In the last two decades, enormous sums of money, more perhaps than has been earned by all the child workers of South Asia put together in the corresponding period, have been channelled into the enterprise of mitigating and eventually eliminating the practice. After all these years and despite all that money, there is little indication of any progress.
Missionary enthusiasm, moral vehemence and financial commitment have clearly not sufficed, and so, far from eliminating the practice, the number of working children has actually increased. It remains a moot and ultimately unverifiable point whether the rate of growth of child employment has come down or not. The abysmal inadequacy of the statistical record renders that an idle speculation. What matters simply is that the total numbers have increased and continue to increase. Clearly, the sweeping objective of completely eliminating all forms of child labour was based on too many virtuous presumptions, untouched by real circumstances, to ever rise above empty rhetoric.
But this rhetoric at least had the merit of possessing a moral veneer, unlike the general attitude of cynical acceptance of the economic factors animating the demand for and supply of child labour. Too many million childhoods have disappeared through this crack between the gratuitous sermonising of clueless bleeding hearts and the vulgar pragmatism of hard faced utilitarians.
In recent years, a mime realistic perspective that lies somewhere between the normative and pragmatic extremes has emerged. This new realism does recognise the econonic compulsions behind the origin and persistence of the problem and accordingly calibrates its forms, and hence the degrees of permissible tolerance, on a scale that ranges from the benign to the brutal. But this compromise between the moral and the practical extremes has entailed its own set of undesirable consequences.
The problem of child labour has been sliced up into its parts, designated according to the nature of work and the intensity of exploitation and, at the level of multilateral intervention, the search for solutions has been distributed among the different agencies in tune with their respective mandates. Thus there are now different categories of child labour stretching from the worst forms of child labour, which demand immediate attention, to the more benign forms which do not, and perhaps may never, receive the same attention.
Consequently, the focus, especially among influential multilateral agencies such as the International Labour Organisation, has been concentrated almost exclusively on the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, notably those involving hazardous industries. The legal spotlight has therefore been wholly restricted to the prohibition of child work in the manufacturing sector, though without much success. In some quarters at least, the energy for this particular campaign has been fuelled by the Western corporate demand for parity in international labour standards.
But whatever the reasons, and notwithstanding the extremely limited relief that the law has provided, this campaign has certainly drawn attention to the plight of children working in hazardous industries, who tend to age prematurely and die in their youth. Its impact is evident from the incipient tendency among middle class consumers to boycott the products made by the labour of children. A notable example of this is the receptivity to the Delhi government’s campaign against Diwali firecrackers, which is pitched on the platforms of pollution and child labour.
The problem however is that the amplified campaign against the worst forms of child labour has distracted attention from an invisible class of children which figures neither in the law nor in the consciousness of the public at large, which has no globally influential patrons, witting or unwitting, and about which nothing will be done in a hurry. These are the child domestic workers of the Subcontinent, the sacrifice of whose collective future is sanctified by the higher necessity of keeping in order the domestic arrangements of, among others, the very people who lead the campaign against the worst forms of child labour.
Compared to the visibly appalling conditions of work in hazardous industries, domestic work has the appearance of being a benign form of labour. But the very act of making a distinction between the worst form and other forms is also simultaneously an act of calibrating the moral disposition of the different categories of employers. As a description of the actual extent of exploitation and abuse of children under the different regimes of labour it is meaningless, based as it is on assumptions that have little basis in sociological fact.
The lenience towards child domestic work, for instance, is based on a widely held myth, encouraged by shoddy liberal thinking, about the civic and filial virtues of the urban middle class, a large and diffuse section of which employs children to fulfil the labour requirements of the household. This is a socially and economically defining class in more than one sense. The professionals who dominate public discussion, define social problems, formulate policy and implement decisions are drawn from this class.
A class that commands the public sphere and advertises its own urbane civility can scarcely be expected to equate itself with the mofussil business class which exploits the labour of children in such a public fashion. Nor for that matter is it likely to undermine the basis of the cheap labour it uses by acknowledging facts publicly. This is where the problems of child domestic labour begin.
The worst forms of child labour typically involve a relatively small segment of the provincial entrepreneurial community. The conscience of the urban educated classes is easily stirred and just as easily assuaged by more or less token legislative measures that are considered an adequate index of how aghast everyone is at the idea of children being put to such debilitating work. Here the entire process from the employment, the exploitation, the physical injury and the enlightened litanies of outrage are very public.
