Children without dreams – The first in a 2-part series on child labour in the Indian subcontinent

Child labour in Bangalore, India
Child labour in Bangalore, India (Flickr)

No one knows how many children around the globe are forced to work, but a large percentage of the world’s child labor force is located in the Indian subcontinent. In India alone, the government estimates the number of child workers at 14 million. Others put the figure at 44 million. Yet others say it’s probably closer to 100 million. Millions of children and youths are employed in the rest of the subcontinent too.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: February 9, 1994

The documentary won a gold medal at the New York Radio Festivals in 1994. 


Name is Shaalam and age is 12 years. EB: How long have you been working in the carpet industry? He’s working since 5 years. EB: So he started when he was 7 years old. 7 years old. EB: How many hours a day do you work? 12 hours. He starts at 6 and works till 6 in the evening. EB: Why do you have to work? Is it because your parents force you to or what’s the reason? His family size is very big. If one person will do the work, they cannot survive. So he’s working. EB: And his parents also work. His father is working. EB: Do you think this is a normal life for a child to be working at your age? He don’t know. EB: He doesn’t know.

Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Children without Dreams”, the first in a two-part series on child labor in the Indian subcontinent. The program is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

No one knows how many children around the globe are forced to work, but a large percentage of the world’s child labor force is located in the Indian subcontinent. In India alone, the government estimates the number of child workers at 14 million. Others put the figure at 44 million. Yet others say it’s probably closer to 100 million. In neighboring Pakistan, over 8 million children work, many in and around the slums of Pakistan’s main port city, Karachi. One of the organizations which provides assistance to these children is the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research, which receives backing from a Dutch trade union federation, the FNV, and the Dutch development aid organization Novib. One of the institute’s members, Ghazam Fer Abbas (sp?), took me to a center for child workers about an hour out of Karachi.

We are in Kurundi (sp?) and name of area is Agbar Shagur (sp?). EB: This is a really, really bad shantytown. The living conditions here are absolutely appalling. It’s filthy. There are flies everywhere. And I have a group of around 40-50 children, between the ages of what? Between the age of 7 to 14. EB: And these children all work. All children are working in carpet industry. EB: Can we speak to a couple of the children? Can you tell me how old you are and what’s your name? Mojamil (sp?) Haq and age is 10 years. EB: How long have you been working?He’s working last 3.5 years. EB: Do you also work in the carpet industry? He’s also working in carpet industry. EB: Have you ever gone to school? No, he never been to school. EB: Do you have sisters and brothers who are also working? He has 4 brothers and sisters, and 2 brothers are also working in carpet industry. His sister, her age is 7 years. She’s also working in carpet industry. EB: How many hours a day do you work? 10.5 hours. He starts work at 7 a.m. EB: Do you feel tired a lot? After work, he feels very tired and especially he has pain in shoulders. EB: How does your employer treat you? His owner’s behavior is very bad. He says some bad things and punished him. EB: You said owner. Is that owner or employer? In one way, you can say it is bonded labor because his parents take some money from the owner. So, he cannot leave the job till he will repay the advanced amount. EB: So that is bonded labor. Bonded labor. EB: What type of future do you see for yourself? He want to do tailoring work and especially stitching work in government factory. EB: But it’s just work, work, work. When he finishes work, it’s 6 o’clock. After that he comes here because he don’t have any recreational facility or playground in this area. So, here we are also providing football and these kinds of games. EB: Do you like to play? He also like to play. EB: Do these children realize that most children don’t work? The children of educated people are not working. But we are poor, so we are working. EB: Do you think that’s fair? Because these people are educated, so it is alright. EB: It’s not fair for you, is it? In this area, people are mostly migrants from Bangladesh or Burma. So, you can say they are illegal migrants. Police want to make money. So, every day police come here and say you are not citizen of Pakistan, so give us money. Then you can live here. He said that the police kept his father and take 5000 Rupees. He’s in problems, so he must work because employer give 5000 for his father. So, he’s bonded to work there. EB: Thank you very much.

We’re driving through the slums around the children’s center. The slums just go on for kilometres and kilometres. There’s filth everywhere. Trash, piles of trash, all over the place. Animals living side by side next to human beings. The stench is frequently overpowering. I’m plugging my nose most of the time because I just can’t breathe, it’s so bad. Children are playing in stagnant water.  Children are running the through the streets. Many of them have no clothes at all, and it’s just unbelievable that this still exists today.

