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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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