New Delhi: The United Nations says changes to India’s child labour law which permit children to work for their families and reduce the number of banned occupations for adolescents will disadvantage vulnerable groups such as tribals and lower-caste communities.

The Rajya Sabha passed amendments to a three-decade-old child labour prohibition law on 19 July. The bill is expected before the Lok Sabha in the coming weeks.

But the UN Children’s Agency (UNICEF) said that allowing children to work for their families legitimised family work, while limiting the number of professions considered as hazardous would result in more unregulated child labourers.

With child labour rates highest among tribal and lower caste communities at almost 7% and 4% respectively, UNICEF said, the changes could have an adverse impact on these especially marginalised and impoverished communities.

“Under the new Child Labour Act, some forms of child labour may become invisible and the most vulnerable and marginalised children may end up with irregular school attendance, lower levels of learning and could be forced to drop out of school," said UNICEF India’s chief of education Euphrates Gobina.

“Secondary enrolment is still lagging behind, especially for the most vulnerable children, many who are working," she added in a statement issued late on Monday.

A 2015 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) puts the number of child workers in India aged between five and 17 at 5.7 million, out of 168 million globally.

More than half of India’s child workers labour in agriculture and over a quarter in manufacturing—embroidering clothes, weaving carpets or making match sticks. Children also work in restaurants and hotels, and as domestic workers.

Remove family enterprises

The government wants to change the current law by extending the ban on child labour under 14 to all sectors. Currently only 18 hazardous occupations and 65 processes, such as mining, gem cutting and cement manufacturing are outlawed.

It also proposes including a separate category for adolescents aged between 15 and 18, as well as stiffer jail terms and fines for those employing children.

While child rights activists have welcomed the changes, there has been growing concern over other amendments proposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

For example, children will be allowed to work in family businesses, outside of school hours and during holidays, and in entertainment and sports, if it does not affect their education.

In addition, children aged 15 to 18 will be permitted to work, except in mines and industries where they would be exposed to inflammable substances and hazardous processes.

The government says the exemptions aim at striking a balance between education and India’s economic reality, in which parents rely on their children to help with farming or artisanal work to fight poverty.

But UNICEF said family or home-based work is often hazardous and includes working in cotton fields, making bangles and bidis, rolling tobacco, carpet weaving and metal work.

It urged India to include an “exhaustive list" of hazardous occupations and exclude family work from the proposed law.

“To strengthen the Bill and provide a protective legal framework for children, UNICEF India strongly recommends the removal of ‘children helping in family enterprises’," it said.

“This will protect children from being exploited in invisible forms of work, from trafficking and from boys and girls dropping out of school due to long hours of work." Reuters

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