Minister of State for Labour and Employment Bandaru Dattatreya calls it a historic step. The Union Cabinet has finally cleared the 2012 Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, which for the first time bans employment of children below the age of 14 years in all occupations and processes to facilitate their enrolment in schools. The Bill prohibits employment of adolescents (age bracket of 15 to 18) in hazardous occupations and processes. It also regulates the conditions of service of adolescents in line with the International Labour Organization conventions.
Amidst all the congratulatory messages, Shram Shakti Bhawan in New Delhi, which houses the labour ministry, has also come under fire for some provisions in the Bill. For instance, it has been clearly stated in the Bill that there would be no bar on children helping their families - after school hours and during vacations - in fields, home-based work and forest gathering. This clause lends itself to misuse, say critics. On May 13, after the Bill was cleared by the Cabinet, Business Today met Dattatreya to get a perspective on the government's plans to combat child labour, given the blurring lines between 'helping' the family at home and 'working' and mechanisms to monitor it. Edited excerpts:
BT: The Cabinet has cleared the Amendment Bill?
Dattatreya: Today, the Cabinet has cleared the Amendment Bill. It is a historic step. Earlier, there were certain professions and occupations where child labour was allowed. Now, under 14 years, it is totally prohibited. Those above 15 years cannot work in hazardous areas. Also, children will not be allowed to work with family members in hazardous industries. In non-hazardous areas, after school hours, they can help their family. For family members, there is no cognizable offence and their first offence is pardoned. For the second offence, they can be fined Rs 10,000. However, for the employers we have stringent mechanisms in place. For the employer, first offence is six months to two years imprisonment and second offence is one to three years imprisonment. Penalty has been increased from Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000. And, for the first time in this Bill, a rehabilitation fund, Child Welfare Fund, is also provided. It will be used for rehabilitation of the rescued children. Our basic purpose is to safeguard the childhood of every child in the country and to see that they go to school.
BT: Why do you call it historic?
Dattatreya: It is historic on account of two reasons. Total ban till the age of 14, and the relaxation given to parents if children are helping them at home. If a child is working in his own home and if the parent is imprisoned for that, what will the situation be like? If parents are sent to the jail, what will happen to the children?
BT: Given India's socio-economic realities, is the under 14 ban a solution?
DattatreyaIn line with the Right to Education, a child has to go to school. After school, he can work for up to two to three hours in home-based enterprises or help his parents. As long as the children work after school hours or during vacation in a job which is not detrimental to their physical and mental health there is no ban on work.
BT: How can the government monitor that the child is only working for two to three hours after school and not eight hours?
Dattatreya: That we cannot monitor. And monitoring it will lead to more complications. That's why, to ease it out, we want awareness among parents about educating their children. We want NGOs and the society to play a constructive role in spreading this awareness.
BT: In the Bill, children are allowed to work at home and help their parents. A lot of children are, anyway, working at home and not in factories. Do we have a mechanism in place to check if the children are just helping parents or are bread earners?
Dattatreya: It is a very serious concern and children are exploited. To curb this exploitation, state governments have to be involved more. Presently, labour departments were involved in the enforcement of the Child Labour Act. Since the labour inspectors have a limited jurisdiction for effective implementation of the Act, involvement of the district administrative machinery is important. More powers will be given to district magistrates. District magistrates, labour inspectors and state officials will have to work in tandem on this. That is why in segments where much of child labour is involved - textiles, carpets, handicrafts - implementation will be the key. Wherever a child is seen working, he should be freed. District magistrates and labour inspectors should free child labour. Stringent action should be taken. Second step is to create awareness through NGOs and third is to have child labour rehabilitation centres. These centres will give training and also provide employment. Formal education will not be given in these centres, but skills will be imparted, vocational training will be provided.
BT: With a big thrust on Make in India, how does the government plan to deal with child labour in the unorganised space?
Dattatreya: In the unorganised space - mostly construction workers, bidi workers, households, handicraft - we should make sure that more skills should be imparted. We want that children who have completed standards eight, nine and 10 should be given onsite training. After completing eighth standard, they should not be waiting for three to four years for training in ITIs (Industrial Training Institutes), therefore onsite training becomes important. We also plan to provide a stipend to them. This combination of a prior learning scheme which will include 100 to 200 hours training and a stipend of Rs 35 per hour will be very beneficial for the child, as he will not lose his wages and at the same time he will get requisite training. Also, after getting the necessary training his wage will automatically increase. For instance, if today he is getting Rs 200, after acquiring the skills he can get Rs 350 to Rs 400. Be it the electrician, plumber, radio and cellphone mechanics - all these are major areas with more employment opportunities, but there are no skills. There is a huge workforce, but without adequate skills. If proper skills are provided then automatically employment generation will pick up. About 93 per cent of our workforce is in the unorganised space and this workforce should be trained and made into skilled labour.
BT: How will the Apprentice (Amendment) Bill work in this scenario? It sets the minimum age for becoming an apprentice at 14 years.
Dattatreya: The Act sets the minimum age for being an apprentice at 14 years and the Bill adds that the minimum age of apprenticeship in hazardous industries will be 18 years. In the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) regime, 2.28 lakh people were trained under the Act. Now, we have made a provision that in the coming two years we will give training to up to 20 lakh people. We also have increased the stipend from Rs 2,600 to Rs 5,000. The MSMEs (micro, small and medium enterprises) will give 50 per cent stipend and we will give 50 per cent subsidy. The Apprentice Amendment Bill is a very big step. With this, a large number of trainees will join the workforce and they will be more responsive to the needs of the industry as they will get need-based training.