EB: How old are you? Name is Rubina Bano (sp?) and age is 10 years. EB: How long have you been working? When she was 7, she started working. So we can say the last three years, she’s working. EB: I notice that a lot of the girls have a lot of makeup on. Is that because they’re working in the carpet industry or are they working in the sex industry? No, mostly the children don’t have any makeup, but today we have a medical checkup. So children think maybe if we go like this, doctor will give some attention to us. EB: How many hours a day do you work? She’s working 12 hours. EB: Do you also have brothers and sisters who work? Her younger sister, age 7 years, she’s also working in carpet industry. EB: For how long? She’s working last two years. EB: She started when she was 5! Yeah. EB: Do your parents work? Her father is working in garment factory. And mother is also working inside the house, carpet weaving. EB: How much do you earn a month? She earns 5 Rupees daily. EB: How many days a week do you work? She’s working 5 days in a week. Friday is a holiday and Saturday is a half day. EB: So, in other words, 25 Rupees a week, 100 Rupees a month. That’s a little over 3 dollars. And that’s the typical salary?No, if you have more skill, then you can earn 10 to 15 Rupees per day. We have children who are earning 20, 25 rupees per day. EB: Have you ever gone to school? She never going to school. EB: Do you have friends outside of your work? She has friends, especially in this center. She has so many girlfriends. EB: Do you get time to play? She don’t have a proper time for play. At night, she plays. EB: And you’re not too tired at the end of the day? She feels tired and pain in shoulders.

Employers often prefer to hire children. They can pay them lower wages than adults. In the carpet industry, for example, children – because of their size – are also able to hand tie much finer carpets, and they’re able to crawl under machines more easily than adults. The risks are great. Accidents are frequent, and because of the long hours doing the same repetitive task, children frequently suffer permanent damage to their fingers, eyes and backs.  Joseph Gatia of the Center of Concern for Child Labor in Delhi, an organization that also receives backing from the Dutch development aid group Novib, uses the health aspect to try and convince parents to remove their children from the workplace.

We carried out a small health checkup and showed the results, shared the results of the health checkup program with the parents. Then we said: look, if at the age of 7 your child is suffering this much and this disease, at the age of 20 they will grow up to this level. And at the age of 40, it’s finished. So you are thinking that in the old age he will be helping you because in our country we always feel that we have to help our parents when they grow old. So instead of he helping you, you have to help him again.

For most people, the mere thought of children as young as 5 living and working in conditions like these is repugnant. But Neera Burra, who has studied child labor in India, says the children themselves have become desensitized to the work.

I once had the occasion to talk to children at great length. They were children in a jail. It was not even a question for them of whether they liked it or didn’t like it. It was just something they took for granted. Their taking it for granted was not as if they had succumbed to it and this is our karma, so we are going to have to do it. They were not apathetic, but it was just something that they could not think of another option. This was what they had been doing. This is what they thought themselves to be doing, and they didn’t think that the world would change. How can you even dream?

This doesn’t prevent Neera Burra and others like her from dreaming of the elimination of child labor. In recent years, governments in the sub-continent have passed legislation to reduce child labor and protect the children who work in the most dangerous industries, like the carpet, glass and match industries. But these laws are often ineffective, says Karamat Ali, the secretary of the Pakistan Institute of Labor Education and Research, who points to a labor law adopted by Pakistan in 1991.

We conducted a survey to look at whether the legislation is being implemented or not. In the first 1.5 months, we have visited 5 of these industries, where child labor is prohibited, and we have found that children are working in all those industries in large numbers.

Implementing laws is a problem throughout the sub-continent. Besides, says MP Joseph, the International Labor Organization’s coordinator for India of the International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor, IPEC, it would be unrealistic to believe that legislation could eliminate child labor overnight.

It is not possible that by our wishing very much to do so, it is going to happen. We are speaking of very large numbers of children worldwide. The figure is 200 million, according to some sources. So when we are speaking in terms of these numbers, I think it would be unrealistic to say that overnight we could eliminate it. It would even be unrealistic to say that yes, by such and such a target date, we would be eliminating child labor all together. Maybe we can perhaps think in fixing priorities for eliminating it and combating it. Therefore, IPEC looks towards the progressive elimination of child labor.

This shouldn’t be interpreted by governments as a license to delay the abolition of child labor. Joseph Gathia and the Center of Concern for Child Labor in Delhi say the best way to gradually eliminate it is by diving working children into different categories, according to their age.

For example, we propagate that at the first level, we should have a target that no new child at a school-going age, especially between the age of 6 to 9, should enter in the labor market. The second level is that those who are in the child labor force, especially from 7 to 9, they should be withdrawn. Because they are still young, that withdrawn process can take place. Then the third level is from the age group of 10 to 12. They already work for 1 year or 2 years. So totally withdrawing them is not possible because their entire psyche, their psychology, their mental framework has changed. There are efforts should be to integrate them with new skills and lessoning the hazards of their work. That means improving the working conditions for them. Then the fourth level comes for the age group between 12 and 14 or 15. At that age, we should integrate the new skills with the existing work so that they can learn the new skill, improve upon it and earn more money. So I think these 4 or 5 levels, if you break down, then it is possible to do something.

