HUNDREDS of newspaper articles have been written on child labour in the match industry of Sivakasi and neighbouring areas. Some say it is the exploitation of the poor by capitalists. Others say it is the exploitation of children by their parents. Most accounts leave out a more important reason – the exploitation of females by males.
The Tamil Nadu government and UNICEF recently prepared a report on the match industry in the region. This reveals that 90 per cent of the total workforce and 80 per cent of child labour is female. In other words, the general Sivakasi pattern is for men to send their wives and little girls to handle dangerous chemicals while seeking a different future’for themselves and their sons.
Discrimination does not end here. Of the limited number of boys working in the industry, 70 per cent attend school, and work only part-time. But no less than 80 per cent of little girls work full-time. In other words, even when schooling is available, most girls are kept working and illiterate, while boys get educated.
This is unusual in Tamil Nadu. The state has a fine record in educating girls, which is regarded by experts as the key reason for the very low fertility rate of women in the state. Why is Sivakasi so different?
One answer is that the typical match industry family has special characteristics. It is common for entire families to work together in the match industry, often at home as a cottage industry. The average family in the industry has 6 members, far more than the state average of 4.7 members. Moreover, females account for almost two-thirds of family members in the match industry, against less than half for the state as a whole. In other words, a family with many girls is most likely to enter the match industry, and most likely to make its girls work full-time instead of educating them.
This problem cannot be solved by enforcing a ban on child labour in the 400 or so factories. Around 40 per cent of all matches are made in 6,000 cottage units, which often means families working in homes. No laws can effectively prevent parents from making little girls work at home. Factories pay piece rates for making matches and filling them in boxes, at the rate of 75 paise per frame. The owners care little whether the work is done by males or females, children or animals. They simply want matches at a given rate. True, there are cases where families have taken cash advances from owners and virtually bonded their children to owners to repay the loans. But in general the industry functions on piece rates, and so has little reason to favour children over adults. Indeed, child labour has largely disappeared in fireworks factories in Sivakasi, thanks to good enforcement.
GENDER EXPLOITATION: Ending child labour in the match industry could create a local labour shortage, which might tend to drive up the piece rates. But match factories are easily relocated at little cost, and would simply migrate to poorer districts which would gratefully grab jobs at the rates currently paid by Sivakasi (which, incidentally, boasts today that it has no unemployment or beggars thanks to the match industry).
No, the explanation for child labour lies mainly in gender exploitation, not class or parental exploitation. The birth of a girl is viewed as a financial disaster in India. Her parents will have to give her a dowry when she marries. They have to spend money feeding and clothing her when young, but when she grows up and marries the fruit of her labour (whether at home or in the workplace) accrues to her husband’s family. By contrast a boy brings in a dowry, works for the family when he grows up, and looks after his parents in their old age. So a girl is a financial liability, and a boy an asset.
Child labour gives parents the chance to reduce their financial liability. A couple with just one girl may find the liability bearable. But a family with three girls tends to send them to work, so that they earn their keep and yield a surplus to finance their dowry. Not many steady jobs are available for little girls, and so the match industry looks like a god sent to families with many girls. The report reveals that fully half the worker families will fall below the poverty line if they are forced to withdraw their children from work. This explains the social harmony between owners and workers in a situation, which should really evoke social outrage.
Until we change male attitudes, until we get rid of the curse of dowry, we will not be able to end child labour. We have to change society before we can free little girls. Even if inspectors keep girls out of factories, parents will put them to work in some other avenue, like gathering firewood or tending goats, and the result will be continued gender exploitation but at a lower family income.
Better schools and agricultural development that raises incomes could reduce the exploitation of children by parents. But even if this induces parents to put all their boys in school, many will put little girls to work as long as these are viewed as debit entries in a financial leger.