By Sujatha Fernandes
MADRAS — Across India, more than 40 million children work in industries making such products as bangles, fireworks, matches, carpets, glass, hosiery and leather. This figure is an underestimation, since child labour is largely invisible.
In fireworks, it was found that there were 5200 children, despite official claims that there was no child labour in this area. The children work under extremely poor conditions, crouched in dingy sheds meant for four but housing 12, not to mention the hazards of working with explosive chemicals. For a 12-hour day they earn Rs10 (40 cents). Because wages are piece rates, they work seven days a week.
In the match industry in Tamil Nadu alone, there are an estimated 65,908 child labourers, the majority of these young girls aged between 6 and 11.
Yet child labourers are starting to organise to reverse some of the deplorable conditions that they are forced to work in and eventually to end child labour altogether. In Madras in December, 1100 child labourers from all over India got together for the national convention of the Campaign Against Child Labour.
While the focus of the convention was the children, it was also attended by media, academics and representatives of organisations such as political parties who are working with these children.
By the end of the convention, the children had formulated a nine-point demand, the thrust of which was that the children wanted to be freed from labour in order to go to school and gain an education.
Among other things the children demanded access to schools "near our houses", free books and uniforms, an education "which is interesting", jobs for their parents to relieve them of their debt burdens, along with essentials such as food, water, electricity and health facilities.
Until such time, they demanded security and safety at work, and provision of residential schools, shelter homes and health facilities for those working away from home. The provision of creches and day-care centres for their younger siblings would also help, they said.
Employers, police and parents who beat and harass children must be severely punished, they said, and pleaded that "elders, teachers, parents and the government must do something to stop us from working and send us to school".
The children who attended this conference are mainly in the 6-11 age group, but are keen to be politically active. They are aware of the reasons for their plight and the wage differentials. They also possess strong organising abilities; as one child said, "We stick posters, distribute leaflets and shout zindabads (slogans)".