Working wiith children
  Nandana reddy

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IT was the summer of 1977. We, a small group of trade unionists, working with the informal, unorganised sector, were flush with the glow of victory. Having been a part of the underground movement during the state of Emergency in India, we had successfully contributed to restoring democracy. It was the dawn of a new era. There was optimism and hope with the coming to power of the first opposition government in India and we were involved in nation building of a different kind.

The discourse regarding the developmental path India should follow was, among others, around the Gandhi, Nehru and Lohia models, all indigenous, home-grown prototypes. We would have none of the foreign variety. The world was a different place then. Globalization was a distant murmur and UN agencies had a positive agenda. Civil society participation took on a new meaning. The power of people’s movements had proved significant – we could even bring down an authoritarian state! The new challenge was to protect democracy and make it participatory, ensuring the accountability of the state to its citizens at all times.

To meet this challenge we believed that we needed to strengthen people’s movements – be they trade unions, women’s movements, struggles of the poor or the homeless – beginning with the most marginalized. The creation of politically motivated social (people’s) organizations was a primary objective and we began with working children as they were one of the most vulnerable groups in society.

In our work with the working class we had encountered a large percentage of children in sectors such as street vendors, restaurants, recycling garbage and small scale industries. We embarked on this path with working children, carrying some of the principles that were integral to our work with the informal sector of labour and it has led us to a vision of the ‘big picture’ of participatory democracy suffused with the hues of equality and egalitarianism.

I remember the first public meeting I addressed in the Peenya industrial estate (then one of the largest industrial estates in South Asia), sharing the stage with stalwarts such as Michael Fernandes. Nervous because of my young age and inexperience, I noticed that the first ten rows of our audience were filled with little children, all clutching lunch boxes.

I was concerned and curious, but my colleagues dismissed this with ‘Children always come for the tamasha.’ I was not convinced and went down to talk to these children (9 to 17 years old) after the meeting and found that they were all working in the industrial estate. Four out of every ten had suffered an industrial accident – the loss of an eye, finger or hand. They were all enthusiastic about the formation of a trade union. They wanted nyaya or justice and were willing to fight for it.

My trade union colleagues advised me against taking up the issue of child labour, which they felt was sticky ground and a non issue. They felt that child workers reduced the bargaining power of adult workers (in some cases nearly 40%-60% of a workforce were children); they were not supposed to be there in the first place and took away jobs that could have been adult jobs. So the argument went! In practice, however, the situation was very different. The jobs that children did were not jobs that adults would do, certainly not adult males. They were the most menial chores – difficult, repetitive, often hazardous and demeaning.



From the perspective of working children, work was a means of survival. Recycling garbage gave instant employment to migrant children. If one was lucky to get a job in a technical or mechanical unit such as motor repair, tool making or garments, you learnt a trade/skill. For girls it was an escape from the drudgery of home chores, increased bargaining power at home and the possibility of postponing marriage. It was a backdoor entry into the formal sector; it provided a sense of dignity, self-worth, an identity and a sense of participation.1

The children became the most active members of the union. They led rallies, shouted slogans the loudest and attended every meeting, but as a trade union we could do very little for them. The formal sector, governed by legislation banning children below the age of 14 years, was silent on the issue of older children and the informal sector (not covered by legislation) did not provide any protection to child workers. The rationale being that here it was difficult to enforce legislation.

This was slippery ground for collective bargaining and the only recourse we had was to file criminal charges in the case of severe industrial accidents and leverage a settlement for the child. The children were disappointed with the results. Demands to improve working conditions or safety often resulted in their dismissal, a situation they described as ‘hitting us in the stomach where it hurts most.’ We were helpless. The legal environment provided no visibility for working children. By banning their work in the formal sector and providing no protection in the others, it was virtually ignoring this group of young workers, denying them their rights as children, even their right to survival through work. It was literally sweeping the issue under the carpet and hoping that it would somehow go away.



The children wanted to change this and so did we. We embarked on a parallel project to draft a bill for child labour. The children could not visualize a situation without poverty and approached the problem from the premise that their need to work was a given and would not change. Within this frame they asked for protection from harmful or hazardous work, equal wages for equal work, a medical insurance that was simple, access to education and vocational training and a career development fund that would mature when they turned 18 years instead of a provident fund.

We, on the other hand, viewed legislation as a tool to increase the visibility of child workers, provide them a platform for securing their rights through collective bargaining, and ensure that all initiatives were in their best interest. We also intended that the legislation would differentiate between work and labour, protect work and eliminate labour by providing viable and sustainable alternatives, and in the long term address basic causes. The draft bill integrated the two approaches.

