Sunday, August 6, 2006

Low-paid laborers and their discontents

Come October, it is quite likely that I will be breaking the law on a daily basis.

No, I don't expect to develop a penchant for hookers, and I'm not nursing a cocaine addiction. Rather, S and I employ a maid who, four days out of seven, brings her grandson Bunty with her to help with the chores.

Bunty is a slight boy, friendly and a rather diligent worker, considering he can't be any older than 12. Mostly he sweeps the floors and perhaps sloshes a bucket of water on the ground, but he has been immeasurably helpful to me numerous times by tracking the errant kittens.

I digress. Yes, the Indian government intends to crack down on child labor; although it is officially illegal now for those under 14 to work in "hazardous industries," this is hardly enforced. Now, they're looking to extend the legislation to prevent children working as domestic servants or at roadside food stands.

In the wake of this news, S and I have been trying to gauge what Bunty's "outside" life is like. He does not go to school, and stopped studying when he reached class five. He says he doesn't want to go back, because he does poorly and doesn't like to study. Of course, this probably means that his grandmother and mother have told him that he can't afford to study; we've offered to pay for his schooling or books, but to no avail. Now we're trying to see if maybe we can help him find an electrician or a mechanic with whom he can apprentice; something, anything that will give him more options.

I am a bit ambivalent about the new law. Although, of course, I think it is abominable to have children working, and I have more than once demanded that Bunty not work in our flat, it's just...a little too bleeding heart liberal to think that a law will stop anything. When it comes down to it, the families of these children have, in all likelihood, forced them into employment because no one else in the family is capable of earning. There are, of course, no plans to help ensure that these families can still do things like eat and have a roof (or tarp, what have you) over their heads. Furthermore, it's not like there is any shame attached to child labor here. Even the poshest families have a "Chotu" or a "Raju" who comes and hoses off their BMW every morning; although there is some public consciousness of this "moral" transgression (the truth or falsity of this statement is something that can be debated in another forum), it's nothing abnormal for a seven-year-old to help put chini (sugar) in your chai, or for a ten-year-old boy to wash your undergarments.

At some point...it just gets so overwhelming. I don't know how to tackle this problem, even at the most micro level. The last thing we want to do is scare Bunty away, make him think that he's not welcome or that we're going to turn him into some higher authority. What can we do? How can we change this situation without forcing him to make a choice to engage in work that is even more harmful?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I fully empathasize with your dilemma. Its a shameful practice to see little kids doing chores aroung your own house when you are watching t.v. But there are no simple solutions. Unless the Indian economy takes of big time, how can you provide bread and butter for the legions of poor people?

Vignesh

Venitha said...

Good questions. Give him books? Clothes? Make sure he learns something from you every day he's there?

Venitha said...

I assume you've seen _Born Into Brothels_? I came away from it thinking that the woman did more harm than good, encouraging those poor kids when there was really no hope. But how can you not hope to make a difference?