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Rise in child labour in S. Gujarat? Reason: Sugarcane harvesting isn't yet hazardous

Counterview Desk
A note on mapping of the condition of the children of migrant sugarcane harvesters in South Gujarat, prepared by the Centre For Labour Research And Action (CLRA) -- an organisation working for the rights and welfare of unorganised and migrant workers -- has said that in spite of the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Amendment Act, 2016, the number of child and adolescent labour is increasing.
Pointing out that one of the many reasons for this is the non-recognition of sugarcane harvesting as hazardous, the note is based on a study, carried out jointly by CLRA and the Centre For Social Studies, Surat, on the exploitative working and living conditions of sugar harvesting labourers working in 16 South Gujarat sugar factory farms.

Text:

Migration as a phenomenon has been indispensable to human civilizations and has played a pivotal role throughout the years in shaping our nation as we know and experience it today. The state of Gujarat owes a significant part of its progress to the labour of the migrant workforce that arrives to the state from across the nation.
However, Gujarat as a destination of migration (undertaken primarily for work) observes movement of families and not just individual workers. Workers and their families migrate to work in brick kilns, sugarcane fields (for harvesting), wage share cropping (bhaagiya), construction sector, and salt making. In these streams, family is found to be the unit of deployment.
For instance, in sugarcane harvesting, two workers who constitute a unit – called koyta – is the unit of deployment. In such cases, when both husband and wife migrate to parts of south Gujarat, their children often accompany their parents. If there are caregivers in the source, the harvesters leave their school going children behind; however in most cases the sugarcane harvesters bring their children to the destination of work.
As per research studies carried out by CLRA in 2015 and 2017, it was estimated that about 1.5 to 2 lakh workers migrate from Dang and Tapi (districts of Gujarat) and Nandurbar and Dhule (districts of Maharashtra) to undertake harvesting of sugarcane in South Gujarat every year (CLRA 2017).
The same study indicated that the age group distribution of 18,820 persons present at labour camps of sugar factories showed that 61.2% were adults above 18 years while 10.1% were between 15 to 18 years of age, 11.3 between 7 to 14 years, and 17.4 were 6 years and below (CLRA 2017).
Assuming the workforce to be 1.75 lakh and 15 to 18 years to be included in this workforce, it can be extrapolated that there were about 43000 children in age group of 0-5 years, 28000 children in age group of 6-14 years, while there were 25000 children who were 15-18 years present across various sugarcane camps in South Gujarat.
To deepen the understanding of the current situation of the children of sugarcane harvesters, CLRA conducted a survey of children of 534 children (of which 211 were girls and 323 boys) below 18 years across 56 padavs.
The study highlighted that the children who accompany their parents -- either end up performing household and care work in the settlements or they work with their parents to support the family income. The findings indicate that 59.2% of the children interviewed were found to be working as unpaid child labourers.
It was found that in the sample of 323 boys, 76.4%, and among 211 girls, 65% were found to be working as unpaid workers. This figure also reflected that a significant number of children were engaged in household work such as cooking, cleaning, and looking after young children.
15.61% girls and 10.55% boys were out of school while 8.52% girls were never enrolled in school as compared to 5.21% boys
It was found that older children were brought so that they could specifically look after the young ones, while their parents or relatives worked for more than 12 to 14 hours every day. All children (below the age of six) in the sample living in the settlements were found to be outside the access to anganwadis.
Further, it was found that more than 50% of children in the settlements worked to support the family’s income. Five percent of the children interviewed reported that they worked because of their interest in the work, however a minority of two percent worked to support their single mothers.
Rest of the sample were in the padavs because they had migrated with their families and were found to be doing either domestic chores or caring for the young. Additionally the CLRA team found that average hours spent by girl child labourers on both farms and homes in a day was 14 to 16 hours, while boys spent about 10- 12 hours. Girl child were found to be burdened more when it came to performing labour.
In terms of education, it was found that 15.61% girls and 10.55% boys were out of school while 8.52% girls were never enrolled in school as compared to 5.21% boys. No child was found to be attending school in the local region or received any education from other schemes such as tent schools or Saakhar Shaala.
The maximum number of children were from the Ahwa and Subir regions of the Dang district of Gujarat, a key tribal and migrant labour belt for sugarcane harvesting. The findings repeatedly presented evidence that the worker settlements are often outside the coverage of health and nutrition schemes offered by the state– hence the children are left outside the ambit of education and health nutrition services.
Not only migration was found impacting the education of the children of sugarcane harvesters, but the continuous exposure to the sugarcane farms and work done by them also impact their psycho social development, another crucial aspect of education and a healthy growth and development of children.
In one of the padavs visited during the fieldwork families did not go to the farm to work for two weeks, due to floods that delayed in opening up of sugarcane mills. In that settlement, many children were found to be playing cards with adults using little money. Some were also found in cleaning of fresh chillies, a regular job given by the locals in the village to these children in exchange for candies and toys or 10 to 20 rupees.
No other example could be more symbolic of how the lives and childhood of these children is affected by working in the sugarcane sector, where they live in persistent lack of opportunities in health and education – keep them away from a future outside of sugarcane harvesting.
As per the findings, key labour rights violations can be summarised as hazardous child labour, prevalent conditions of Bonded labour, exorbitantly high rates of interest on advances, no employment contracts, long and unpredictable working hours, lack of recognition and non-payment for extra work/over time, no protection from hazards at work, lack of drinking water, toilets and shelter for children, no concept of individual labour, no concept and provision of maternity leaves, sick leaves or resting time.

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