Children, interrupted

There is no good reason to employ a minor

This column was first published on 13 April 2012 and had to be republished due to technical glitches.

When I read of the case of the doctor couple in Delhi who had locked up their 13-year-old maid in the house and gone off to holiday in Thailand, I barely raised an eyebrow. Not because such news doesn’t matter to me. The reason for my jaded reaction was because I thought that this was just one couple who had by sheer chance ended up getting caught when a neighbour thought something suspicious was going on and alerted the police. Who, I wonder will catch the hundreds of other families employing underage domestic help.

One of the most cringe-inducing interactions I frequently have is when I meet an urban, educated, sometimes professional woman in the park or swimming pool and she points to a girl of 12 or 13 running after her own kid and says, “She’s very well trained. She has been with me for years. She came to me when she was very young." She could have been speaking about her puppy dog. And if she has been with you for years, I always think in horror, just how young was she when you started exploiting her? Seven or eight? Or another mother will lament the dearth of good domestic helps and say, “I wish I could at least get a young girl of 11 or 12. They are much easier to train." Easier to train is euphemism for easier to exploit. Younger maids are less aware of their basic rights and are more financially desperate which is why they have been sent off to work by their parents in the first place. The most appalling part is that these women are completely untouched by the Supreme Court verdict disallowing children below 14 to be employed in any capacity.

Why is all this relevant for us as customers?

Because the reason the practice thrives is because someone is willing to pay for these children’s services. Just as the “No Plastics" movement has ensured that the corner store kirana shop has woken up to white polythene bags of acceptable thickness after years of not caring, we need to urge commercial establishments employing underage kids to stop, or lose business. The law is one side of it, but equally powerful is the thrust that will come from us becoming more responsible as buyers. Remember, we are not just mindless consumers but active citizens of society. It is up to customers to refuse the unscrupulous maid agencies who offer minor girls as servants, and instead threaten to report them. It is up to us to not visit neighbourhood beauty salons, where minors are employed to heat wax or make tea and let it be known to the owner why you will no longer come there. Or not patronize grocery shops where the assistant is a boy who ought to be in a school playground.

There are several specious arguments to support hiring children. The first is that they offered to work themselves, so we assume earning money is more important to them than education. That’s not correct. It is possible to employ them with impunity, so the shop or service employs them. If the seller were to lose business or risk arrest because of that, he would not. If the law cracked down and additionally customers created a dent in the business, you wouldn’t see so many chottus. It is one of our many hypocrisies that we pretend to be an emerging economic superpower and allow rampant child labour, which is emblematic of underdevelopment.

In the US, the ready-made apparel industry has been under severe fire for the sweatshop conditions of factories in Honduras and Dominican Republic and other developing countries where often children were hired to sew garments for various high-street labels. Public pressure has compelled even big corporates to amend their policies. The chain store Gap, for instance, set up a strict self-audit system in 2004 to weed out child labour in its production process. (Despite that it was tainted by a subcontractor using a child labourer in Delhi in 2007.) Organizations such as Behind the Label watch out for children employed in garment factories. No Sweat Apparel is a brand promising 100% sweatshop-free clothes.

The Delhi high court has recently reiterated that every employer, in whose premises a child below 14 years of age is employed in contravention of the law, must pay a penalty of 20,000 per child and cannot argue that he must first be convicted of the offence. This upholds a landmark Supreme Court judgement (M.S. Mehta case) where the court said that the money would go to a Child Labour Rehabilitation Welfare Fund and the employer had to pay even if, upon getting caught, he wishes to relieve the minor immediately.

There is no good reason to employ a minor. All those smug urban middle class delusions that the child is better off in our home than with his parents is dangerous and self serving. It is unarguable that children of all social classes ought to be with their families for emotional security and ought to have a shot at education. Yanking them from there and making them look after our own pampered babalog is nothing but a human rights violation. We may not be able to start rectifying the behaviour of the motor mechanic, chai shop owners, mines and factories who employ kids, but we can definitely stop illegally employing children as domestic help in our own homes. Else, all that education and trappings of success and pretensions of being “good" citizens are fairly pointless.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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