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As inequality for all becomes the new global norm, right to decent work will soon disappear. Not only wages are eroding but a very large number of workers are made redundant in every country. Those who are unemployed are also unlikely to find any new jobs soon. Consequently, insecurity has become the order of the day. Little wonder the International Labour Organization (ILO)—which was established in 1919 immediately after the destructive First World War—is facing an existential dilemma about its raison d’être for protecting labour rights and employment. Because of the dominant neoliberal economic policies and globalization, the global labour watchdog seems somewhat hollowed out.
Yet, it sprang to life during the 106th session of International Labour Congress last week when one of its major members ratified two fundamental conventions for eliminating child labour. That member has allowed worst forms of child labour to persist from time immemorial. For centuries, it had perpetuated a caste system that relegated the Dalits to child/forced/bonded labour.
Therefore, when India ratified two ILO conventions—the Minimum Age convention, 1973 (No. 138) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182)—on 13 June, there was a small celebration. The first convention mandates member countries of the ILO to fix the minimum age for admission to employment or work within its territory. It requires India to ensure that no one under the fixed age is admitted for work in any occupation except in cases of light work and artistic performance.
And the second convention, i.e. No. 182, will require India to prohibit the worst forms of child labour. New Delhi is mandated to take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour on a war footing. The worst forms of child labour include slavery, debt bondage, serfdom, forced or compulsory labour, including recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts, procuring or offering children for illicit activities as well as hazardous activities and so on.
India has taken a “historic step” by ratifying the two conventions, said Guy Ryder, ILO director general. “From today, as a result of what we are about to do, Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour will cover more than 99 percent of the world’s children, and the Coverage of the Convention 138 on minimum age in employment will leap from approximately 60 percent in the world to almost 80 percent,” he claimed. Clearly, the two estimates provided by the ILO chief suggest the staggering problem of child labour in India.
Small wonder India is the 170th country for ratifying the minimum age convention and 181st nation for committing to eliminate the worst forms of child labour. Before ratifying the conventions, the government amended the child labour law last year. The new law allows a child to be employed or help his family or family owned enterprises after school hours and during holidays. It set 14 years as the general minimum age for employment and raised to 18 years the legal age at which people could engage in hazardous work. It also cut down the number of jobs that 15-18 year olds are banned from doing. In effect, the new law paves the way for children to be employed in family-owned industries like diamond cutting, scavenging, brick kilns, slaughterhouses, or as domestic help.
The biggest problem remains lack of adequate information and monitoring mechanisms for tackling child domestic labour in India. In the so-called informal sector where millions of children are employed in big cities and even in smaller cities, it is going to be a herculean task for implementation. The economics of monitoring and implementation of laws concerning child labour, according to a former ILO economist, who asked not to be identified, is “a costly and a burdensome process.” Unless there is a social movement to eliminate/eradicate child labour, it is going to be a difficult task to live up to the two conventions, he has argued.
Further, the government has to provide budgetary funds for investing in primary and secondary education and other amenities to dissuade children being pushed into labour. Simultaneously, it must address the problem of youth unemployment so to ensure that children who are drawn into education have a chance of getting better jobs after their studies. Sadly, “under the new Child Labour Act, some forms of child labour may become invisible and 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,” says Euphrates Gobina, Unicef’s chief of education in India, according to a BBC news report of 27 July 2016.
Further, India’s millions of child labourers—who are “routinely found to be working under huge socio-economic compulsions from their poverty driven population”—face enormous difficulties and continue to be denied normal childhood, according to Amod Kanth, general secretary of Praya, a non-profit organization working for the rights of marginalized children, women and young people. “There appears to be a systemic shift in the process of defining a child, compromising the safety net of 18 years, as provided under various laws and policies,” he has argued, in an article India’s child labour laws are violating child rights in The Sunday Guardian on 18 June.
Notwithstanding these problems that continue to persist even after the new child law, ratifying the two ILO conventions for eradicating child labour is a good step. Even though the ILO conventions lack any intrusive-teeth like the World Trade Organization rules, they still carry some weight in naming and shaming a country if it fails to implement them. Every four years, every ILO member who has ratified Conventions 138 and 182 will face international scrutiny. Therefore, even if India’s ratification of the two ILO fundamental conventions may amount to a public relations gimmick for some international labour analysts, it is an important step for subjecting one’s performance on vital issues concerning child labour to global commitments.