Upper crust India has indeed been "shaken" by the story of a 13-year-old housemaid whose employers locked her in their flat, too scared of a beating to eat anything after her rations ran out, while they vacationed in Thailand, as Jim Yardley points out in Thursday's New York Times.
But in focusing the debate on child labor, most everybody has missed the point -- however real that problem remains.
"In India, reported to have more child laborers than any other country in the world, child labor and trafficking are often considered symptoms of poverty: desperately poor families sell their children for work, and some end up as prostitutes or manual laborers," Yardley offers. "But the case last week of the 13-year-old maid is a reminder that the exploitation of children is also a symptom of India’s rising wealth, as the country’s growing middle class has created a surging demand for domestic workers, jobs often filled by children."
"Despite a web of strong laws, the number of child workers in the country is substantial," the Hindustan Times writes in a staff editorial. "...The demand for such workers has been rising in India and the sorry state of affairs in the rural areas has only helped in stitching a demand-supply link, which is usually serviced by unscrupulous touts who indulge in child trafficking."
"Out of the hundreds of child laborers rescued in the city every month, eight to nine are child domestic workers, according to figures provided by the Child Welfare Committees (CWC) in the city," an HT news feature adds. "Rescued from homes of the affluent who can afford to employ domestic workers and pay between Rs. 20,000 ($400) and Rs. 30,000 $600) for nine months in addition to a meager salary to the placement agencies, these children usually run away from the employers’ homes before being rescued by NGOs or the police."
I don't mean to underplay how terrible it is that so many people are still employing children, and I certainly don't want to belittle the abuse that these children sometimes suffer. These are terrible stories, and terrible statistics, and they are damning about the casual acceptance of the worst abuses of feudalism in a society that in other respects claims to be one of the world's most progressive -- as far as they go.
But it irks me that only an egregious case such as this one -- a 13-year-old locked in while her employers are in Thailand! One couldn't invent better propaganda! -- can prompt any soul searching about labor conditions and the unfairness of society. And I'm a little concerned that the holier than thou approach here -- "Gasp! People are employing children as maids!" -- has allowed everybody to pat themselves on the back as a nice, moral, well-meaning person who would never do such a thing.
For all of those readers, I have three questions:
(1) When was the last time you gave your maid a raise?
(2) Does your maid work seven days a week?
(3) Does your maid have a contract, with a fixed (paid) annual vacation and a guarantee that her job will be waiting for her when she returns?
And if not, why aren't you begging your employers to come in on Sunday, scrap your holidays, and eliminate pesky items like pension contributions and health insurance?
It's not only about kids. Those kids also have parents, and the kids are only working because the social and economic conditions for all of India's laborers are so dismal -- though I agree that's sometimes perversely used as justification for hiring children to begin with.