I am against child labour and would never employ someone less that 18 years old. Whenever my domestic help needed leave and sent her daughter to do the day's work, I have sent her back and managed on my own or if it is for a long period, I have borrowed the services of my neighbours' help for the temporary period. And for 6 years I have paid the tuition fee and examination fee for my help's daughter and also paid for extra tuitions when she failed in English and math in the 9th twice. At 18 now, the girl is just a 9th standard pass and is working in two other houses like her mother. She will be married soon and if her husband turns out to be another of those useless guys in their village, she is doomed for a house help's life and misery for the rest of her life.

I used to be appalled at my friend when she had her domestic help's 13 year old daughter staying with her to help her ageing mother. This girl used to help the ageing aunty make chai, cut vegetables, make chappatis, clean the table, dust their furniture etc. She went to school during the day and spent the rest of the time with them. They are Sindhis and she learnt to speak hindi and English fluently. She can lay the table like a lady, serve tea like an English woman, answer phone calls and has grown into an elegant young lady. She tried sending her to college and when she failed her degree course, she tried sending her to computer classes. That did not work either and the girl now works in one of the upmarket stores as a saleswoman and earns a good salary. My friend and her mother put up a fight with the girl's mother when she tried to get her married at 16 when she got into "boy troubles". Now she is 22, independent and confident. And aunty, when she died, has willed her 1 lakh in fixed deposit.

Saravanan is the head of security guards in the institution where husband works. I have seen him when he first came to work in the colony as a 14 year old boy doing odd jobs around the office. he had failed 8th standard, had no interest in studies and ran away to his uncle's house in bangalore to escape his father's wrath after his results. His uncle who worked as a driver in the office got him the temporary odd jobs in the office and gradually he got a job as a temporary security guard and after 12 years he grew to become a permanent security guard and now he is the head. His children go to English medium schools like the other children from the colony.

Sadiq used to drive my scooter like a professional when he was just 14. He was the nephew of my mechanic Basha. One day I went to collect my scooter after service and as I was about to start it there was a rattling noise. Basha flew into a rage and so did his spanner - at Sadiq. He had not fitted the screws of the wheel properly after service. I was angry with basha for treating the little boy like that but I also knew that he treated Sadiq like his son and loved him dearly. he told me "amma, this is how he will learn. Tomorrow when he has his shop he will never make this mistake. In this line we all learn like this. " I asked Sadiq if he would like to go to school. Sadiq grinned and said " I tried studying aunty but I don't have the brains. I like scooters and cars. When I am big I want to have a car repair shop." 15 years later, he now manages his uncle's garage and does good business. His daughter goes to a good school.

I can see for a fact which of us has done better by children - me and the government who talk about how wrong it is to employ children or these three above. I am not so judgemental about people who employ 13 and 14 year olds anymore.
I suppose the constitution makers were aware of the ground realities in this country and that is why they did not completely rule out child employment but made a qualified statement:
Article 24 of the Indian constitution states that "No child below the age of fourteen years shall be employed to work in any factory or mine or employed in any hazardous employment".
Article 39 (e) directs State policy such "that the health and strength of workers . . . and the tender age of children are not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their age or strength"

Of course Children should not be employed in industries demanding hard labour or under hazardous conditions nor should they be exploited. But if they are treated well , fed and paid well and also given educational opportunities if they want them?
I am quite certain that if geeta ( aunty's protégé) had been left in her family she would have been married at 16 and would have had at least two kids by now and been entirely at the mercy of her husband and Saravanan could have turned into anything from an unskilled worker in a factory to a criminal. And Sadiq could not have learnt the intricacies of his profession better in any school.

Would they have had a wider choice had they been in school longer even against their will? Would they have been better human beings? Would they have a better standard of life than what they now have? I can say it is open to debate and they should have stayed in school but in my heart my answer is a definite 'no". I still cannot bring myself to employ anyone less than 18 but I could perhaps try giving someone a chance at a better life by employing one like aunty.
Another area which is not just black and white. What is your take on this?