By contrast, domestic labour and what it is subject to is a characteristically clandestine and concealed phenomenon, precisely because it is in the hands of the class that not only invented and refined the modern idea of privacy, but also commands the public sphere for its own self-serving ends. This is among the principal reasons why child domestic labour will never acquire the status of an urgent problem to be abolished completely. Instead, it will retain the status of a temperate form of labour, a regrettable necessity, ie a necessity for the impoverished families who eagerly send their children for labour to the lasting regret of the affluent middle class families which reluctantly hire them.
This is the clinching argument that reconciles the private exploitation of children with the public affirmation of the rights of the child, the legal equality of all human beings and the sundry other abstract clichés that the liberal middle class repeats ad nauseam. The moral paradox is sublimated into a civic virtue. The middle class home, which has the reputation of being the fundamental social unit for the reproduction of family values and the nurturing of children to adulthood and independence, is therefore seen to be the refuge of the destitute child. Child labour by this token is not the consumption of labour by the affluent but an act of magnanimity to the poor for which they ought be grateful.
Condescension being the pervasive attitude, and privacy being the hallmark of the nuclear family, very little of the actual conditions of labouring minors ever becomes public. It is as well kept a secret as domestic violence, which as it turns out is a far more common private pastime of the urban middle class than its public posturing would lead us to believe. Admittedly, the conditions and consequences of work in hazardous industries are invariant and uniform for all employees whereas in domestic labour the degree of exploitation will vary from employer to employer. It will not be unreasonable to suggest that child domestic work partakes of many of the features of work in hazardous industries and in the child sex trade – the only difference is that in domestic work there is a greater dispersal and variability in incidence. But this dilution of incidence is not necessarily a guarantee against permanent debility, as so many stories that have come to light of maltreatment of child domestics within the confines of the middle class home testify.
When the middle class carries its feudal attitude to labour beyond all limits, the veil of privacy parts to reveal the scandal of the abused child. Instances of suicide, homicide, disfiguring, sexual abuse and other gross infringements have periodically trickled out, inviting attention to what actually goes on in the private universe of the nuclear family. Domestic work could potentially be among the worst forms of child labour and random interactions with children working in some of the major metropolitan cities of the Subcontinent suggest that it is a problem that is no less serious than the recognised worst forms, and the treatment meted out is often both psychologically and physically damaging.
Pushpa and Sunil
One of the primary problems is that children working as domestics, separated from home at a formative age, find themselves trapped without social or psychological definition in a legally and morally undefined relationship of work that belongs neither to the family nor the formal contractual workplace. This results in an extraordinary level of exploitation, and evokes in the child a range of sentiments and emotions as a routine technique of human resource management.
For Pushpa, an 11-year-old living and working in a house in suburban Calcutta, the rudimentary moral, emotional and mental resources that she accumulated in her life of eight years in her parents’ home in the 24 Pargana district of West Bengal, cannot help her cope with any part of the job she has been doing for the last three years, including the very uncertain and capricious relationship her employers chose to have with her. And she has not acquired any new psychological resources in the three years she has been living with her employers, precisely because of the unpredictability of their behaviour towards her. The only constant she knows is the lack of pattern in her life.
Sometimes when there are guests at home, they call Pushpa their daughter and lie through their teeth of the things they have done for her, just as they lied to the police once about the theft of things they never had in the robbery that never took place. They had asked her to lie to the police about noises in the night that she had not heard. On that occasion, they had been pleased with her and called her a dutiful daughter. But when Pushpa lied about the missing pastry from the fridge that hunger drove her to eat, she was beaten black and blue for thieving and lying, before being told how lucky she was to be living in a comfortable house, away from the misery of her good-for-nothing parents. Pushpa does not understand that the urban middle class must bear the burden of its pretences as lightly as possible and lying in public is part of the just life.
Pushpa has difficulty explaining her confusion. At her parents’ house there was no need to steal anything. Unlike her employers, her parents never demanded any gratitude for the little they were able to give her. She does not have the mental resources to comprehend why her new ‘parents’ can eat at all hours of the day while she has to make do with the morsels she is handed out twice a day. And what she gets to eat here in Calcutta is far less than what her parents were able to provide. Pushpa only knows that to be a ‘daughter’ now means to be perpetually hungry.
Pushpa’s life, barring some minor details, is not very different from Sunil’s. But Sunil’s memories are different from hers. 12-year-old Sunil lives on the fifth floor of an east Delhi apartment block. He does not know it is east Delhi. In the four years he has lived there he has never been out of the house, except once when his uncle had come to take him home to Dhanbad for two weeks. He works for a middle-aged couple. There is an old woman in the house, the mother of the man. The man’s wife is out for a large part of the day. About the man, he knows very little, except that he comes home very drunk late in the night. For Sunil, that is as it should be. He has seen his own father do that everyday.