Once the Child Labour – Prohibition, Regulation and Development Draft Bill was prepared, the children were keen to take the next logical step – of presenting this to the government and converting it into a legislation. We requested the chief minister of Karnataka, Ramakrishna Hegde to be present at a presentation.



As labour was a concurrent subject, the CM suggested that rather than working for a state legislation, it would be possible to try for a central legislation. With the help of Margaret Alva, the bill was presented to the parliamentary committee and the labour ministers conference. The broad premise of the draft was accepted and Sri Anjaya the Union labour minister constituted a committee to draft the government bill consisting of secretaries from the ministries of labour, education and parliamentary affairs and some of us, representatives of CWC.2 This result was an improved version of the draft as we had access to more information and resources, including constitutional and legal experts.

By the time the government bill was ready, Sri Sangma was the labour minister. The bill was discussed by the cabinet, mutilated and a very weak version finally passed by a joint session of Parliament. The major problem with the act was that it focused only on prohibition and regulation of child labour. The development component had been excluded and was left to be tackled by an action plan that was not mandatory. Child labour and work were not clearly defined and the alternatives for children working in hazardous occupations were neither comprehensive nor an improvement on their present situation.



However, this exercise helped generate a national debate on an issue otherwise neglected and ignored for decades. Many NGOs dedicated to child labour sprang up all over India and several research studies were conducted. The media began to focus on working children (though not always to their benefit) and numerous interventions were designed and implemented by state and national governments and supported by international agencies. Child workers gained an identity and the issue was placed on the national and international agenda.

The political environment in the late ’70s and early ’80s was conducive to bringing about change. Policy-makers and bureaucrats were more willing to listen. The agenda for India was a ‘democratic reconstruction’ based on the principles of human and fundamental rights, and people’s participation. Though on the child labour front we confronted general ignorance, it did evoke compassion, concern and curiosity. There was also the time and space to give it deep thought, examine situations and consequences and evolve sustainable solutions.

The emergence of a nuanced understanding of work and labour made possible an intelligent debate on the question of child work and child labour. Consequently it was recognized that certain work arenas were also learning arenas and contributed to a child’s education and these were actually good for children from all economic and social milieus.



As the Child Labour Act fell short of our expectation and was a disappointment for the children, we decided to practice what we preached, to intervene at a practical level and set up micro models that we could learn from and then upscale. The children decided to form their own union as they felt that their concerns differed from those of adult workers and to avoid conflicting interests. They launched Bhima Sangha in 1989. They also declared April 30, one day before May Day as Child Labour Day. They saw the right to organize as a means to alter their situation, improve the quality of their lives, and transform it from one where they were forced to work to one where they did not have to work. They wanted to move from being mere recipients to active participants in determining policies affecting them. They did not see it as just a means to improve working conditions.

Bhima Sangha was taken seriously. Soon they were in a position to negotiate with the state government, improve health care services for street children, move the location of ration shops to more convenient areas, demand schools and day care centres and grow forests. Bhima Sangha had arrived; child workers were respected, their organizations taken seriously.

We launched the Toofan Programme in 1995. Since then they have been interacting with local governments using their Makkala panchayats (children’s councils) as a base and through the tripartite task force’s that have been set up as link bodies. In several remote villages of South India a peaceful revolution gathered momentum. Children and young persons from extremely marginalized communities living in hierarchical, paternalistic and feudalistic communities were organizing themselves, participating in the planning of their own villages. They were gently but firmly breaking down caste and gender barriers. They were identifying their problems and negotiating solutions with their local governments. They began to write their history and actively influence their own destinies.



In December 1997 working children representing movements from three continents – Africa, Asia and Latin America – arrived in the small village of Kanyana, Kundapur on the west coast of South India for the first international meeting of working children. Working children’s movements with a long history of struggle in the defence of their rights and for recognition of political and social protagonism came together to share and discuss their concerns and pledge solidarity. This was initiated by the International Working Group on Child Labour, facilitated by the Concerned for Working Children and Bhima Sangha and supported by numerous organizations and individuals from around the world.

Children spent two weeks sharing experiences of work, organization and political action. They presented unified positions on the need to organize politically, to represent themselves and on the right to be consulted by planners at local, national and international levels. It was here that they formed the International Movement of Working Children and began to fight for their right to representation.

However, movements of working children immediately encountered ‘organized hostility’ at all levels. At the international level this was most apparent at the ILO conference organised by the Government of Netherlands. Eight child delegates from seven movements were invited, placed on an equal footing with adult delegates at the ILO conference.

The success that the children enjoyed in Amsterdam was short-lived. Soon there was organized resistance from the international trade union organizations – the British TU, the Scandinavian LOs, the FNV, the ICFTU and others. Though the International Movement of Working Children had been invited to the next ILO conference in Sweden, the invitation was withdrawn at the very last minute. The trade unions, who should have been working children’s natural allies, were the strongest opponents.