26 Responses
  1. usha, i would definitely have to agree with you, although the idea of child labour may seem abhorrent, in the case's listed here, it was more beneficient, all these kids have learnt a trade, and improved their lives and that of their children. in cases where the kids will benefit from gaining skills, and can improve their life circumstances, they should be afforded every opportunity to try

  2. Serendipity Says:

    I see a pattern , almost as if all these people who gave up education for the trade had learnt the value of it much later and opted for their children not to follow their footsteps..
    We, the people talked about it extensively...I think in a country like ours its very difficult to choose one "right" thing that needs to be done , its a huge complicated web.I'm for education , trade comes later.

  3. Raj Says:

    Any abhorrent practice can be justified by projecting a beneficial side, as in " bootlegging is useful in keeping thousands employed; forcing women to stay at home makes them better mothers; smoking is good for tobacco farmers'". If something is more wrong than right, or it militates against the values of a civilised society, it should be abolished, wven if there is are a few plus points in its favour

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Ideally if I could help a child it would primarily be for education. But it doesn't quite work the way we want. My mom tried to help our maid's 3 daughters go to school- they wouldn't go for more than 2 days at a stretch & later dropped out. (And got married, had kids, all by the age of 23.) We're now supporting another maid's niece's schooling- that kid enjoys going to school & her parents are very encouraging.
    If we get a chance to help them I think this is definitely the way to start.
    Btw it was really heart-warming to read the stories of Geetha, SSadiq & Saravanan!

  5. Pradeep Nair Says:

    Good to see someone share my idea. The examples speak a lot. More than child labour per se, what is important is the overall well-being of the child and successful life.

  6. noon Says:

    Nice to read these stories. In an ideal world they should get an education and learn a trade and not have to sacrifice one for the other. They still want to put their children in school - not keep them in the garage or teach them only a trade. There is a certain empowerment that comes with being able to read and write and comprehend more than the narrow confines of one's trade. And it would be nice if every child had an opportunity for this. But yes, compared to the reality of how these children end up in far worse situations, it is better they are taught some trade early on even if it means skipping out on school. I don't know - but we have to keep on trying to arrive at that ideal world - where all children go to school and dont have to work for a living when they are very very young.

  7. i love the story village by the sea by anita desai.. it is a story of how a family of children & drunken father earn their living when the gov decides to set up a factory in the village. this boy learns how to repair watches and comes back to his village to set up shop... another story of how he did better by doing a job at childhood. nice episodes u hav related

  8. That was a thought provoking post :)
    I could never bring myself to employ a child and I have not really seen too many instances like how you have mentioned. One of my relatives had a girl stay with them to take care of their old mother and children. They gave her a good life and tried to get her to study but she was not interested. Once the old lady passed away and the children grew up, they just sent her back to her parents. Now, she is married to a hopeless guy and she is finding it very difficult more so because she has seen a better life.

  9. I am remined of a story called "The Verger".. think it was by Somerset Maugham.

    Padippariva Pattariva? (bookish knowledge or practical experience)-this was the debate (Patti Mandapam I saw in Jan 2007 Pongal/Sun TV). Pattarivu won hands down!

  10. WhatsInAName Says:

    I think each case is different and needs a different treatment. I had the same experience as you mentioned in your first para, but the girl declined my offer.

    Education does help but then when people like the ones you mentioned are not interested, the best is to give them such practical knowledge, treat them like humans.
    Government is right in banning child labour at places like factories etc. Otherwise I feel that let them have the freedom to grow.

  11. Savani Says:

    All economies go through this stage. In the US also, kids worked on the farms (reason for a long summer holiday). As an economy grows richer, people can do without that bit of workforce. Even then, in the US, you will find kids walking the dog, cutting grass,baby sitting and getting paid for it by neighbors. I don't see anything wrong with it. Ofcourse mistreating and abusing children be it at work or in a school is wrong and should be punished. I don't think the environment matters where this is concerned. My mom used to pay the maid's kids to do light housework (cutting veggies, folding clothes, watering the garden). She paid them for their work and that money was out into a saving acct for them. And she tutored them every day for an hour, paid for their school books and uniforms. The eldest boy (my age) got a B.Com and a diploma in management and is doing very well having bought a house and a car. His younger sister works in a pathalogical lab as an assistant. The youngest joined the army.