His employers do not talk to him very much except to issue curt orders. But the husband and wife fight all the time, and when guests come everyone joins in the shouting. Sunil’s employers are prominent journalists, but he does not know that. They believe in market forces and the freedom of speech, about which also he knows nothing. Not that asking would help, because Sunil really does not know much about speech. For four years, he has lived practically in silence. Back in Dhanbad, he at least had a language and he could speak and roam freely. Now, trapped among the freedom-loving bourgeoisie he has spent the last four years of his life in the two-by-six balcony of a fifth floor apartment. On the balcony there is an old cupboard. He sleeps on the third shelf of this cupboard. In winter he sleeps with the cupboard door shut.
Sunil’s main job is to keep company for the old woman of the house. He has been trained to answer the phone in the absence of his employers. He sits on the balcony in his spare time, smiles a lot and talks to himself in the telephonic mode. It is very civil but tedious as he repeats the same lines endlessly. Below, children shout at each other as they play. Inside, the old woman broods and prays. Sometimes a young woman comes to the house and sits with the old lady. The two of them talk at length and he sits on the floor and listens. There is the odd word he can understand. When the old woman is through with speaking, the visitor leaves after collecting some money.
He does not know that the old woman is trying to buy her way out of loneliness. Some months ago, the visitor stopped coming. One day a few weeks ago, when he was on the balcony in the middle of a polite telephonic conversation with himself, the old woman came with a stool, placed it on the floor, stood on it and flung herself over the railing. There was a hue and cry in the house for many days. He could not understand what the fuss was all about. Some years ago his elder brother who worked at the factory was brought home in a mangled heap. His parents had put the body inside a pile of wood and burnt him without a word. There was no commotion then.
Some things have changed since the old lady died. He does not really need to answer the phone. His employers have phones they carry about with them. Now he has only himself to talk to. Even the solace of strangers has been taken away.
Ranjit, Meena and Anil
While child domestics all over are pushed to the extremes of their physical abilities, Pushpa and Sunil have also been mentally tortured. They are being gradually desocialised and rendered unfit for anything other than taking orders. The poverty of their homes may have impeded the development of their physiological and psychological resources, but in the new environment where they only witness affluence without experiencing it, their natural cerebral capacities have actually atrophied. The problem is that there are no laws to cognise the mental disintegration of a human being as a crime.
Even if it is granted that gruesome practices of this kind constitute a grey zone in which legal provisions are not easily applicable, surely there cannot be any explanation for why families from the professional stratum are allowed to get away with violations of a physical nature that lie within the ambit of ordinary criminal laws. Ranjit is a street kid in Calcutta. He has been hanging out for the last few years with a gang of kids near a garbage heap outside a hotel. He denies taking drugs, but external evidence suggests otherwise. Ranjit is 14 years old and hails from a village near Ranchi. Five years ago he was brought to Calcutta by his former employer, an unmarried man in his 30s.
For Ranjit, the new life was comfortable for a couple of weeks. He had enough to eat, the work was not too demanding, he could watch television through the day, and he could chat from the balcony with the boy who worked next door. Apart from cleaning the small flat, he only had to serve a light breakfast and dinner to his employer. But he ran away after six months because the nights had begun to get excruciatingly painful. His employer often had a guest who stayed the night at the house. About two weeks after he had been installed in the new house, the employer and his friend began to make nightly visits to his room and make all manner of sexual demands. Ranjit did not know what was going on. Unable to bear the pain and humiliation he ran away early one morning. Not knowing how to get back to Ranchi, he hung about and gradually learnt the ways of the street.
If Ranjit had an exit option, bad as it may have been, Meena, a 12-year-old in an affluent locality in Kathmandu, suffers her lot without even the capacity to be angry. She lives with her employers on the ground floor of a two-storey building which they own. She shows no outward sign of physical abuse but in many ways she is not real. During the day, her employers leave for work and she is locked out of the house and left to her own devices in the compound that she is not allowed to leave. She has in the last many years not spoken to anybody her age. She does not know the name or location of her village, nor even where she currently lives. Meena has not seen her family since she came to Kathmandu four years ago. Her parents are too poor to come to Kathmandu to fetch her, and her employers are too parsimonious to take her to them. They are also fearful of losing someone who they have practically converted into a slave.
To battle her loneliness, Meena lurks about near the gate and befriends strangers on the road. She and the dog of the house are given the same food, which she cooks for three days at a time. And at night, the son of the house repeatedly molests her whenever he comes to stay. Sometimes he lends her to the middle-aged British tenant on the upper floor. She does not know how to be angry, so she cries to the dog. Her mannerisms have become strange and do not belong to any of the normal categories of growing children. She calls the dog her younger brother and of late has begun to mimic its ways.