National governments have realised the need to eliminate child labor. But state and regional authorities are often reluctant to move. And exception is the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, home of the match and firework industry, based in Sivakaski. Conditions there, says Gillian Wilcox of UNICEF, the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, are notorious.

It’s classified as a hazardous industry. There are lots of health risks, quite apart from the fact that children have to travel for each way to work, which means that they are out of their house from about 5 in the morning to about 10 o’clock at night. So, they don’t get much rest. The state government of Tamil Nadu is now in the process of implementing a 15-point program to eradicate children from the Sivakasi match and firework industry and, at the same time, phase in compulsory primary education. Now we believe in UNICEF that this is the key strategy to get children out of the workplace. You must get them into schools.

Primary education is still not compulsory in India or Pakistan. But Gillian Wilcox says it’s the key to eliminating child labor. After all, in North America and Europe in the 19th century, compulsory education got children out of the workplace and into classrooms. But Chanda Bose of the International Labor Organization says it’s not a question of passing a new act. At the moment, India’s population is growing so quickly that the government cannot build enough schools or find enough teachers.

Till we have them, to take the child and say, now you have to go to school. Your parents will be punished if you don’t, I think is perhaps not fair because you get them out. They have to go to school but there is no school. Then the parents are going to say, what was the point of all that? And they don’t listen to you a second time around.

Even when children have schools to attend, the buildings are often dilapidated, and teachers frequently are inadequately trained. So the International Labor Organization is organizing a pilot project to provide the best education possible to children who’ve escaped or been released from child labor. The emphasis, says Chanda Bose, is to provide special training to teachers, so that they can inculcate in these children a strong desire to learn.

Now, we have these schools and the idea is the children are taken out. They come to school between 9 and 4:30, given a kind of non-formal education and then a certain degree of vocational training. And at the end of 3 years, we hope – and we found that most of them do – mainstream into government schools, where they can continue their education. So the idea was that we would try and make certain interventions, which would improve the quality of these schools because, as I look it at, when you have something like child labor, which is centuries embedded in this country, to use a not so good education would not tackle the problem at all. It would be trying to lance it with a blunt knife. If you are going to lance something that deep rooted, it has to be a very sharp knife, which in my language means it must be the very best education that is available anywhere in the world. Now, on the other hand, we do have a problem with money. I mean it’s not there or not as much as we would like to have. Neither are we going to be in a position to set up beautiful airy classrooms and all the frills that go with education. But my 5 years in the field before I joined the ILO convinced me that it wasn’t the buildings that made a school. You needed to have good teachers because this is a very old tradition in India. One teacher, one really good teacher can change the whole scene. And that teacher could also perhaps make up for the lack of good quality materials.

But before getting child workers back into schools, communities need to be convinced of the importance of education. Joseph Gathia, who has approached several villages, says the greatest resistance comes from employers.

Based on rumors. If your son is going to school, what will he do in the school? And after the school he has to come back to me to work? So why to send him to school? Right now, why don’t you send him here? He will learn and grow a big worker. Then we took examples from the community. We said, look, what is your age? 24? Yes. Your name? Hassan. OK, Hassan, you are 24. But what age you started work? He says when I was 9 or 10. Have you learned any new skills in these 14 or 15 years? No, I am the same. So that is means the argument given by the employer, that your skill will increase that you will become very good skilled worker if you start very early. That is not true. He says, yes, it is not. So this is the way we were able to break the employer’s argument.

Even if parents and children are convinced of the benefits of education, children may still have to return to work because of the family’s economic situation.

Now, if the child goes back and helps his parents…as long as he gets an education, there is an option out for him. That’s all I want from education. That’s why I think we look upon it as such a critical thrust area because without education, there is no option. With education, if I can put a certain amount of that grit and determination and excitement into them, may be all the other constraining factors, all the other things that impinge upon him, will not drive him back to the market. It will keep him going.

Another weapon in the battle against child labor is international pressure. In the United States, the Harkin Bill, which is currently under discussion in the Senate, would ban the import of all products manufactured by children. The bill is expected to be passed within the next 6 months. Similar legislation is also pending in Germany and the European Parliament. Gillian Wilcox of UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, believes it could make a major dent in the number of working children, in one industry in particular.

In India, the major industry to be hit is the carpet industry. The carpet industry exports about 90-95% of its products go to export. Just over 30% go to the USA. Another equivalent figure of 30 to 32% goes to Germany. So if those two countries do enact this kind of legislation, it’s really going to hurt. The only way of saving the industry is if the number of child workers – and there are estimated to be about 300.000 child workers in the carpet industry in northern India, mainly boys, mainly working under conditions of bondage – if under the external pressures, the carpet industry can reform itself and we believe that it can, then we believe that it would provide an excellent model for the elimination of child labor in other industries. EB: How can the carpet industry reform itself? Well, it already is. The Harkin Bill has already been pending for at least 18 months, and employers, exporters have been getting together with a number of Indian NGOs, plus the Indian government. What is currently being developed is a logo, which will be given to exporters and manufacturers who are guaranteed to have child labor-free carpets. What will happen is that some body will be set up to which exporters will subscribe. This body will be authorized to carry out inspections and will issue the logo to exporters and manufacturers that produce carpets free of child labor.

