Putting India’s kids out of work

Miranda Kennedy Oct 10, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Hazardous child labor’s outlawed in India. Dangerous stuff like working in factories and mines. The government banned it 20 years ago. But until this morning children under the age of 14 could still work other jobs. In restaurants, for example. Or as domestic servants. A ban on those took effect today. Human rights groups say it could cover as many as 20 million kids. From New Delhi, Miranda Kennedy has more.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: When Vijay Manjunath’s train pulled into New Delhi station, he was 5 years old. He and his 7-year-old brother were traveling with their family from south India. But in the chaos of the arrival, they got separated from their parents, and they never found them again.

VIJAY MANJUNATH: We started searching them here, then we started going outside to search them, but they didn’t meet us.

Vijay and his brother barely understood Hindi, the language of this part of India. They had nowhere to go. So they joined the thousands living in the filthy train station. They slept alongside beggars and lepers and survived by selling beverages to passengers.

MANJUNATH: Tea, coffee, drinks, every type of drinks, biscuits, and pastries, cakes.

KENNEDY: So then one of the passengers would say, “Give me two biscuits and two teas,” and you would go and get it.

MANJUNATH: Yeah, yeah.

Vijay and his brother were eventually picked up by a group that helps street kids. They brought the boys to a shelter, fed them and later sent them to school. Now that Vijay is 17, he wants to go to college to become an engineer.

But he’s the exception. Leyla Takemore-Reddy, with the International Labor Organization, says most lost or migrant kids in India’s cities are picked up by employers looking for cheap laborers and servants.

LEYLA TAKEMORE-REDDY: Unfortunately, child domestics cost less. And they are also much more docile in a sense because their bosses are adults, they’re children. And children are much easier to manipulate and to demand longer hours of, so it’s a very sad situation.

Reddy says one reason it’s so hard to end child labor in India is that it’s still culturally acceptable. Impoverished parents in rural areas often pack their kids off to cities when they’re as young as 8 to help support the family. And middle-class Indians take them in.

TAKEMORE-REDDY: The middle-class family might feel they are doing the child a favor, because they’re providing food, they’re providing shelter. They might feel that the life of this child is better. But in reality the child very often does not have access to school. But also very often the child might be psychologically damaged because they’re a second-class citizen in the house.

Vijay says that working so young took a toll on his health, and he’s seen his friends become weak and ill. But even worse, he says, is that some kids stop wanting to go to school, even if they’re given the chance.

MANJUNATH: They take as the life comes . . . happiness is not in their life.

For years, anti-child labor activists have been trying to convince the Indian government to crack down on child labor. But although today’s new ban makes it illegal to hire kids at home and in restaurants, campaigners like Reddy say the punishment isn’t harsh enough. The maximum fine if you’re caught employing a child is only about $400.

In New Delhi, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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