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Tainted Garments

All those pretty little sequins and buttons on the garments you buy may have been sowed on by nimble-fingered children living right in the heart of Delhi

We often hear about the garment sector and its abuse of its workforce — extremely low wages, long working hours, coupled with less than humane working conditions. This report highlights how the same industry is employing children as labour to do their intricate work, preferring them over adults for their nimble fingers —and because many adults enjoy the power to rule over hapless employees.

What is also revealed is the shocking prevalence of child labour in Delhi. With the national capital being one of five garment production hubs in India, along with Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Tirupur/Coimbatore, the voracity with which the abuse can happen is extensive.

A study conducted by Save the Children, called The Hidden Workforce, has found that the number of children working in the garment industry in Delhi is an estimated 8,044 children spread over five districts.

The non-profit found that child labour is being engaged primarily for two broad categories of work: embroidery and embellishment. As many as 87% children working in Delhi’s apparel industry are doing this work in‘addas’, which are small household- based units. They also execute finishing tasks of a readymade garment before it is sent to showroom shelves, like cutting threads from a pair of jeans.
So, the next time one wears a beautifully embellished saree, or a pair of ripped jeans, you may want to give a thought to where the garment is coming from.

The fact is that residential locations are being preferred by owners of many small units as they can be easily converted into hidden spaces for informal cheap labour outside the purview of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation), Act, 1986 (CLPRA). With the Act not mentioning anything about working with family/family members, the sub-contractors and smaller factory owners find this the best way to get their work done cheap, without the danger of being caught and sentenced. Thus, one never knows which company is getting their clothes made by child labour.

With Delhi being one of the ‘industrial clusters’ of the garment industry because of the export concentration in the capital city, the abuse can be deep seeded. A recent rescue shows just that.

Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) on August 10 rescued 54 children in Alipur district in North Delhi — another recent rescue was carried out in Seelampur district. Of the 54 children found in jeans-making units, 34 were girls, all being tasked to put zips and buttons on the denim trousers.

The children were found to be working in inhuman conditions. All sharing one toilet, with lack of clean drinking water and food. One of the children had been made to work nine hours a day for the past few months, without a penny in payment.

Typically, the corporate entity which will buy and sell these jeans nationally and even internationally — even in this case — sub-contracts the work to a smaller enterprise. This means that the case filed targets only the smaller factory and not those that reap the benefits exponentially by selling these garments made by children. Director-programmes of Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Dr Sampurna Behura, tells us that this is unfortunate. “There are laws which can be implemented to hold them accountable” but while she says things aren’t great, Delhi’s situation is better than in other states of the country.

The NGO has rescued many children from zari and intricate work, and units preparing jeans. Out of the 87,000 children rescued by the organisation in the past 20 years, Behura says a majority have been removed directly or indirectly from the garment sector.

Ingrained labour
India is home to the largest number of child labourers in the world. The Census of India Survey 2011, Government of India (GoI) estimated 11.7 million children aged 5-14 years (4.5% of total children in this age group) to be working under hazardous occupations and processes as main and marginal workers.

The good news is that the census data reflects 7% reduction in child labour in India from 2001 to 2011. Similarly, the total number of child labourers in Delhi has also fallen by 7%, from 42,000 in 2001 to 39,000 in 2011. But use of child labour is still an ever-present reminder of the failure of the state.

While every sector has been found to use child labour, a large percentage of them are also working in the automobile industry, jewellery making units and food industry.

Formal factory inspections by the labour department are limited, says Save the Children. Brands need to improve and be transparent about their social audit methods and procedures, so that they are seen to be professional and rigorous. They should work closely with public labour inspection services to see how their systems can complement statutory inspection regimes.

Behura points out that the problem with labour inspectors lies in their attitude. “I have faced it many times where they say that the child is working, let him/her work because they are poor.” In a few cases, she even found that the inspectors did not know the current laws.

Poverty is often cited as an excuse to continue child labour: Behura says that the common thinking is that the family is poor and that’s why there is child labour. Contrary to this, she says, it’s the other way around: “It’s because there is child labour there is poverty”. Deprived of education, the children will grow up without any skills for the adult labour market, and continue to lead lives of deprivation.

Family in need
‘The Hidden Workforce’ study also points to the relation between migration patterns and those working in the garment industry. About 36% children had migrated from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

Trafficking and child labour invariably have a connection. The major sources of child labour in Delhi, as also Bengaluru, Chennai and other metro cities come from Bihar, UP, Odisha and Jharkhand, according to Behura.

Parents are promised that their children will be paid, get schooled and only work for a few hours of the day. But the reality is very different. BBA has seen that in most of the cases, parents aren’t aware of the abuse that the children are going through. Some get less than the promised wage, some don’t get paid regularly, and are overworked.

Children are however, many a times sent willingly by their parents because they are unable to feed another mouth or are in need of another source of income to sustain their families. One must also look at the minimum wages for adult workers and how the law is not implemented, leading to desperate parents making such decisions.

In the case of Rahul, who lives with his parents and seven elder siblings in Tughlaqabad Extension, South East Delhi, such is the story. The 11-year old was put into piece work (stone pasting) and tailoring, helping out his parents who did the same job.

While field workers intervened, the class 3 drop-out, due to the family’s poor financial condition, continues to work at home. His parents have not been able to send him to school despite counselling as it will deeply affect their income.

Whether in the organised sector or unorganised, child labour is a cognisable offence. Why should it still then go on? Many children in Delhi work in households and addas where children and adults at work are unrelated to each other.

Saeed Ahmed, Secretary at the non-profit Empowerment for Rehabilitation Academic & Health (EFRAH) says that he encounters child labour in most low-income groups. “The mothers will make their children work because they do the work faster.”

While they understand that making their children work and not giving them an education is ruining their future, Saeed says, they also speak about their own lack of income which they say they need a child to help cover.

In the case of smaller industries at least the deterrence should not just be legal, but also economic. Behura says attaching the property or filling a property for the rehabilitation of child labourers is very important. It will then deter the trafficker or the employer from committing the offense again.

Child labour not just causes poverty, but is also a consequence of poverty, forcing children to join the workforce — some even happier to help their family out than go to school and change their life’s outcome.

This only helps continue the cycle of poverty, ensuring that child labour remains an intrinsic part of the economic sphere of many families.