  12. Usha Says:

    Hi all, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. They all make sense to me - I think it is tough for children to learn anything if they are hungry. That is why many drop out of school. Then there is the environment at home to consider.I wonder if the government can allocate adequate funds to take poor children into free boarding type of schools - then perhaps the results would be better.

    I am off the net for a week - Will be back soon. Cheers!

  13. Raj Says:

    I am intrigued by how our collective consciousness suddenly gets raised. 10-15 years back, child labour was accepted, as normal. There was no hue and cry over Sivakasi's child labour. Now, we find it abhorrent, and rightly so.

    What are the other practices that we accept as normal today but we will realise as completely wrong, when someone raises the consciousness?

  14. Hip Grandma Says:

    This is an extension of the view that I hold about child labor.Unless hazardous or inhuman I feel grooming a girl child to becoming a caretaker of a considerate and caring employer would definitely be better than putting them in government schools where I hear,children are made to peel onions by irresponsible teachers drawing salaries recommended by the 5th or 6th pay commission.The examples quoted by you testify this.It is easy for governments to impose rules upon the poor and needy.Why don't they check on teachers who get paid through the taxpayer's money.On second thoughts why would they.Many of these so called teachers have 'paid' their way to and is not the receiver of such benefits expected to look the other way?

  15. Deeps Says:

    Unlike you, my mom used to be ok if our maid sent her 15 year old daughter "A" to work the days she wasn't able to. When "A" falied in 10th standard (only in maths), I gave her tuitions for her to take up the exam again and she passed! later my mom insisted on the maid for "A" to continue education, now she has completed her degree (B.A). Meanwhile she was still working as a maid at some homes to manage some of the costs (my mom sponsered her books each year). Still later my dad got her enrolled in some computer classes and even managed to get her into a training job, that later became a permanent one. Now she's in a software company, not really earning as much as a regular s/w engineer, but able to make lots more money than from house work.

    Now they are thinking of her marriage. I only hope that she finds a husband who's supportive to her aspirations and that she doesn't get back to housework again..

  16. Anonymous Says:

    Hi, I used to be volunteer for the non-profit 'Asha' and this is a topic that used to come up often when we discussed funding for education schemes. Clearly, rote learning until std 12 doesn't make much sense for a lot of children in India esp in rural areas where families depend on kids(& other family members) to work in fields, etc. Its def. not wrong to learn a trade when young. I suppose education should be more about giving the kids an option, exposing them to different things such as science, music, arts, etc that they might be interested in and otherwise may not be aware of. Of course, its all much easier said than done. Still def. worth trying, I think.

  17. Anonymous Says:

    I think if a child is employed in a safe environment, for light work and for learning some skills, then it should be ok. Sometimes in countries like India they could be the sole provider for their families otherwise they would have no option other than begging. As dotmom wrote, even here, lots of children baby sit, walk the dogs for some extra money. I support the ban on employing children in factories or where they are treated inhumanly. But personally, I wouldn't employ a child.

  18. Anonymous Says:

    The garage boy said, his interests were automobiles. We must identify each child's particular interest once they are through with basic education and train them further in that line, in schools. This model of education is being followed in many countries like Singaport, New Zealand etc. Thats the best form of education, i believe.

  19. I don't know Usha, the problem is not going away anytime has to got to be a grass roots movement but sadly there ain't going to be one! Maybe as a domino effect of the booming economy one day child labor may be outlawed and done awy with..till then we can only hope these kids are happy doing whatever it is that they are doing!

  20. Anonymous Says:

    A person named Sandhya Ranjit in my office, had sent this article to a lot of people in my office and I was surprised to find it was your blog link. :-)

  21. Sumana Says:

    Hello Usha,
    I have tagged you at

  22. Fuzzylogic Says:

    Indeed the cases you stated are heartwarming but like I simply can never employ a child. It can perhaps never be generalized. For every Geetha who was helped from this there's perhaps a story of 2 or more who were abused and suffered under their home employers. I think education is the key. Trade learning ought to made a part of education itself and so both can be learnt. Thought provoking post as always Usha!Enjoy the break but get back soon:)

  23. Anonymous Says:

    The same trade workers are putting their own children through proper schooling, and would be upset if they deviated from the so-called right path to better ways. I think the basic foundation of encouraging studies proactively, as in most affluent families, is not there for the lower-middle class from certain communities. I think children would be more open to studying then. Every year, when exam results come, there is some story of a girl or boy from very bad family situation getting top marks. Imagine if those children had the kind of education the affluent ones had.

