Corinne’s comment on my last post made me dig this one out from my archives and post it again. For domestic child labour is a topic that will never go out of the news, view or conscience, for that matter. Among my other posts, this was one that I felt didn’t get the views it should have when I first posted it. We would rather avoid reading about uncomfortable truths and instead look for lighter stuff to amuse ourselves with.And after the previous post, this one seemed like a logical continuation of the topic.
Child domestic workers are distinct from their other counterparts in industries, including hazardous ones and for this reason, they are relatively less visible and so escape detection.We don’t even have proper statistical data on them.
So why are they so abundant in our country? The reasons are many : They come cheaper than their adult counterparts. They are more sincere and work faster too. Moreover, they don’t give cheek and can be browbeaten easily. Little wonder, then that the well-to-do employ these children at a fraction of what domestic workers get paid. ‘I would never think of employing a child, but what can I do? Getting a maid is so hard and I have no time to do all the work before I rush off to work!’ says one woman, who works in a bank.
Take the case of Raghav — a boy of about 11, who had been `brought’ from the village to help the lady of the house, since she had a heart problem. A lively boy, who might otherwise have gone to the village school and played marbles in his spare time, he is kept engaged from morning till night doing jobs like cleaning the house, washing vessels, etc. The lady has a son of the same age, who of course has nothing more to do than play, go to school and order Raghav about.
How do people like the above, justify employing these small children? ‘We are providing food and bed for Raghav. In fact, his parents were begging me to take him away, so that at least one child would have enough to eat,’ says his employer. They actually believe that the exploitation is a noble way of helping a poor child!
‘We treat him/her like a member of our family,’ they say smugly. Oh yeah?
In that case do these `employers’ give these children the ice creams and other goodies that their own children get? Do they not make them bring crates of soft drinks and not give them a bottle? Well, maybe just a bottle. Do they not walk ahead like royalty, while the poor kids lug huge bags of groceries and vegetables and fruits, which they may hardly get a bite of? Do they allow the children, hardly older than their own children to sleep late?
Once, when I was standing at a juice shop, I saw an obviously wealthy woman, with several chins wobbling on her face, order a fruit juice. The little boy who was accompanying her, struggling with a couple of bulging shopping bags was eyeing the glass hungrily, secretly smacking his lips, while the woman drank her juice. I secretly bought him a glass when the lady was busy talking on her phone. It wrenched my heart to see him gulp it down before being caught.
Would this lady have thought about making her eight-year-old son carry the shopping bags? This is not to say that doing honest housework or even making your children do small chores around the house is wrong. In fact, that helps them realise the worth of labour and help around the house. But the sense of proportion is lost the moment it is someone else’ child and whom you have employed as a servant. Does a child suddenly become able to do the work of an adult, just because he or she is poor?
If such self-professed do-gooders want to really help these children, why not take care of their needs and educate them? Most of these very affluent families who employ these children will not feel the pinch of feeding and taking care of one more child. Then why not do it, instead of acting magnanimous about `providing shelter and food’ to a needy child, while getting the maximum work out of him?
And who decides that the child is not capable of doing something better? Did anyone ask them if he/she wants to study, or play or just do plain old mischief like a normal child? I do agree that it is grinding poverty that makes the parents of these little children send them away for a monthly salary or a lump-sum given at the time of `transaction’. But how can an educated populace agree to the transaction without qualms? There was a spate of stories where such child maids and mundus were starved, beaten and even sexually harassed
It is wrenching to see such a little boy look after the needs of the `children’ of the employer, who are much older than him as in the above case. If and when the employer’s child is younger than him, he is not allowed to play with the expensive toys and games of his little `master’. I have heard women remark with shock at his `audacity’ to touch the expensive and often imported stuff. Makes one wonder if we have at all come out of the slave era. Does money kill human kindness and make one so insensitive?
While the voluntary organisations are screaming themselves hoarse over the children employed in various industries and professions, why have they decided to overlook these children working in the houses of the affluent? Have they gone to see for themselves how many hours these children are made to work, where they sleep, what they eat? Do they ever get leave, vacations? `If you send them home, they will not come back!’ shudder the society matrons to each other during kitty parties. Do they get paid decent wages or are their parents paid a lump sum when they are left with them — in other words, when they `buy’ them? An estimated 12 percent of children in India in the age-group of 5-14 are engaged in child labor and An estimated 185,595 children are employed as domestic help, according to a UNICEF study.
The figure seems absurdly low considering these child workers are employed on the sly by families and many a time passed off as relative’s child who has come to live with them.
How often are these children physically abused? Female servants are known to be sexually abused for years with no way to escape the horror..Young boys fare no better. Seeing children his own age wallow in luxury, while he himself is being made to work to make it possible, can put tremendous pressure on the little psyches. In addition, if he is physically abused, it makes the burden harder to bear. In a recent news report, a servant who had been fired and then rehired by a family, killed the lady of the house because he ‘wanted to take revenge for her humiliating and hitting me.’ It is not hard to imagine how petty and sometimes big criminals are being created. There has been a spate of stories about such children in recent times. We are shocked for a while and then go on with our lives.
Have we lost our collective conscience where these children are concerned? Do they have to languish in relative anonymity, unlike those in organised industries, who come into public gaze more often than them? Just because they don’t inhale toxic fumes, work in hazardous conditions, should they be left out of the category of child workers?
A child is a child, no matter if she is born in a slum or in a palace. She deserves the best. So if you cannot give her the best, at least do not let her have the worst. Or is it asking too much?
And each of us can do something for these children in some way. Sponsor a child’s education, seeing that the children of our maids complete at least school, volunteer our time to teach them….
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