The International Working Group on Child Labour (IWGCL), set up by the Defence for Children International and the International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, was initially mandated to conduct studies in 36 countries and recommend strategies for solving the problems faced by working children. However, the IWGCL gradually began playing a proactive role in international advocacy and influencing policy on child labour and children’s rights. In partnership with the International Movement for Working Children it was recognized as a major player and grew to be a counter to the WTO. As the world social and political forum for working children it began to upset existing centres of power and threaten power relations.

By 1998 the IWGCL was a major player globally and children’s voices were being heard at all policy-making forums. It was becoming more difficult for strategies that were ‘anti-children’ to be passed. The powers that be were frustrated and after a lot of contrived manipulation the IWGCL was dismantled. Ironically, even the agencies expected to care for children’s rights supported this move as they realized that standing by the IWGCL would mean risking their funding bases and international status.

This was followed by very precise strategy of co-option. Trade unions lowered the age for membership to ‘youth wings’, creating a kind of child labour sub-group. Strong pressure was exerted on developing nations in the form of social sanctions, trade boycotts and labelling. International agencies began to tow the line and the US took control of the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) of the ILO. The dismantling of UN agencies was almost complete, further compounded by the introduction of structural adjustment by the WTO.



The world is now undergoing the third wave of global colonization, this time by multinational corporations, with economic institutions such as the IMF, WTO and WB growing stronger and pervading every nook and cranny of our public and personal lives. With the dismantling of social structures and contempt for indigenous knowledge and history, the removal of social nets and interference with natural cycles, globalization is changing the nature of land use and agriculture and sacrificing the rich culture and biodiversity of our planet. The new mantra of the present model of globalization is the wooing of the middle class. Commoditization and competition to capture a large chunk of the market are key words. Increasing purchasing power through provision of credit is the norm.

With the privatization of basic services such as education, energy, water, transport and telecommunications and reduction of peoples participation in the governance of common goods like forests, land, air, water, fuel, manure and forest produce, increase in urban poverty and the displacement of the poor, children have become the most vulnerable victims of this global war for ultimate resource control. This is a subtle form of genocide.



The WTO, WB, multinational corporations, even the ILO and some national governments have become the institutions of globalization, propagating a ‘development with a human face’ to sell their brand of colonization. This is more dangerous as we do not know what is behind the mask. Now the biggest threat to our children is a model of development that is being thrust on us – violent, dehumanised and out of sync with the natural order and masked with a ‘human face’. This is undermining a ‘humane model of development’ that evolved naturally between humankind and nature, maintained a natural balance and gave people control over their lives. With all the problems this might have entailed, it still maintained a respect and affection for the planet that provides us sustenance and sustained the self-esteem of the individual as a member of a community.

In the past few years we have witnessed several alarming trends in India. Fundamentalist forces have become more widespread with the active spearheading of communal violence and terror among the minority communities in the country. The government is promoting policies and programmes that involve compulsion and punitive action especially in the areas of child labour and education. Ignoring this reality we continue with our ‘raid, rescue and rehabilitation’ strategy to eliminate child labour, forcibly removing children from their work and putting them into ‘educational institutions’ that are non-existent or ill-prepared to receive them. On pointing out the plight of such children, we have often heard that ‘this is a sacrifice we have to make for development.’

On the whole, the attempt of government to invest the state with increased power and control succeeded to a fair extent. This has been a very troubled time for social action groups like the Concerned for Working Children (CWC), where the climate is not favourable for freedom of thought and democratic action. We find ourselves battling a new enemy.



In the past few years we have seen a trend to modify or blur definitions. There is no distinction between work and labour. In the child labour context, all work is seen as bad. Similarly, all education is good. Participation has come to be understood as only social or cultural and not political participation and so children’s participation equals dancing and singing at conferences, not voicing opinions. Now with the corporatization of education, learning is no more for the sake of knowledge but profit, and civil society organizations are seen as extensions of the state.

Never in the recent past have children been as vulnerable as they are now. This may seem a contradiction, since there are so many global and national initiatives related to child labour and education. However, many of these very programmes are responsible for this present situation. Though these programmes profess to uphold the rights of children, several of them violate them. The rounding up of ‘out of school’3 (working) children and forcing them into formal schools has resulted in illegal confinement, penalties, compulsion and unspeakable trauma for the children involved and their families. The state government claims that they have enrolled 2,50,000 children into formal schools, but after the first wave of enrolment only 20% have been retained. Working children are seeking employment in more and more invisible occupations. They have developed a fear of all government departments and their ‘surveys’ and now have a high level of distrust for any initiative that seeks to involve them.

