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Long road to freedom for child domestic workers

© Sondeep Shankar/UNICEF/1997
Child domestic labour is an area of great concern for UNICEF. Child workers are in a state of total dependency, without legal protection or standards to regulate their work.
By Suchitra Rao

When Ramesh Kumar’s father told him that he was going to India’s capital city, Delhi, he was thrilled. Little did he know, what awaited him there.

Eleven-year-old Ramesh was one of four mouths to feed in a poor family. His father, an agricultural daily wage earner, was often without work. So when he was offered Rs. 5,000 (US$111) by a relative in exchange of Ramesh, he jumped at the opportunity.

Ramesh landed in Delhi, excited. The euphoria, however, vanished quickly when his uncle put him to work at a roadside tea stall. He would toil night and day but his uncle would collect his wages. A year of grueling hard work later, Ramesh’s uncle packed him off to another metropolitan city, Bangalore.

This time around, Ramesh was a little apprehensive and his worst fears came true when he found himself working full-tHis day would begin at the crack of dawn and he could rest his tired and weary limbs only after 10 p.m. ime as a domestic worker in the house of an upper-middle class financial executive.

This tedious and dreary pattern followed day after day for a year. Added to this was the disciplining process that the employer had taken upon himself. Ramesh was often beaten up with the belt or a ladle.

During one such beating session, a neighbour informed a child helpline manned by the Association for Promoting Social Action (APSA), an NGO partner of the State Government of Karnataka and UNICEF’s Domestic Child Labour Elimination Project.

The project team and a child rights advocacy and lobbying network, Campaign Against Child Labour, rescued him and simultaneously organised a demonstration at the office of Ramesh’s employer. Ramesh’s plight, as well as the similar predicament of hundreds of other children working as domestic help in Bangalore city, lead child activists to submit a memorandum to the Commissioner of Labour pressing for urgent action.  

A case was also filed under the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act against the employer. The Child Welfare Committee (CWC), a mechanism in every district of the state for the implementation of the Juvenile Justice Act, responded with speed and summoned the employer. They ordered a payment towards Ramesh’s rehabilitation. The employer, however, ignored the directive of the committee. The CWC did not relent and wrote to the Commissioner of Labour.

Relief finally came after the State Department of Labour intervened. After a protracted legal battle, Ramesh’s employer was ordered to pay compensation of Rs. 24,500 for rehabilitation of the child.

While the legal process was underway, Ramesh was housed at APSA, undergoing his education in the residential bridgAfter four years of struggle, Ramesh returned to his native village where he is enrolled in a government-run school.e programme, supported by UNICEF.

 “I am so happy to be back home with my mother,” Ramesh said in a letter thanking all those who helped him in his long road to freedom.

Child domestic labour is an area of great concern for UNICEF. Emerging reports are showing that all over India children are taken into people’s homes to clean, cook, take care of other children and do a variety of activities detrimental to their physical and psychological development. They are left in a state of total dependency and without legal protection or standards to regulate their work.

 

 

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