    But the topic of child labour is open for debate.
    It certainly is grey grey world out there.


  24. Usha Says:

    Rouhana:I think before talking about their right to education we need to address their right to food, clothing and shelter.

    Seren:How can their be any hunger for knowledge when their stomachs are hungry? Isnt that why these children are lured into labour so early in life - the promise of at least one meal a day for everyone in their house?

    Raj:As long as the child is treated with kindness, not overworked, not exposed to any hazards and paid and fed well and sent to school - why should it militate against the values of civilised society? In any case the older child does so much more than this in any poor Indian household.

    CW:This is another thing - by education we mean a board certificate for all. Whether it helps him get a meanigful job at the end of it or not is beside the point.

    Pradeep: Exactly what I was trying to say in my rambling style. :)

    Noon:Actually it isnt that difficult to achieve. They can start imparting work skills from standard 8 and bookish knowledge till std 7. So those who want to go for higher studies can proceed to take the board exam while the others can get into vocational training. And it should be free and the midday meals should continue all the way.

    ITW: will check it out.Thank you for the reference.

    COS:This is really sad.

    Bala:With the stress on rote learning and the defective examination system which hardly encourages originality and creativity, padipparivu is probably not even worth the paper the certificate is written on.

    WIN: If children in better schools were encouraged to sponsor the learning of one poor child (pay fees, help them with lessons etc) as a social service project and could earn some credits for the same in their board exams - there may be some positive response. remember? marks? credits - they will do it, and do it well!!

    Dotmom: I really feel that they need that gentle pull from those of us who are on this side of the divide. I have seen this catalyst in everyone of these success stories. having someone to encourage and help makes a huge difference and it is tough to look for that encouragement from parents struggling to make enough to feed all mouths in the family.

    raj: I notice one already. My friend's daughter says she cannot understand how women upto her mother's generation subjected themselves to kitchen work without protest. She refuses to cook, her husband does at times otherwise they order.

    Hipgran:peel onions, buy provision for the house standing in the ration shop queues, paying bills - all this is guru seva!

    Deeps:Wow. Every single success story can make a difference.

    Vivin:I think if they made education job oriented, there may be less of drop outs as they may see sense in going through with it.

    2 bs' mom:Yes.

    Gitanjali: Yes if they see schooling as a sure passport to a better life via a decent job, they may be tempted to work at it.

    Orchid: You are right. The problem isn't going away anytime soon.

    Phoenix:ah really!! And YOU! you did not even read my post until then. shame on you Matangi! lol! Tell sandhya I love her!

    Sumana: Will check. :)

    Fuzzy:Yes, I have heard of children being ill treated too. perhaps we need more effective checks against these bad employers.
    And I am back. :)

    Kajan:The drop outs are probably more from very poor families or those with parents with behavioural problems and those that are more tuned to skills than letters. I think we HAVE to address these accordingly - 60 years after independence,there is no excuse for not treating these problems effectively.

  25. Swapnil Says:


    The government of India (with help from some NGOs) provides food for all children in all government and government aided schools. Mid-day meal scheme has increased enrollment significantly. (Check the numbers ASER survey on

    Quality of education in government schools on the other hand much poor. (also see the survey on pratham).

    Money is not a problem. The expense per child in running government schools is thrice the average for private schools.

    Quality of education in public schools can be improved only through citizen participation.

    Dream School foundation ( is one such organization working in Bangalore. Check the website on how you can help. Again, know that money is not an issue here. Adequate citizen participation is.

  26. Mahadevan Says:

    A child is thrown to work, because the family has to escape hunger. This need is exploited by those who employ them. Why should a 4 year old be asked to report for work at and compelled to work till dusk for a pittance? Should not the government and society at large, take care of such families and allow the children to work for sometime, play with other children and and also send them to school to learn alphabet.