Spotlight interview with Kailash Satyarthi (India)

"Interest in the fight against child labour must be rekindled"

The Global Child Labour Conference is opening on 10 May in The Hague (1). It will adopt a roadmap setting out the measures to be taken to eradicate the worst forms of child labour by 2016, in line with the ILO Action Plan. Kailash Satyarthi, who is the chair of the Global March against Child Labour, shares his expectations on the matter and comments on the positive developments in his country, India.

What expectations do you have from this Global Child Labour Conference?

The emphasis on child labour issues has waned over the last six or seven years, especially in political debates. There was a lot of interest during the global march we organised in 1998; it was maintained until around the year 2000 to 2002, and then we saw a decline. Only a small circle of people really interested in child labour continue to talk about it and take action, but child labour has disappeared from the agenda in many countries. Less time and money are being dedicated to eliminating it. The situation is grave, so I am very grateful to the Dutch government for having taken the initiative of holding this conference and playing a leading role, alongside IPEC (2). This year’s conference is crucial to rekindling interest in child labour at national and international levels. Child labour is a social, economic, political and cultural phenomenon. Its eradication is reliant on a very strong global movement, not a scattering of projects in a few countries.

The Global March originated in India. One of its aims was the adoption of ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour. But ten years after it was adopted, and despite being the Convention with one of the fastest ratification rates, India has not yet ratified it...

The Indian government was not involved in the Global March initiative. A number of India’s leading political figures joined us at the time, but there was no political agreement supporting our demands, nor is there today. In spite of our efforts, the mentality within the Indian bureaucracy remains very rigid and conservative, but there is hope. Following lengthy lobbies by civil society, high-level meetings were recently held, and the government marked its agreement in principle over the ratification of Conventions 138 (on the minimum employment age) and 182. It makes sense, as many articles of the Indian Constitution are along the same lines as the provisions of these international conventions.

How widespread is child labour in India? Research published in 2006 on the Global March site (3) estimated the number of child workers at 65 million. Does this figure still apply?

I think it has fallen. I do not trust the government statistics claiming that there are "only" 10 to 12 million Indian children not attending school. Some NGOs speak of a hundred million. The truth is that no one has clear statistics, but the number has fallen, perhaps by 15 to 20%. This is largely thanks to a rapid change in mentality among the Indian population. The middle classes now see child labour in a negative light. There is a sense of guilt, for example, if someone uses a child domestic. There are, of course, people who exploit children in the worst forms of child labour, included in the middle classes, but there has been a significant change.

There is also a growing demand for quality education. Even the poorest of the poor have started to realise the value of education. In the past, they thought that education only served career interests, but now they realise that it also contributes to their development, their personal fulfilment. One factor contributing to this change is the remarkable development of the information and communication technologies sector over the last 10 to 15 years in India. Even the poorest villagers have a mobile phone, as does their relative working as a rickshaw puller in a faraway city. They can keep in almost daily contact whereas before, correspondence by mail would take weeks. A person working in Mumbai or Delhi can therefore keep in touch with his family, tell them what he sees, the changes in India and in the cities. Little by little, they come to realise that if their children were educated, they would have a better chance at prosperity and personal growth.

There have also been major political changes, with the rise to power of the Dalits, the lowest caste. Many members of the lower castes are ministers, and no party can afford to ignore the problems facing these castes. This rise has created new aspirations, a desire among the members of these castes to have the same lifestyle as other Indians, and education is the key to reaching this goal. As a result, more and more poor people, Dalits, are sending their children to the schools in the villages, including their daughters, who used to be the most discriminated against.

Is the impact of taking children out of work as strong and as rapid as expected on adult employment or pay?

It is not because a child is taken out of work that an adult is automatically going to be employed. Even if this was the case, because the exploitation of child labour largely takes place in the informal economy, the adult replacing this labour would not be paid the minimum wage, not to mention enjoy decent work. Having said that, adults do benefit in terms of employment in the long run. The carpet industry offers a good example. Fifteen years back, at least a million children in South Asia were employed full time in this sector: at least 300 to 350,000 in India, at least 250 to 300,000 in Nepal, and almost 400,000 in Pakistan. Now, all the research on the subject sets the figure at below 300,000 in the three countries. So, 700,000 children have been taken out of this sector. It is the result of the raids led by organisations such as BBA (4) to free children, the existence of the RugMark label, the growing demand for education among the Indian population, and the government’s efforts in favour of schooling, etc.

Initially, we were convinced that if children were taken out of work, they would be replaced by adults in the short or long run; but we did not have any proof. We do have the proof now: when RugMark inspectors go into the villages, they see that almost all the workers are adults. Little by little, adults have replaced the children. Seven hundred thousand children have been replaced by hundreds of thousands of adult workers, maybe 700,000, maybe 500,000. It is difficult to estimate the numbers, as they are spread across many villages, but adults are working, which implies a range of positive developments in the villages: new schools are opening, the number of people migrating to the big cities is falling, etc.

How can one be sure that these 700,000 children are attending school, and not being exploited in another form of work?

Firstly, because there is no other sector in these regions, aside from agriculture, and there is little interest in employing large numbers of children in this sector, as many of the tasks are increasingly mechanised. There are, of course, many children working in agriculture in India, and it may be that some former child labourers from the carpet industry are there, but it is impossible that hundreds of thousands of children could have suddenly joined this sector that is already saturated in terms of employment. Moreover, a large increase has been seen in the amount of children attending school in these villages, compared with 15 years ago.

The World Cup is starting on 11 June in South Africa. Is the Global March holding a campaign on this subject, as it did with previous editions?

Yes. One of the big problems is the employment of children in the manufacture of hundreds of products used during this event: clothing, souvenirs, nets, drinks, etc. We demand guarantees against the use of child labour in these sectors. All lot of attention was given during previous World Cups to the manufacture of the footballs used during the matches, and FIFA made a number of commitments, but that is not enough: although child labour may not be used in the production of the footballs used during big games, there are still children making the footballs sold thanks to all the fervour stirred up by events such as the World Cup.

We are also concerned about the serious problem of child trafficking for the purposes of labour and sexual exploitation. We know that boys and girls are trafficked to South Africa from the neighbouring countries. Our national coordinator in South Africa and the international secretariat of the Global March are urging the South African government to take serious action on this subject, together with the entire hotel and restaurant industry.

Interview by Samuel Grumiau

(1) childlabourconference2010

(2) ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour

(3) Globalmarch

(4) Bachpan Bachao Andolan

- You can also read the new Union View report on the trade union fight against child labour (8 pages)