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Child labour in India

Recently a number of UK retailers have been caught sourcing garments from suppliers involved with child labour. The clothing sector is a large employer of child workers, who number 215 million worldwide according to the latest report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Since an estimated 70% of these children work in the countryside, they are not always easy to trace.

A new study by the risk analysis firm Maplecroft highlights the risks suppliers face by sourcing products from certain countries. The study ranks 196 countries and shows 12 emerging economies with the highest child labour rates. These countries, which include Bangladesh, India, Nigeria and Pakistan, pose an ‘extreme risk’ to retailers that somewhere along the supply chain child workers will have been used.

Of the fastest growing and largest emerging markets, India has the worst ranking, scoring zero for the scale of its child labour problem. Government statistics report 16.4 million child workers in India, but international estimates put the number between 55 to 100 million children.  However, not all forms of child labour are the same, with working conditions and hours better for some than others. In the Asia-Pacific region, it is estimated that less than 6 per cent of children are engaged in hazardous work (compared to 15 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa). Many Indian children are involved in agriculture, which employs 236 million of the 370 million informal economy workers. Since 25 per cent of the rural population are below the poverty line (according to government statistics), it is hardly surprising households rely on the extra help and income from working children to feed the whole family.

India has enacted laws and set up many programmes and initiatives to withdraw children from the worst labour abuses. In 1976, India was the first country in the South Asian region to enact legislation against bonded child labour and in 1986, introduced the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act, which states children under fourteen cannot be employed in occupations deemed hazardous. More recently, in 2006, India banned child labour for domestic purposes and in the hospitality sector.

But the scale of the task facing India is a daunting one. Aid organisations believe the best way to solve the problem of child labour is to end the poverty which forces children to work. Free and compulsory primary education is also a key component, allowing children to acquire basic skills which can lift them out of poverty. Currently India devotes roughly the same proportion of its national income to education (approximately 3.5 per cent) as it did in the mid 1980s. However, one state has shown that with better investment in education (as well as in land reform, food security and health), child labour can be tackled effectively. The State of Kerala, founded in 1956, has consistently spent a much higher proportion of its income on education (around 35 per cent since the 1960s). Kerala now has extremely low child labour rates and the state has achieved universal literacy. Kerala therefore stands as an example to the whole of India that with determination and proper investment, solutions to the problem of child labour can be found.

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