Why Rich People Employ Poor Children

Posted: August 2, 2011

Recently, I read this article in the Wall Street Journal, that talks about the cost of child domestic workers in India. There is no doubt that child labour is a serious problem in India – not only is it a problem on grounds of humanity and morality (exploiting a child who is not yet ready for work), it is also a problem from an economic and national perspective.

While India’s demographic dividend has been much talked about, the large pool of young people is only an asset if it is productive. Unschooled and untrained, the large number of child workers – at homes and in the unorganised industrial sector, are bound for low wage jobs that will keep them mired in this vicious cycle of poverty.

As Rupa Subramanya asks in the WSJ article, what explains the demand side? Why do the rich keep employing child labour when they know that it is illegal?

While it is true that child workers are cheaper, I cannot believe that it makes a difference to someone who earns a minimum of Rs. 40000 per month, whether he/she pays his domestic help Rs. 2000 or Rs. 500 a month. If at all it makes a difference, that difference is one in the mind. We have somehow come to believe that it is alright for all other prices to keep rising – we will pay more for petrol, daal, rice and cinema tickets – because we have no choice in the matter, but domestic help – we can’t believe that the prices can rise.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard well-educated women chide me for “paying too much”. Why is it so difficult for us to make the connection that the domestic helper also needs to eat, pay rent and send her children to school, and that what she pays for these has gone up, just as it has for you and me?

So, while it doesn’t make any sense objectively, cost could be a reason for hiring child workers – not cost itself, but the disinclination to pay full costs.

The even more prevalent reason may simply be that child workers are the most powerless of all workers. From the stories I hear around me, I do know that domestic workers today are more empowered and willing to speak up – many of them know how to negotiate, they keep a close watch on prices of labour in other houses and they ask for what is due to them.

Child workers are the exception to this trend – lacking knowledge on how to negotiate, physically smaller and vulnerable, often away from their homes and families and new to the city, with no escape outlet. It is also true that some people prefer child as well as adult workers from rural families, since they don’t have family in the city  – as opposed to an adult helper from the neighbourhood, who’d simply walk out if abused or treated poorly. One often hears people talking about hiring rural workers because “they don’t have airs.” That probably means they’ll put up with more. So, in a perverse sort of way, the demand for child labour, and especially from rural areas could actually be a reaction to the relative prosperity of the urban domestic worker and her unwillingness to put up with poor working conditions.

What does it say about well-off urban Indians, that poverty and desperation arouses not sympathy in us, but the desire to benefit out of it?

Child labour image via Shutterstock

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4 Comments


  1. Jyoti Bhargava -

    A couple of reasons I’ve come across from people employing children: she’s supposed to be a playmate for my child; she was so badly off that I got her from her family so at least she’d eat proper meals here; I’m going to teach this poor child to read and write so she gets literate and can find a better man to marry.
    My point to these so-called charitable minded women is to send the child to a proper school to live unto their claims. Our anti-child labour laws have got to become more stringent to be deterrents.

  2. I would not employ a child, nor do I know anyone who has employed very young children (below 13 years of age). However, I do know people who have employed girls younger than 18. It’s hard to be sure how old they are because they themselves are sketchy about their age or pretend to be. The reason they would pretend to be older is because most people I know do not want to employ someone young. As you said, Rs500 cheaper is not a big deal to most people. And not sure these younger domestic help are cheaper anyway. But they are perceived to be less mature, less capable, more difficult to manage. So most people I know would prefer older workers, not younger. However, there appears to be a shortage of domestic help in big cities. Therefore, the ones I know who have younger looking help, hired them because there really wasn’t anyone else available to hire.

    I find the solution ‘send them to school’ unhelpful. Paying for a child’s schooling is of little use unless they can be provided with the meals, livable environment etc. which enables them to stay in school and to go beyond school education. The reason the child is in the job market is because the family needs the money to survive.

    I’m not sure what the solution is. Frankly, I think full-time school is a waste of time. What I learnt in 10 years of schooling could have been condensed in five years, if not less. I had the luxury wasting my time in school – and I really though school was a waste of time even when I was a child – but not all children do. What might be a good alternative is to allow the older ‘children’ – 14 years and above – to do part-time work coupled with schooling that is catered to their needs. In many countries, even children from well-off families work part-time. There’s nothing inherently wrong about working, just that the needs of the children must be monitored and safeguarded.

  3. @Jyoti and @The Bride, thank you for your comments. (and apologies for the delayed response).

    @Jyoti – “My point to these so-called charitable minded women is to send the child to a proper school to live unto their claims.” Absolutely. Most people who profess in the “well-being” of their underage workers rarely live up to the talk.

    @The Bride – what you are saying explains the supply side perfectly. There are valid reasons for why the parents of these children send them out to work instead of to school, but how that does excuse employers? Shortage of labour cannot be an excuse. Just because adequate adult help is not available, cannot mean one does something illegal. My feeling is that it is not perceived as a serious crime.

    I do understand the ambivalence about 14-15 year olds though. Some of them haven’t had any sort of meaningful schooling, and some people perceive giving them a job as helping them. I do know of one case where someone has employed a 14 year old to help look after their own young child, but who lives at their home and gets everything that other family members do, who is treated more like an older sister to the child. They also send her to school, so she only chips in at home in the evening. Maybe I should write a separate post about this one and its ambiguity!

  4. Aparna, only talking about the older variety of minors, and even in their case their case, the work should ideally be part-time enabling them to get education or learn other skills, should not be hazardous work and there should be provisions in place protecting them from exploitation. The latter I guess is the most idealistic.

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