. During inspections, they are hidden in closets or closed rooms. Their constitutional right to free and compulsory education is also violated.

Sadly, India’s law still permits employment of children above 14 years. However, the Factories Act limits the hours of work of these adolescents to four-and-a-half hours a day. Instead, in every factory, these children are made to work at least eight-hour shifts, with additional hours for cleaning and filling in for other workers during their food breaks. They work night shifts that are illegal. There are no weekly off-days, again in grave violation of the law, and conditions of work are unhealthy for children in contravention of the standards laid down by the law. Their net wages are well below the statutory minimum wage levels. A thin legal device is deployed often claiming that they are not workers but ‘apprentices’, for which they are paid stipends and not salaries, with deductions for food and stay.

The physical and sexual abuse that some child workers report from time to time break more criminal laws. The ‘Sumangali’ scheme encourages girls to earn their dowries, although dowry is outlawed.

Even more culpably, the employment of these children falls clearly within the definition of bonded labour. Employment is legally deemed to be ‘bonded labour’ if work is done against an advance or deferred wages, remuneration is below minimum wages, and there are restrictions on freedom of workers to leave employment if they wish. All three apply to the employment of children and adolescents in these spinning factories. Parents send their children to work after accepting a small advance payment. Children are thereafter unable to leave the employment because they are paid a small part of their wages for survival every month, and the main portion of their wages is withheld until the end of their contract period. This extends typically for three to five years, and for every day of unauthorized absence from work, the child is forced to work for an extra month. The children cannot leave before the term of the contract ends for fear of losing their accumulated wages. Compulsory overtime add to their un-freedoms. Their liberty is curtailed also because they are physically barred from moving out of the factory premises.

Why is the employment of bonded children and adolescent workers in illegal custodial work conditions, in such widespread and open violation and defiance of a range of labour, child protection and criminal laws, officially tolerated? The easy answer is the corrupt nexus between labour officials, district and police officers, sometimes even judges, and the political leadership. Cheap and submissive workers mean windfall profits, which would have been limited if—as was the norm until the 1980s—adult and organized workers were instead employed in these factories. These windfall profits are shared with those responsible for the enforcement of the law, a particularly noxious form of crony capitalism.

However, what also spurs tacit official support for this unlawful form of employment is the contemporary favoured model of globalized economic growth, in which the current god is global competitiveness valued even above compliance with the law and the well-being of our children. India’s current aspirations to snatch from China the mantle of the ‘world’s factory’ depends ultimately on its capacity to guarantee an unlimited reserve army of cut-price and compliant workers.

In China, workers cannot organize themselves, but conditions of work are far superior to those in India: for Chinese workers, real wages have risen significantly and child and bonded labour forms eliminated. In India, by contrast, real wages have remained stagnant even in the years of galloping economic growth. Big business today seeks further dilution of labour protections in India. But even without these, most workers are not protected in job security, wages and social protection. However, India’s real competitive edge in sectors like textiles comes from its official tolerance of child workers toiling in conditions of near-bondage, as illustrated by the spinning mills. Many global brands who source in India also close their eyes to the fact that it is the exploitative and unlawful employment of children that results in competitive low prices, and it is they who reap the highest profits from these illegal labour practices.

The children forced to slave in the prison-like factory hostels and mills are mostly born into desperately impoverished Dalit households with no land or unviable holdings, crushed by a decaying rural economy. Because children are employed, adult workers lose jobs and wages fall, perpetuating the poverty of their children. Bonded children have become dispensable cogs in India’s feverish quest for global economic dominance.

Harsh Mander is a former member of the National Advisory Council.

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