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Poor reintegration leaves India's rescued child workers at risk - researchers

MUMBAI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - India’s strategy for rescuing and reintegrating child victims of labour trafficking is marred by poor coordination, a lack of accountability and inadequate resources that can leave children at risk of further harm, Harvard researchers say.

A boy separates starched sarees left to dry on the roof of a cotton factory in Hyderabad, November 30, 2012. REUTERS/Krishnendu Halder/Files

There must be a comprehensive, sustained effort to address these issues, rather than the current short-term approach to return children to the same circumstances that led to their trafficking in the first place, the researchers said in a report released this week.

“Their families need structured and ongoing support to mitigate the risk that a child will be re-trafficked for economic reasons,” said the report from Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates there are 5.7 million child workers in India aged five to 17.

More than half work in agriculture, and at least a quarter are in manufacturing, embroidering clothes, weaving carpets, making matchsticks or rolling beedi cigarettes.

Many help their parents in brick kilns or mines, work in shops, restaurants and hotels, and toil as help in middle-class homes.

In rescuing child workers, there is an over-reliance on charities and activists to provide intelligence and conduct the raids, with local police and government officials are rarely involved in the planning, the Harvard study said.

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The study was conducted in Bihar, where many child workers come from, the transit city of New Delhi, and the destination state of Rajasthan.

Rescue raids are poorly planned and executed, and beset by inadequate resources and communication, while criminal prosecution against offending employers is rarely pursued, it said.

India says it is committed to ending child labour and has made significant progress, with the number of child labourers aged 14 or below dropping to 4.5 million in 2011 from 12.6 million a decade before.

“We have a comprehensive rescue and rehabilitation strategy, with sufficient coordination with NGOs and with local police, and it is clearly an effective and successful strategy,” said Onkar Sharma, from the office of the chief labour commissioner in New Delhi.

“We are also strengthening the law to protect children further, and we are hopeful that it will be passed soon by parliament,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The current law bans children under 14 from working in only 18 hazardous occupations and 65 processes, such as mining, gem cutting and cement manufacturing.

If passed by parliament, the changes would outlaw child labour below 14 in all sectors and include a new category for those aged between 15 and 18.

But activists have voiced concern over two exceptions: children who help in family businesses outside school hours and during holidays, and those in entertainment or sports, provided the work does not affect their education.

Also, children aged 15 to 18 would be barred from working in only three industries - mines, inflammable substances and hazardous processes.

Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi, whose charity Bachpan Bachao Andolan is credited with rescuing more than 80,000 enslaved children, said the exemptions are “regressive” and wants a total ban on all forms of child labour.

The Harvard researchers called for better coordination between governmental and non-governmental agencies, preventative policies for poverty reduction, and increased access to education in areas most vulnerable to child-labour trafficking.