India's parliament has passed a revised labor bill that bans children less than 14 years of age from doing hazardous jobs but allows them to work in family businesses. Rights groups have slammed the new act.
The contentious bill was recently passed in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of parliament) after intense debate. The new bill still requires approval by President Pranab Mukherjee, after which it would become a law.
The revised bill makes employment of children below 14 years a criminal offense. It also prohibits the employment of adolescents aged 14 to 18 in hazardous conditions and introduces more stringent punishments and fines for the offenders.
All these new clauses have been hailed by a majority of labor organizations and rights groups.
Varun Gandhi, a lawmaker for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, however raised questions about the implementation of these new provisions, especially with regard to the prosecution of offenders.
But what has upset child rights activists most is a divisive provision in the bill that they believe will put children under risk.
The legislation permits children under 14 to work in "family-owned" enterprises after school hours and during school holidays. Activists have unanimously condemned this provision.
"It will make child labor invisible and legal. It will also be difficult to monitor and punish offenders," Thomas Chandy, CEO of rights organization Save the Children, told DW.
According to the United Nations, some 150 million children across the world are engaged in child labor. India is home to the largest number of child laborers in the world. Many of these children work in family-run businesses.
Last year, the International Labor Organization estimated that at least 5.8 million Indian children — aged between five and 17 — were employed as wage laborers in various sectors of the Indian economy, while another six million work in family businesses without pay.
A study conducted by Save the Children last year found that 12-year-olds who spend three or more hours a day on household chores are 70 percent less likely to complete secondary education.
Making child labor legal?
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) also voiced concerns over the amended bill, saying it would legitimize child labor under some conditions.
Many in India believe the new law will not eliminate child labor violations, because a number of family firms are engaged in hazardous activities, and the pressure on children to work may supersede their need for education. Furthermore, the definition of "family-owned businesses" is unclear in the law, as it goes beyond just the nuclear family of parents and grandparents to include enterprises run by a child's aunts and uncles.
"It is a pity that India is literally allowing children to be employed in family enterprises," Enakshi Ganguly Thukral, co-founder of the HAQ Centre for Child Rights, told DW.
"The employment of children in occupations like tanning, bangle-making, carpet weaving, domestic work and numerous other professions like these that were previously recognized as hazardous for children will now be legal," added Thukral.
India's Nobel laureate and child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi said he was disappointed by the amended act, calling it a "missed opportunity."
"The definition of family and family enterprises is flawed. This law uses Indian family values to justify economic exploitation of children. It is misleading the society by blurring the lines between learning in a family and working in a family enterprise," he said in a statement.