Having already been beaten by her employers and called a whore for telling them about their son and the tenant, Meena does not want to discuss the nature of the sexual assaults on her at any length. Among other things, she fears that her dai (elder brother) who molests her will get into trouble with the police. She does not know about the Children’s Act of 1992. Even if she did, it would not matter much, because this act does not offer her any protection since it takes no cognisance of child domestics. And now, after all these months she is not even certain whether what is being done to her is wrong, or whether it is simply part of her duties as a domestic worker. She is inclined to believe the latter. On the other hand, she does not know what to do about the persistent pain in her abdomen.
Meena has spoken about it now and then to Anil, the boy who works in the even bigger house next door. But Anil could not care less. He has problems of his own. His main problem is that he cannot even see Meena very well. He does not really know what she looks like. In fact, he no longer knows what most things look like. He is 14 years old but looks like he is eight. He works for a middle-age woman who lives alone, except when her husband visits from India, where he works for most of the year. The husband is a brute, while the woman is very mild in her manners. But there is little difference in the way they both treat Anil. If anything, the mild mannered woman is the cause of his plight.
Anil is allowed less than six hours of sleep and he works for close to 18. All he is fed is a handful of chiura (pounded rice) and tea in the morning, followed by another handful about 16 hours later. He must wake up by half past four to prepare the house for the woman’s morning worship ritual and carry on through the day till about 11 pm, when he retires after washing dishes at the tap in the back garden, even on freezing winter nights. He must last the entire day on the meagre rations of chiura and tea. Anil, naturally, suffers from various ailments related to vitamin deficiency. Mostly importantly, the lack of Vitamin A has affected his eyesight. He bumps into things when he moves and has begun to peer like an old man. When he is despondent, he sits on the terrace and flings stones at where he knows the water pipe is. It makes a ‘metallic’ sound on the rare occasion that he hits the target.
The young man knows he is going blind and he also knows that nothing can be done about it unless the woman who worships the idols of her pantheon without fail at the crack of dawn mends her ways. She claims that she took him to a doctor who told her he would get better in another three years. Some well-meaning students who live nearby sneaked him off to an eye doctor who assured them that the boy would shortly go blind if his diet did not improve. The students have informed Anil’s employer but she is adamant that the boy’s illness has nothing to do with his diet or her attitude. And she claims that she feeds the boy what she herself eats. Whatever her claims, the fact of the matter is that Anil will be blind by the time he is 15. Perhaps he would have had a fighting chance if he had stayed on in his village. Instead his parents had pinned their hopes on the woman from Kathmandu.
Anil’s story is tragic but there may still be a glimmer of hope for him. His life at least is not yet over, unlike Rehana’s. For some years, Rehana was one of the 300,000 child domestic workers in Dhaka. One day more than two years ago she was beaten to death by her employer, who was briefly arrested and soon let out on bail. Rehana died without telling her truth, so nobody will ever know what happened to her. Her tale of misery cannot be recounted, and it is not possible to provide any detail. Some life stories can at least be partly chronicled but there are many million others that will forever remain untold, a mass tragedy that emanates from the middle class households all over South Asia, which keep and exploit child domestics. For, every individual child worker bears the burden of some tragedy which makes him or her a labourer before reaching adulthood. And behind all child domestics are the multiple tragedies that their families suffer, the inescapable compulsions that make them send their sons and daughters to join well-to-do families in the city, in the hope that they will be fed, clothed and treated with a little bit kindness for the labour that they provide. Much of the time, these expectations are not met.
Chinks in the armour
Child domestic labour is not an independent variable to be tackled in isolation. The fact of child labour arises from the larger macroeconomic conditions that affect different families in different ways. But the realities of child domestic work are almost entirely a result of the attitudes that prevail in the private world of the urban middle class family. This is why, despite the peculiarly perverse practices that go on inside this private world, child domestic labour still retains the potential of being a beneficial arrangement for children who live in poverty.
No amount of strenuous effort can transform a hazardous industry into the site of a superior form of production, and no degree of reform can ease the life of a child sex worker. The problem in those instances lies in the unalterable nature of the work itself. On the other hand, in domestic work, the hazard does not lie in the nature of the work but in the attitude of the employer. Therefore, by simply tapping into the existing moral resources of the middle class family, child domestic work can actually be transformed into an honest barter, in which poverty trades its labour for the possibility of a slightly better future. This does not call for any deep structural change. If the urban middle class can be made to practise the cant of welfare that it spouts to justify child domestic work, the problem is automatically solved.
