Monday, December 11, 2006

Misery goes on for India child workers

Renu Agal:

Shanta looks like any other six-year-old, except there is an open wound on her head, her hands are swollen, chapped and grey and she can barely walk.

She is the youngest of the three little girls aged six to 13 years who were rescued last month from Faridabad in the state of Haryana.

Badly beaten and bruised, the girls all worked as domestic helps just a few miles away from India's capital, Delhi.

In October, the government enacted a law banning children under 14 from working as domestic servants, at teashops, food stalls, restaurants, hotels or in the hospitality industry.

What has baffled many is the reluctance of local police to prosecute the family that employed the children for violating the new legislation.

The sentence for breaking the new child labour law carries a prison sentence of up to two years and a fine of up to 20,000 rupees ($450).

Shanta says she had been working with the family for the past year after her brother left her there.

"I used to work in water the whole day. She [the employer] beat me up regularly with a stick for not finishing my work on time. I was woken at four in the morning and then I had to wash the clothes, sweep and mop the floor," she told the BBC.

According to Shanta, she was given rice only twice a day - served on the floor - and was made to sleep in the bathroom.

She said that she never complained about her plight as that would have meant more beatings.

Two other girls, Rita and Sunita, say they were also abused and locked up like Shanta.

They were rescued by a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) after a neighbour watched them being beaten up and informed the police.

The police filed a complaint against the employers but only under the less severe Juvenile Justice Act rather than the tougher new law.

"These girls were trafficked from West Bengal and then they were illegally confined as bonded labour, they were abused and made to work. Still their employers were not booked under the Child Labour Act," said Rishi Kant of the Shakti Vahini NGO which rescued the girls.

The employers have already been given bail.

Police say they could not have brought a prosecution against Shanta's employers under the Child Labour Act because the girls were being paid for their work.

"The Child Labour Act is applied only when children under 14 are not paid for their work and when they are trafficked, and since this did not happen, this law was not applied to them, says Faridabad police superintendent Mahinder Singh Sheoran.

Experts say the Child Labour Act does not make that distinction. They say that it bans all children under 14 working as domestic labour and in roadside eateries and hotels.

Haryana Labour Minister Birender Singh supports the district administration's stand but following pressure from the local media has now ordered that the employers be charged under the Child Labour Act.

Social activists were largely sceptical about the efficacy of the new law when it was brought into force in October. They say cases like Shanta's confirm their worst fears.

NGOs say that as children continue to work in inhuman conditions, many in the political and administrative establishment continue to remain indifferent to their plight.

India`s child maids resigned to life of servitude


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