Jammu: As the coronavirus induced lockdown was being eased out in phases across Jammu and Kashmir, 12-year-old Khushboo Khatoon had no other option but to work at a factory in Bari Brahmana in the outskirts of Jammu city to eke out a living.
The little savings Khushboo’s father, a migrant labourer from Uttar Pradesh, had kept aside for her marriage was exhausted during the lockdown and they were now left empty handed.
“My father is already in debt. If I don’t work, we will have nothing to eat,” she said.
Rahul (name changed), an 11-year-old, told NewsClick that due to financial strain, he was forced to quit his studies at a government school in Motihari, Bihar. After that, he came to Jammu and joined his father who was already working in the medicine factory.
“We were at the verge of begging when the lockdown opened up. My father suggested that I should join him,” Rahul said.
But Khushboo and Rahul are not alone. They said that several others between 8-15 years of age were working with them at the factories.
The Bari Brahmana area of Samba district, nearly 20 kilometres from Jammu, is populated with myriad of factories employing thousands of workers including migrants and locals. Child labour has now become rampant here. The nationwide lockdown announced in March this year saw countless migrants with their children pouring on to the streets and walking hundreds of kilometres to return to their native places, barefoot, in lorries, on cycles, buses, and trains.
Many such migrant labourers from Jammu had also left for their hometowns. Now with the economic distress dawning on them coupled with job cuts, the workers have returned to work but their families have been pushed into poverty, debt and more measly life propelling their children into labour.
Rahul said child labour has increased after the lockdown and factory owners are asking workers to bring their children along to fill the shortages created by deficit in labour supply.
“We are told to bring in more children to the factories but at the same time, they ask us not to tell anyone outside. And we have obliged because we, too, want to work,” said Rahul.
Recently, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), on June 12, observed that without any support, more children will be pushed into child labour “as the pandemic wreaks havoc on family incomes.”
In another survey by Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation, it was found that child labour, child trafficking, and school dropout rates may increase in post lockdown phase while noting that 20 per cent of the households were ready to “consider withdrawing their children from school due to financial crisis.”
In India, under Child Labour Amendment (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 2016, the employment of children below the age of 14, except for certain work as child artist and in family business, is prohibited and termed illegal.
Two weeks ago, when 13-year-old Priya (name changed) was sacked by the factory owner, she wasn’t quite sure about how to respond. “I was asked to leave because I couldn’t attend to factory work for three days due to my father’s ailing health. The owner did not listen to me and said he had enough children asking him to employ them,” Priya told NewsClick. She silently left the premises and went to meet Pintoo Bhaiya, as she called him, who owns a dilapidated dhaba at a street corner where the factory workers come during their lunchtime. Pintoo, admired for being a patient listener, would be often swarmed by workers sharing their stories of ordeal with him.
A lanky, joyful man in his late 20s, Pintoo came to Jammu from Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh, in 2008 to work at a factory. He ended up setting up a tea stall and now, he runs a small dhaba. He said that he was living on debt. According to Pintoo, earlier he would earn Rs 8,000-10,000 per month but now, although his Dhaba has been open for last one month, he has not earned a penny.
“The workers are not capable of paying money right now, so I have kept a khaata (register of credit) for them. Besides, no one is coming to the dhaba because of the coronavirus pandemic,” he said.
The fear of coronavirus is hardly visible among the factory workers who are rarely seen social distancing, wearing a mask or carrying sanitizer. However, they said they had been provided with masks at the factories.
Lalla Siddqui, who hails from Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh, told NewsClick that the poor are not afraid of the virus but poverty. “Gareeb ko dara rahey hai ki coronavirus ho jayega. Aese toh gareeb bina kaam ke khud hi mar jayega (The poor are being scared that they would get infected by the coronavirus. If this continues, they will anyway die without work).”
Last month, when Kuldeep (name changed), aged 20, returned from Chhattisgarh to Jammu to resume work at a bottle factory, he was asked to either put in 12 hours of work or leave.
“I put in 12 hours of work on a daily basis and don’t get paid for the extra work that I put in,” he said.
The story of Kuldeep was echoed by many other workers who claimed that the work hours have increased whereas the wages have remained the same.
Sushmita, 24, said their efforts were not valued and they were warned when they tried to raise their demands. “Humko bola jaata hai ki kaam karo ya na karo aapki marzi. Aap nahi karoge toh koi aur karlega (We are told that if you work or not is your wish. If you do not work, then somebody else will).”
Recently, as the lockdown was being eased out and the economy was opening up, few states including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh passed proposals for amendments to the Factories Act, 1948, extending the work hours from 8 to 12 hours a day. The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) opposed the proposal underlining that it was “controversial” and against the guidelines on 48 hours of work a week as mandated by global and ILO norms.
Jagdish Sharma, secretary of CITU (J&K), said, “Such a proposal has not yet been passed in Jammu and Kashmir but it is being practiced illegally in the factories. The workers are being overburdened with work and they are not being paid minimum wage. The labour laws, under the Modi government in the name of ‘turning crisis into opportunity,’ have been compromised in India. The workers are bearing the brunt of the lockdown as if they were responsible for it.”
Priya, who lost her job last month, said that she has resorted to standing outside the local masjid and begging to make sure that her toddler brother got to drink milk every day.
“The walnut factory has promised me a job after Diwali. Till then, I am standing outside the masjid during prayer hours. People are kind. There are days when I am able to gather 100 rupees a day,” she said with a sparkling smile on her face.