The middle class rears its own children to succeed in life. But it does not extend the conditions in which it raises its own children to the children of others who labour in their households. It only takes a small attitudinal change for child domestic workers to be brought within the benevolence of the affluent home. This means integrating the child worker into the employing family’s paradigm of moral obligations. It is, of course, true that even small degrees of attitudinal change are hard to effect, particularly when it comes to the prevailing attitude to labour in the region.
There is obviously no guaranteed system of changing a social attitude, but it is still possible to identify certain approaches to the problem that may well pay off over time. But for that, it is necessary to first identify the chinks in the middle class armour. Apart from being a glutinously self-righteous class, it has a propensity for certain well-defined activities that can be exploited for the purposes of reorienting the relationship between the employer and the employee into as equal an arrangement as the circumstances will permit. At least two plausible arenas of intervention suggest themselves.
It is a sociologically certified tragedy that this class and its offspring are notorious consumers of entertainment, particularly television. The more they are bombarded with a television truth the more they tend to be influenced by it. In the present mix of entertainment programming, practically everything that is screened on television deals with the cares, concerns and the trivia of affluent existence, presenting among other things, caricatured depictions of the ‘servant class’ that pass for humour. Such programmes are also careful not to show children working in the houses of the affluent.
If there has to be a change in attitude, imaginative programming pitched in different ways at different age groups and showing the realities of domestic work by children in well-to-do houses is a necessary first step. This does not necessarily mean making gloomy programmes about domestic child labour. It is about devising creative ways of seamlessly weaving the dismal realities of the child domestic into programmes that otherwise concentrate on themes that appeal to middle class audiences. In particular, it is worthwhile to win over middle class children who are constant witnesses to the discriminatory practices that go on under the roofs of their homes, and who can be made to question such practices rather easily. The success of the Delhi government’s campaign against firecrackers is because of precisely this constituency. Without neutralising the existing trends in television programming there can be absolutely no way of penetrating the middle class consciousness in a way that the world of hundreds of thousands of child domestics can be improved beyond token gestures.
Such subtle media campaigns must also be accompanied by other measures that can free ride on existing institutional practices. For instance, there is the entire arena of fiscal policy. In robust social democracies, fiscal policies have a strong family orientation that is designed to ensure the welfare of future generations without compromising the current labour requirements of these societies. States in South Asia have historically been unable, and in more recent times been forbidden by international mandate, to introduce or sustain systematic social welfare. The only feasible approach in the circumstances is to campaign for appropriate fiscal incentives.
This is where the other notorious failing of the South Asian middle class, viz tax default, can be suitably exploited. There is little point providing conditional tax relief to people who in any case will default. Instead, the conditionalities should be added to the routine mechanisms that finance ministries have devised to garner some revenue from evaded tax. Every so many years, general amnesty is offered to tax violators who declare their illegal incomes and pay a flat percentage as tax.
Since this kind of conversion of illegal incomes to legal incomes happens anyway, it can be put to good use in the campaign to regulate the conditions of child domestic work. Proof of the fair treatment of employed children, ie evidence of their schooling, their medical insurance, their bank balance, their medically certified nutritional status, and so on could be made a condition for such routine measures that are designed to dilute the effects of fiscal violation. When the state writes off their fiscal guilt the affluent classes can also simultaneously write off their social guilt.
But if this is to succeed, there must be a clear recognition of some very basic facts. The middle class will not bear the burden of the child’s welfare unless the facilitating circumstances are made available. This will necessarily entail, among others, the setting up of non-formal schools for working children and subsidised medical facilities. This is where the commitment of the multilateral agencies will be tested. The Washington Consensus, that unilateral agenda of the Fund-Bank, does not favour non-productive expenditures which place additional pressure on the fiscal deficit. Many of the multilateral agencies, like the United Nations Development Programme, have themselves become converts to this cause. Their real commitment to the welfare of working children depends on their capacity to reinstate the agenda of social expenditure and not on the frequency and shrillness with which they mouth clichés about strengthening civil society and forging social partnerships with the private sector.
If the normative prescriptions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) are to be treated seriously, it is necessary to get away from the flippant attitude that has come to dominate ‘development’. Development professionals now speak the language of privatisation with the mindless zeal of fanatics. If they are earnest, then it is time to get real. IMF orthodoxies are not very child-friendly. And merely carrying out media programmes about the cruelty of child labour will not suffice. Everyone knows that already.
This focus on child domestic labour was written with inputs from Afsan Chowdhury (Dhaka), Mitu Varma (New Delhi), Rajashri Dasgupta (Calcutta) and Samden Sherpa (Kathmandu), as well as from the UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia.