Invisible work

22 Jul


The International Labour Organisation fears that the global recession may push up the number of child workers.


A child labourer near Siliguri, West Bengal, on June 12. It is estimated that there are around 100 million girls involved in child labour across the world.

IN 1999, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) adopted the Convention on the Worst Forms of Labour. One aspect of the convention dealt with the special situation of girls. It is estimated that there are around 100 million girls involved in child labour. In view of the impact of the global recession on labour in general, and fearing that the economic slowdown might erode the progress made in the eradication of child labour in particular, the ILO decided to make the girl child the theme of the World Day against Child Labour in 2009. Its report is titled “Give Girls A Chance: Tackling child labour, a key to the future”. It recognises that despite a ban on child labour in many countries, it continues to flourish in the informal sector. It says that effective labour inspection is vital.

There is nothing new in what is suggested in the report in terms of the differential impact felt by girls as compared with boys in the distribution of household chores and in access to education. What is worrying, however, is the observation that the continuation of the financial crisis may worsen the child labour situation as a whole. “As the crisis deepens, young girls could well be among the main victims,” the foreword to the report says. As remittances decline nationally and internationally, a serious knock-out effect may be experienced in the poorer regions, the report says. It is also predicted that governments may make budget cuts in the social sector, especially in education, which will lead to more children dropping out of school and entering the workforce.

The remedy, according to the ILO report, lies in education, which is the most important area for policy initiatives. But this in itself will not be enough to prevent girl children from entering the labour market. The problem areas are threefold. First, there is the sheer number of girls engaged in child labour; second, much of their work remains invisible and hidden; and third, more than half, that is, 53 million, of the 100 million girls engaged in child labour do hazardous work. Of the 53 million, 23 million are not yet 12.

It is clear that the solution lies not just in free and quality education or in raising the minimum age for employment. More and more people are bound to get affected by the global economic situation and also by the lack of policy measures, safety nets and interventions by governments. While developed nations might resort to protectionist policies to safeguard their own interests, developing countries may see a greater shortfall in expenditure in crucial sectors, including the social sector. As the pressure to supplement family incomes goes up, child labour is bound to increase. Unless governments take measures for employment generation, child labour is not likely to disappear. At present, the situation does not look hopeful with layoffs, closures and wage cuts becoming the norm rather than the exception.

For the Indian reader, the report may hold some special interest. The first chapter begins with a box item narrating the work experiences of 15-year-old Jyotsna, who works in a salt pan in western India. Sections within this chapter deal with inequalities of opportunities, including in education. Quoting a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report, the chapter says that of the 16 per cent of the world’s population that is unable to read or write, two or three of every 10 persons are women. However, it needs to be investigated whether illiteracy is a factor contributing to poverty or if it is an outcome of poverty.

Like the cycle of malnutrition, illiteracy can also be a cause and an outcome of poverty. The visibility of the work done by women and girl children is no longer an issue. The problem is that it is very much open and to a large extent has social, if not legal, sanction. Employers exploit the availability of cheap labour and a pliable workforce, which, on the other hand, has no security of employment or legislative protection and faces arbitrary retrenchments, abuse, and other forms of exploitation.

The social profile of these working young girls is that they are poor and belong to hitherto socially excluded groups. To analyse the gender gap, the ILO collected data from 16 countries, mostly developing nations, between 1999 and 2007. The majority of the girls were found to be employed in agriculture: 61 per cent of the economically active girls between five and 14 years were found working in this sector. As they grew older, the services sector seemed to be absorbing more of them compared with industry. The percentage of girls working in agriculture in the 15-17 age group was 49 per cent. The next highest proportion of girls was found working in the services sector, followed by industry. This was found true for boys as well.

The report says that domestic work constitutes one of the worst forms of child labour found in many countries. The “hidden” nature of the work makes for greater exploitation than in other sectors. As expected, there are more little girls to be found in this workforce than little boys. More than 35 per cent of working boys and girls under 15, the report says, put in more than 21 hours a week.

It is a known fact that in many homes in India, including the capital, Delhi, children employed as domestic servants put in more than 21 hours a week in return for three meals a day, lodging and a meagre salary. They are expected to do all the menial chores, including going out to buy groceries. They are not only deprived of an education but have no leisure at all.


A domestic help in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. The ILO report says that domestic work constitutes one of the worst forms of child labour and that its “hidden” nature makes for greater exploitation than in other sectors.

However, there seems to be more money in domestic work compared with employment as farmhands or in factories. For instance, Saroj, who works for an upper middle class home in Delhi, gets Rs.3,500 for cooking food for a family of four, dusting, and making tea for the grandmother, and her employer pays for her lunch. She puts in eight hours of work every day. In her previous employment with a factory assembling electronic parts, she got Rs.1,200 for 12 hours of work.

Saroj also does all the work in her own home before leaving, and cooks dinner for her family of four after she comes home. All this, of course, is unpaid labour. Though she does not like selling her labour as a domestic help, she knows this is the best deal she can get. She sees nothing wrong with young girls being employed in domestic work. The report says that domestic work is a protected type of work for girls who may otherwise have few employment opportunities.

These are all the known aspects of child labour and work by women in general. For the first time, the report has looked at the uncalculated costs of household work done by girl children in their own homes, a kind of work that is not counted as child labour. However, if a boy helped his father in agricultural work, he would be considered as economically active and included as part of an official statistic. The report insists that the work done by little girls in their own homes should also be considered as economically active work since it would be counted among “services” if it were done outside the household.

It is a narrow definition which recognises only work pertaining to economic activities as “work”. The report says that this does not capture a number of important forms of non-economic work. The number of girls engaged in household services increases as they grow older. In terms of the number of working hours, girls work more than boys. There is unquestionably a gender dimension here, which policymakers need to think about. The solution may lie partly in getting girls and boys in school, but that is not the entire solution.

The report says that countries should review the situation of child labour in agriculture and set up mechanisms to monitor and enforce child labour legislation in rural areas. One of the assumptions in the report is that the rights of child domestic workers are not systematically infringed everywhere. That may not be correct. Recent experience of organising domestic workers has shown that in the absence of any recognised legal rights, the scope for exploitation has only worsened in recent times. Child domestic workers would definitely be more vulnerable.

The report acknowledges that for many children, moving to a household where they are “expected” to help out is not a positive experience. There are many studies investigating the vulnerable situation of domestic workers, and the problems include verbal, physical and sexual abuse. According to the Indonesian Association of Domestic Worker Suppliers, the biggest demand from employers was for children between 13 and 16. The association adopted a policy of not supplying children in that age group. Perhaps similar strategies should be designed by such associations in other countries as well.

The solution to the problem lies not just in creating mechanisms to ensure that child labour is not exploitative but in ensuring the effective elimination of child labour by addressing the factors that generate such labour. As long as there is supply, there will be demand. Codes of conduct by themselves will have only a cosmetic effect in the absence of a political and administrative will. The report goes on to elaborate on the various vulnerable areas where girl children are employed, which include commercial sex, the armed forces and manufacturing jobs. In fact, the report recognises that material and economic causes are involved when children get associated with the armed forces.

Governments, says the report, need to take the lead in tackling child labour. It definitely cannot be left to non-governmental organisations alone, however well-meaning they may be. •


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