Pressure may soon also be coming from another quarter. Nearly 80 Noble Prize laureates, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Desmond Tutu and Lech Wałęsa, have gotten together to fight child labor and other forms of child exploitation. They recently organized a panel in The Hague on the issue, which was chaired by the Dutch Noble Prize laureate, Simon van der Meer.

We propose the establishment of an organization, similar to Amnesty International to fight the exploitation of children and to inform the general public. The organization would support action groups and projects in countries where there are problems. The group’s main task would be to put pressure on international organizations, such as the United Nations and its agencies, as well as on the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. It would also get people to try to express their abhorrence of child exploitation.

Eliminating child labor will be no easy task. But Kailash Satyarthi of the Coalition on Child Servitude in Delhi says that unless India does, it will condemn future generations to bitter poverty.

For example, today, we have 55 million children working in India. Children in servitude, on the one hand. But on the other hand, the number of adult unemployed people is absolutely equal: 55 million. And it is not a coincidence.  We went back to 1947 when India obtained freedom, the number of children in servitude and the number of adult unemployed people was also equal. It was 10 million. And we have done the graph from 1947 to 1992, and the growth of unemployment among adults and the growth rate of child servitude is parallel. The children come only from those families where the parents don’t find jobs. So again, there’s a possibility that the children should get the jobs and the parents would remain jobless. And the parents will always remain jobless if the children would be preferred to work. If we allow 55 million children to work today in servitude, it means we are ensuring poverty for their whole life. It means we are ensuring poverty for 7 to 8% of the population of this country. Since 1947 to now, we have produced more than 300 million adult people who have passed through child servitude in their childhood. Now they are the liabilities on the society. They are sick people. Of course, poverty will never go without eliminating child labor and the child labor will not go without eliminating poverty. But child labor is the reason behind the poverty.

Despite the steps being taken to reduce child labor, non-governmental organizations fear that the problem will only increase in the coming years. Governments in the sub-continent as well as elsewhere are financially strapped by the debt-refinancing schemes proposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the huge amounts many countries spend on defense. As long as that’s the case, says Neera Burra, a child labor researcher, children will continue to have to work.

Only highly-oriented export industries or highly-oriented labor intensive industries – the carpet industry, the gem industry, the diamond industry. Now these are industries which provide export earnings. With the balance of payments situation being what it is, the rational is: look, unless we have money, we can’t provide for primary education. We can’t provide for health, we can’t provide for education, we can’t provide for anything.

This isn’t only an issue that concerns people in the developing world, says Joseph Gathia of the Center of Concern for Child Labor. It also affects industrialized countries.

We feel that if large number of today’s Asian, African children remain illiterate, they will be a threat to the developed world because an illiterate adult can be manipulated by the forces. But a literate adult can understand what is good and bad for him. And he can take decisions which will be good for democracy. Therefore, we feel that tackling the child labor issue is a development issue. It’s not simply a charity issue. It is a development issue. It is an issue related with the future of civil democratic society. If we do not tackle the child labor question and if the child, instead of being in school, being learning to decide what is good and what is bad in the long run, if he is only being an idea of earning, I’m just eating, which is an animal life. So if our children are only learning to eat and earn, the whole mentality is survival mentality. If there is only survival mentality, then when a dictatorship comes, democracy is in danger, they will say, why fight for democracy because I’m getting something to eat, and so eat and be quiet. Now this type of a mental blockage comes because right as a child, he has been suppressed. And therefore we have to fight this.

This one is an adult worker and working in the carpet industry. EB: OK, we have two young boys. How old are you? The name is same: Nuralem. Age, one is 15 years, the other is 18 years. EB: How long have you been working? When he was in the age of 4 years, he started working. EB: So he’s been working for 14 years?! Yeah. EB: In the carpet industry. In the carpet industry. EB: And you, how long have you been working? He started working at the age of 8 years. EB: 8 years, so he’s been working for 7 years now. What are working conditions like for you? Do they improve as you get older, as you earn more? Working condition is very bad. No ventilation system, no fan, no electricity and very dark. Also, when he don’t go to the work, employer come to house and asks why you not come. And they push him to come back to the work. EB: Are you tired at the end of the day? He feels pain in shoulders, back, backbone and wrist. He says he started work in childhood, so this work is easy and he like this work…because he don’t have any other option. So he likes this work.

“Children without dreams” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Rick Kingma. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.