October 6, 2006
If the Indian authorities are serious about protecting children from hazardous labor, the state governments should start prosecuting abusive employers and rehabilitating child workers.
Zama Coursen-Neff, senior researcher for the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch

(New York) - The Indian government has taken a step forward by enacting a law to ban domestic work and some other forms of labor by children under age 14, Human Rights Watch said today. The law goes into effect on October 10, but to be effective, the Indian authorities will need to improve upon their weak enforcement of existing child labor protections.

The new law covers restaurant and hotel work as well as domestic labor. However, it provides no protection for children aged 14 to 18, who also face exploitation and abuse by their employers.

“This ban on child domestic labor is a welcome step, but changes on paper are not enough,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, senior researcher for the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “If the Indian authorities are serious about protecting children from hazardous labor, the state governments should start prosecuting abusive employers and rehabilitating child workers.”

Indian law prohibits the employment of children under age 14 in occupations deemed hazardous, a list that will now include domestic, hotel and restaurant work. Under the law, government officials must remove and rehabilitate children, and prosecute employers illegally using underage children.

Nevertheless, when investigating child labor in India in 1996 and 2003, Human Rights Watch found that most government officials responsible for enforcing the law failed to do so. Illegal employers almost never faced sanction. Money that the government allocates for rehabilitation, which is critical for preventing children from returning to dangerous work, remained unspent.

Child domestic workers, those under age 18, are nearly invisible and are especially vulnerable. They work alone in individual households, hidden from public scrutiny, where their lives are controlled by their employers. Child domestics typically work long hours for little or no pay.

Many have no opportunity to go to school, or are forced to drop out because of the demands of their job. They are subject to verbal and physical abuse, and are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. They may be fired for small infractions, losing not only their jobs, but their place of residence as well.

“The government should also protect adolescent domestic workers by ensuring they can attend school, have limited work hours, and are assigned work appropriate to their age,” said Coursen-Neff. “Measures like establishing standard employment contracts, hotlines, and drop-in centers for domestic workers are also critical for preventing and responding to abuse.”

Worldwide, more girls work as domestics than in any other form of child labor, according to estimates by the International Labor Organization. In India, caste-based violence and discrimination – not just poverty – keep Dalits (or so-called untouchables) in slave-like conditions, including bonded labor.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to do more to address factors that push children into the worst forms of child labor, including lack of access to education and caste-based violence and discrimination.

“When schools are not available, are poor quality, charge prohibitive school fees, or discriminate against Dalit children, children go to work instead, where they are subject to further abuses,” said Coursen-Neff.

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