In Geeta Colony here, it’s always helpful to have quick fingers, especially for children. Aarti, five, uses a sharp cutter to trim the loose threads along the seams of a pair of stonewashed jeans. She takes about 10 minutes on each pair, as she runs the cutter along the inside pockets, the waistband and the belt loops, for which she earns 50 paise.
The jeans come from Gandhinagar, a garment hub in the east of the national capital, where each day, factories churn out thousands of sets of clothes that are sent to neighbouring slums for finishing.
“Most of the cutting and stitching is done using machines, in factories,” says a garment maker. “But trimming of threads is a manual process, usually given to contractors.”
Factory owners say it is much cheaper to get the trimming done by contractors. This difference in cost, activists say, is because of the widespread use of child labourers such as Aarti.
Through the past decade, pressure from international buyers and a strategy of raiding factories and rescuing child workers, which won child-rights activist Kailash Satyarthi the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, has meant garment factories are less likely to employ child workers on their premises. “Instead, we see a shift to home-based work, where tasks such as trimming threads and sewing sequins have been subcontracted to households,” says Bharati Ali, founder of HAQ, a non-profit child protection organisation. “Under the current legal regime, there are no laws to regulate home-based work, unless the child is employed as domestic help.”
In Geeta Colony, each home is stacked to the ceiling with unfinished jeans. Mothers and children sit at their doorsteps and trim the clothes together. As the clothes have no labels, it impossible to know which factory they come from and where they are headed.
“How much work can a young child do anyway?” asks Aarti’s mother, as her daughter finishes work on another pair. “She will just do this for maybe an hour and then go away to play. No parent wants a child to work, but we are very poor and need the money.”
Aarti’s father, she adds, is a rickshaw puller.
The Ministry of Labour estimates 4.5 million children are employed as workers, though there is no reliable sector-wise data on how many children are employed, where, and for how many hours a day.
The widespread adoption of informal home-based work has meant children “rescued” from factories are likely to continue working at home. According to ministry data, as of 2013, about 24,000 child workers had been “mainstreamed” through rehabilitation. But a 2006 HAQ survey of a small sample of 44 children rescued from Delhi’s zari factories found a third of the children had been re-trafficked, while a fifth were either idle or working as agricultural labourers.
Worryingly, only 4.5 per cent of the rescued children were in school.
“We are against child labour in our factories,” says Mohan Sadhwani, executive director of The Clothing Manufacturers Association of India, adding, “But once the material leaves our factory gate, it is beyond our purview and our control.”
Sadhwani says it is possible some workers ask their children to help with trimming threads. “But if a mother asks her daughter to help her cut vegetables, would you call it child labour?”
“The garment sector has many tiers and a long supply chain,” says Avinash Kumar Singh, programme coordinator at Save the Children. “At the top, you have export-only factories, which must adhere to the compliance norms of international buyers. Therefore, these steer clear of child labour. But as you move down the chain, smaller factories give work to contractors who are almost never monitored.”
When Neha (name changed) turned 10, her father, a construction worker, was struggling to support his family. As such, a neighbour suggested taking up trimming work for factories. “For a year, my sister and I tried to balance school and trimming,” she says. “But we kept missing school and found it impossible to keep up.” Soon, she dropped out and began working eight hours a day from home.
“Other kids would wake up and head to school,” she says. “I would wash my face and sit down to work.”
Her younger brother, 10 at that time, worked as a tea boy. “One day, he came home early,” she says. “The neighbouring factory had been raided by the police and child activists. So, my brother and the other children were sent home through a back entrance.” He stayed home for two days, but went back to work soon.
Now, he is 17 and works in the same factory. He hopes to pass Class-X exams through an open learning programme.
“Thread-cutting is hard work,” Neha says. “Often, you get neck-pains and backaches. My sister’s eyes have been ruined forever.”
A few years ago, Neha joined a bridge school run by Save the Children and the Salaam Balak Trust. “I really wanted to go back to school. I convinced my mother,” she says.
Now, she’s finished school and is enrolled in computer and spoken-English courses. “My elder brother has a government job as a peon,” she says. “So, our family is slightly better off.”
She isn’t sure how to stop parents from pushing their children to work. “It’s a difficult question because everyone is quite poor… I think parents have to understand letting their child study is their best chance of doing better in the long run.”