The raid and rescue operations on child workers to comply with trade sanctions; the forcible enrolment into schools as a part of the compulsory education intervention; the refusal by ILO to recognize unions and movements of working children are illustrative of the attempts of the ‘powerful’ to silence the ‘weak’, in this case children.



The environment for a debate on child labour is now clouded by suppression of facts. There is a fear of admitting the existence of child workers. The subject evokes irritation, impatience and discomfort. Global pressure does not allow for the time and space to design sustainable solutions and the norm is ‘quick fix’ and ‘knee jerk’ reactions. Child labourers have been swept under the carpet, hidden and rotated in a time warp.

As for child workers, they cannot raise issues related to work or labour. They have no room for collective bargaining and no say in defining the alternatives or rehab package. So they confine themselves to raising only social and developmental concerns which are also community concerns.

What does work mean to children today? It means life, survival, the acquiring of skills, dignity and an identity. However, unlike the past it also means seclusion, isolation, discrimination, exploitation, oppression and annihilation (eradication). But amazingly, through all this the children have retained their sense of optimism and faith. They act on issues that confront them and not only know their problems but often the solutions as well. They continue to question the status quo and retain faith in the possibility of change. Above all, they believe that they have a right to participate in developing the solution.



Working children have initiated unions/movements, both regional networks and the International Movement of Working Children. They have their own newspapers, community radio/audio news programmes and carry out their own documentation. Bhima Sangha has undertaken campaigns and struggles against alcohol and drug abuse, child marriage, and developed and implemented drought prevention and management strategies. They have acquired the skills and tools to conduct surveys and PRAs. They engage in layered analysis to arrive at definitions and use sophisticated methods to prioritize issues. They even develop five year plans.

Here children are involved in taking decisions at the level of local government. Their two significant achievements are the creation of a ‘political space or forum’ to present their views and concerns and the setting up of a process and structure to practice true democracy.

It is often said that the stream of globalization cannot be stopped. Most people, even those who oppose it, seem to believe that the present model of globalization is here to stay. However, the Kundapur example shows that it is possible to challenge the very basis of globalization and centralized, undemocratic decision-making. Such processes can be a strong counter.



In the early days of the Panchayat Toofan programme in Kundapur, the then president of the panchayat and the Makkala Mitra, Sri Balanna, had asked the Department of Women and Child Welfare for an anganwadi. The department agreed but not at the suggested location. The president insisted, stating, ‘The children and the women have asked for the anganwadi where it will be most convenient and they are right. It is the children of our panchayat that need it, the place belongs to us and the programme is here to serve the needs of our children. If you are unable to meet their requirements we suggest you close down your other three anganwadi’s as well.’

Balanna had the courage to say ‘no’ to programmes that did not respond to the real needs of his people only because of the active and informed participation of children and thereby the whole community. Prior to the involvement of children and their participation in the governance of the panchayat, he had not understood the needs of the children of his village nor the courage to question the relevance of schemes thrust on him. Now he is confident that he, the panchayat with the help of the adults and children would be able to run the anganwadis without the support of the department.

These may be small beginnings but, as they say, little streams make an ocean. The present model of globalization can only be challenged this way, by such people and processes. The children of Kundapura taluk have shown the way and adults have been inspired to take up the challenge to struggle for true decentralization and participatory democracy.

Though the strengthening of civil society and citizen participation are catch phrases of democratic discourse in India, the nature of that civil society and the object of that participation are today being moulded by a specific interpretation of what it means to be a citizen in India, where civil society organizations are now seen as an extension of the state. The answer to this problem lies in the construction of a new definition of civil society, a highly participatory civil society filled with political content.



The children of Bhima Sangha and the Makkala panchayat have given ‘democracy’ and ‘civil society participation’ new meaning and revitalized their gram panchayats. They are proud, eager to contribute to the positive change of their communities and know that they have the ability to do so. These children are firmly rooted in their soil, closely woven into the Indian social and political fabric. They have become powerful agents of change. They are fighting the same battles as those fought by the working class and women’s movements. They face the same questions regarding their ability, intentions and integrity. They are struggling for the right of entry to political space. They are making tremendous sacrifices because this struggle means a lot to them.

In order to hear the voice of children, as also other marginalized groups, we need to struggle for a humane development model and not development with a human face.

There is a South African saying that ‘Until the lions have their own historians, history will be written by the hunters.’ What is needed is to enable children to write their own history and reshape society closer to their vision of a better world.



1. This discourse did not include hazardous work done by children; on that question there was unanimity. Children should not perform any work that was detrimental to their normal growth and development and should be provided safe and improved alternatives that were in their best interest. However, they had to be a party to developing the solution and in agreement with it.

2. The Concerned for Working Children (CWC).

3. To implement the laws related to child labour the labour department has been conducting raids and rounding up working children. For more details see our website: