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INDIA: Child Labour and the Situation in the Textile Industry in India

Some Examples from Uttar Pradesh

by Bo Hallengren

This article is based upon an interview with the couple Mrs. Sabira Khatoon and her husband Mr. Mujeeb Ahmed Khan that took place in Trivandrum, Kerala during a meeting on human rights issues arranged by the Vigil India Movement and Asian Human Rights Commission. 
Today there are up to 60 million children being exploited as underpaid labour in India. Mujeeb and Sabira are both working in Uttar Pradesh for the Bonded Labour Liberation Front, which has its headquarters in New Delhi. At the end of the article there is a brief presentation by Bandhua Mukti Morcha (Bonded Labour Liberation Front) and some notes from a meeting with its chairperson Swami Agnivesh. 

The state of Uttar Pradesh is the most populous in India with over 100 million inhabitants and is often regarded as a political centre in India. The problems mentioned here are from Uttar Pradesh and although they might be more common in north India, they do exist in all parts of India. 
Carpets, brass, glass and locks 

There are four main fields in Uttar Pradesh where children are working. The product that is most talked about abroad is carpets, but they also work with brass and other metals, glass and production of locks. 

Carpets are often produced in Mirzapur and Bhadohi, close to the holy city of Varanasi (Benares). Those who are producing and exporting carpets use a system where children from the age of 6 are recruited by “giving” money as an advance payment for hard work to their poor parents. Often the families are too poor to be able to feed their other children. Therefore they have to accept. Besides people have been used to slave-like conditions for generations, so child labour is not regarded as anything unusual. The owners of the carpet factories are especially interested in young children, who can work faster and do not have to be paid proper wages. The children do not always sit in factories - quite often they work at home. They are normally not allowed to attend school or leave for a short break. If that would happen the factory owners would immediately demand that the advance payment should be repaid. 

One reason for the factory owners using children based in their homes is that no contract is ever signed. If people come to investigate the treatment of child labourers in the factory no children can be found and even if it would be detected very little can be done. No contract has been signed, so no contract has been broken!! Often the children work 14 hours per day or more for far less than half a US dollar. 

In the city of Moradabad in the Western part of Uttar Pradesh many children work with brass. It is often very dirty work, where chemicals are used to clean the metals. The children have no protection and their hands can be severely damaged by the strong chemicals. If they, after an accident, no longer can work they are immediately replaced by other children, whose parents are also extremely poor. 

In Fizorabad, glass products, like drinking glasses, glass decorations for necklaces and bangles are made. Children are working without masks or protection in front of the ovens and are suffering from poisonous gases and heat. Their lungs and eyes are often badly damaged. The maximal life length for these children is estimated to be 30 years, while many die much younger. The children here make 4-500 rupees a month (which equals about US$ 15). The salary for grown ups doing the same kind of work is 4-5 times as high! 

In Aligarh locks are produced. Around 90% of the work force consists of children. Electrical heat, welding etc. are common production tools. Here, like in Kanpur, where temporary child workers are employed in the leather industry, with all its chemicals, work related accidents are very common. There is no insurance system or responsibility the side of the employers, so the future for these poor children is very bleak. 

Other jobs that are common (and illegal) are children working as ticket sellers and cleaners for the bus companies. Some of these bus companies are run by the different states in India, so it is not only individuals and industrialists that are utilizing cheap child labour. All over India there are children working in restaurants, small shops etc. But the main issue here is not whether laws are broken or not. The main issue must be the suffering of the children and the poverty that makes it possible to exploit children like this. Implementing laws without doing anything about the underlying factors is not a long term solution. 

Corruption in society and passive behaviour challenged 

When Mujeeb and Sabira, who are working hard to improve the situation for exploited children and women, go to the police to tell them about abuses they often reply that they have to make a report of the violations they have witnessed. After that is done they are demanded to come together with the police to the workshop where children are working. If they come together with the police they know that they will be killed. The police (who is paid off by the factory owners), the factory owners and those trying to help the exploited all know that “these are the rules of the game”. It is very easy to see that it is an inhuman system, but the police are also poorly paid and in order to get a higher position they often have to pay their superiors. This money will later be “collected”. Those who are most hurt by all this is of course the poor, since corruption favours those who are already favoured. 

A lack of awareness about the oppression against the weakest in society is a big problem in India. But it is also a problem in the West, where awareness is often understood as knowledge. But knowledge is not enough. Compassion is also needed. 

Mujeeb and Sabira told me that recently there have been many campaigns in India against child labour, where different NGOs have participated. The president of India was also asked to participate. During 1995 there were campaigns against child labour involving both central and state governments. But Mujeeb and Sabira said that poverty is still desperate and as long as this is the case it will be impossible to get rid of child poverty. But the level of awareness is increasing. Another problem is that children at times are kidnapped and later on end up as slave labourers. 

It is important that the government and employers are becoming aware that the general public does not tolerate these conditions. 100-200 children have already been saved by starting a programme for their education in the area, where Mujeeb and Sabira work. A common (and very reasonable) demand is that the government must give food to all children; not only to those who’s parents can afford to let their children attend school. Then, if the family is given a minimum wage and is released from the debt to the employer children can attend school. This is definitely a good investment for the country as a whole. Besides, education for the poor is very cheap compared to costs for higher education and research, where India is quite advanced.

Education and land distribution are key issues. Women and their daughters are suffering the most if just solutions are not found. 

Education in its form of basal training in reading, writing and arithmetics as well as practical skills are very essential for empowerment of the poor. Legal aid and awareness building activities, especially among the parents is also necessary to improve the situation for the poor. But land distribution is still the most important thing that need to be changed. Generally speaking land distribution and caste reinforce each other as a tools for oppression and justifications for this oppression. 

Mujeeb and Sabira said that there had been a number of attempts to redistribute land in order to benefit the poor. But the result was quite often disappointing. The land owners were compensated by the authorities for letting the poor take over the land. But the poor, who were not in good health and often malnourished were not provided with tools or seeds, rice plants etc. Therefore they had no choice but to sell the land back to their former masters, who could then decide the price (which could then be lower than the authorities had originally paid to them). A few years ago I heard that when authorities in Bihar introduced regulations on the maximum land area one person could own, the male land owner transferred land to all his relatives and if that did not solve his problem his dogs and cats also received land..... 

As always, women are especially vulnerable to this kind of system. Women labourers are almost always coming from a poor background. Poor men at times become alcoholic to stand the misery, which makes the burden even heavier (and often impossible) for women and children. Most of the poor women are illiterate and have to work hard in industries or agriculture. Mujeeb and Sabira told me that in Lucknow alone around 20 000 women are working under very harsh conditions for the textile industries. They make only 8-10 rupees a day (less than 30 US cents ). The employer doesn’t need to pay taxes, the women must work for a very long time each day and since they usually sit at home there is no proof of the exploitation they have to suffer. Through this oppression they have often become passive. This is perhaps one of the reasons why they have to follow their husband’s and the surrounding society’s patriarchal principle of always sending one or more of the sons to school (if they can afford) and letting their daughters come last. If there are no resources to let the sons go to school they will also end up as child labourers. 

For women it is often not socially accepted to work far from home - however for nurses and teachers it is allowed . The result of these traditions, which might have to do with the willingness to protect women, is that women do not get in contact with sisters from surrounding areas, which make them feel isolated and weak if they want to protest against oppression. Other conditions for this part of the unofficial Indian economy dominated by women is that they have to start working only one and a half months after giving birth. The result of this is that children are often hit by infections.

Sabira has tried to organize some of these poor women. The problem is that if they take a day off from work they will lack much needed income. Now there is a programme, where they are earning 8 rupees a day plus a free lunch if they participate. The women think these conditions are good, but they also know that if their employers find out what they are doing on their day off they might lose their job. 

Income generating programmes run by the poor (women and men) themselves are especially important because this is a way to create more income and at the same time more self confidence. Sabira says that Bonded Labour Liberation Front does not have so much in common with many other organizations for the liberation of women in India. The reason for this is that most other organizations for women represent middle class women, whose problems are quite different from those of dalits (outcasts) and illiterate women. 

A small bank owned by the poor and operating on the village level would be a great start. The Gramman Bank, whose customers are almost entirely poor people in Bangladesh is a good example. There is clear statistical evidence that it is less risky for banks to let poor people borrow. The reason is perhaps that poor people feel more responsibility than those who are better off because they use the money for much needed small scale investment rather than for speculation. The huge banking crises in Japan and the USA, where rich people, including bankers themselves, were able to take out so much money before banks went down shows that a financial system being dependent on speculation is very unstable. Maybe there are similarities with loans to developing countries from big Japanese and Western banks as well as some actions from the World Bank. Poor people in developing countries are often so marginalized that they do not even belong to the market, since they lack buying power. The loans taken by poorer countries are often (but not always) related to export promotion activities. Prices for export products from developing countries are decided in places like the London Metal Exchange or the wheat market in Chicago. There speculation is rampant..... 

What can people from other countries do? 

When I asked Mujeeb and Sabira about what people from other countries can do they talked about the importance of pressuring the Indian government to live up to its own commitments. They also mentioned the need for unions and work education as well as exchange of experiences on how to create awareness and engagement for the poor, who for so many years have been pacified by economic and social oppression, in the form of hunger and lack of education. However they emphasized that it is important for them to be as independent as possible from support from richer countries. Exchange of ideas, personal contacts and help in creating educational programmes were things they especially thought would benefit from wider contacts. 

Bandhua Mukti Morcha (The Front Against Bonded Labour). 

The organization has worked since 1981. In its presentation pamphlet we can read: “India, the largest democratic country in the world paradoxically bears the scourge of having 60 million child labourers living a life of bondage and slavery. These figures are revealed by various studies as well as in our own assessment and projection over the period 1981-1994. This is despite Constitutional guarantees and prohibitive laws like the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1976, the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986 and International Conventions on the subject. Field experience shows a lack of administrative and political will to carry out the Constitutional mandate and enforce prohibitive laws of the land. Against all odds Bandhua Mukti Morcha is fighting a difficult battle and has achieved the release of more than 50 thousand bonded Indians from the shackles of slavery. A large number of them have been rehabilitated. From the carpet industry alone, 7 thousand children, most of them migrants, have been rescued and restored to their parents.” 

Bandhua Mukti Morcha has demanded a National Commission on Bonded Labour, but has not succeeded and therefore initiated a Citizens Commission on Bonded and Child Labour, where judges of the Supreme Court and others have been supportive. To free all those who are bonded, raise public consciousness, and to cooperate with other social action groups in India are some of the objectives. International contacts with ILO, UNICEF and the UN Human Rights Commission is also important. The Citizens’ Commission also wants to rely on resources raised from the people. 

In October 1995 I and my wife visited India and had a chance to talk with Swami Agnivesh, the chairperson of Bandhua Mukti Morcha. We asked him how he looked upon the international community’s actions and reactions concerning bonded labour. He said that he has become more critical than he used to be. As an example he mentioned that in Germany laws that prohibit the import of products produced by child labourers are instituted, but at the same time no action is taken to prohibit the export of dangerous products from rich to poor countries. Often medicines, pesticides etc. that are prohibited in richer countries can be exported to India or other places. To make the situation even more complicated Western governments are often supporting NGOs, both at home and abroad. This system should be questioned according to Swami Agnivesh. This also explains why Swami Agnivesh is emphasizing self sufficiency and broad local grass roots support and involvement as founding pillars for Bandhua Mukti Morcha. International contacts rather than dependency is also important for the struggle of liberation in India. 

Final comments 

This short article might seem rather pessimistic. But in India big changes are taking place. The dalits (outcasts) are becoming an important vote bank and some high politicians are being recruited from the poorest sections of society. Furthermore some high politicians are being prosecuted for corruption, which must be seen as a good sign. The so called new economic policy, instigated by the World Trade Organization, IMF and the World Bank has not helped the poor majority in India despite a higher economic growth. There is an increased awareness and some well educated people are also opposing the widening income distribution disparity. Often the “answer” from the powerful to this issue is that “since the market is neutral and only tells us ‘the realities’ there is nothing we can do”. Those who give this kind of an “answer” are often the ones benefiting most from “the new order”. But the market is too often ruled by few people and the outcome of a market economy can very well be changed, through taxes and other means, without regulating the “holy market” itself. It is a matter of power and principles rather than so called “economic realities”. Even if it is a reality that poor people are starving and can not influence the market, since they have no resources, it doesn’t mean it should be accepted. 

Religion, which plays such an important role in India can also change and deal with earthly righteousness. Some of these things are already happening. Human rights issues are becoming more and more important for all religions. It is impossible to simply ignore these questions. Swami Agnivesh has had a very positive influence here. He has taken a strong stand against conservative Hindus, who defend sati (widow burning) in Rajastan and other places. In one of his papers, that he was not allowed to present at a peace conference in Florence, he wrote: “We like to quote our lofty scriptures and the founders of our faiths. But what good do all these great talks about simplicity, love meakness, sharing and cooperation mean, if they cannot be applied in daily life because of an economic ideology which puts profit before human contentment and happiness?” 

Posted on 1996-09-01
     
 
Asian Human Rights Commission

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