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Child labour of a different kind

By Mari Marcel Thekaekara

The middle classes object to poor children working in sweatshops, whether in Sivakasi match factories or the carpet industry in Kashmir. But they consider it the height of achievement to get a child onto a television show or a modelling contract

Child  labour hits the headlines periodically, prompting a  cynical, largely  blasé population  to  make  the  necessary politically  correct  noises.  As I  write  this column, the  Right  to  Education  Act  has  ensured  that education for child labour  is  hotly debated by  educationists,  legislators,  on  television,  and in the  print  media.  

Unicef, Save  The  Children  and  hundreds  of   Indian  NGOs  have worked  tirelessly  for  child rights, and  after  decades succeeded  in  making  it an  issue at  least  on paper. These, however,  are  the rights  of  children  of  what  our  society deems lesser  humans. Kids coming  from the  economically deprived sections  of  society. The  poor,  voiceless,  below-the poverty-line  people who  still  make  up  the  bulk  of  our  population.  

However, I  wish  to  draw  attention  to  a  breed  of  child  workers  who hit the headlines  in  another  way. Their  labour  is  glorified. They are feted, photographed, pampered and spoiled.  Nevertheless,  they  also  toil and  are deprived  of  their  childhood,  their  innocence  and their  rights.  

I'm talking  about  child  celebrities,  whether film  stars, models, sports icons, or prodigies  of  different  kinds.   

Of course very often, these  are  children  with  exceptional  talent. Their talent  should  without doubt flourish and  inspire  others  to  excellence. Through the ages, children have  been  initiated into  classical  dance  and music. And they thrive on the  discipline  and  rigour  imposed  on  them.  I object  only  to  the  exploitation  of  children  for  commercial purposes,  Should  children  be commercially  exploited as  is  mostly the  case in  the  ad  world? Is it right to    push them beyond what is acceptable for a child? In  the  sports  world, is  it healthy to put  kids into training camps  where  they are deprived  of family, school,  peer  group, friends  and playmates? Is it fair to blinker them like race horses,  (officially they  are  merely being  “made  to  focus”) to  run  the  strenuous  course  success  demands?  

In  the  ‘50s and  ’60s,  one  read about  Hollywood child  stars and  the sadness  of  their  lives, overexposed  to the  media,  though  the  fourth estate  was  far  less intrusive  or  aggressive  than  it  is  today. A google search  leads  you  to a  galaxy  of  child  stars with their earlier  kiddy  pictures interspersed with lives  as hot new stars today. One site (All Grown Up: The 23 Hottest Former Child Stars (http://amog.com/entertainment/celebrity/all-grown-up-the-hottest-former-child-stars/) glorifies  their  achievements,  their rapid  rise  to  fame. Most television  addicts,  their  brains blasted  by inane  soundbytes, adore  the stunning  size-zero women  panting at  the  camera,  lips  parted, cleavage (real  or  collagened) thrust  out and displayed  to titillate the viewer. They consider these women the ultimate in success. But even this  site  appears   slightly  apologetic and taken  aback  by  a  child star who  began her  career  as  an 11-month-old baby. Most  of  the 23  children portrayed began  their  careers before  the  age  of 10, many  of  them  on much loved,  popular family    serials  like  Sesame  Street or  the  Bill  Cosby  Show.  It is possible  those  with  sensible  parents  survived with  their  emotions  intact. Most of  us  have thoroughly enjoyed   watching  the  Cosby  show and  Sesame Street and  considered  them wholesome,  innocuous family entertainment.  But how many of  us would have given  a  second  thought  to  the long-term fate,  the  future  of  any  of  these  beloved   child  stars. Likewise  on this  site --  no questions  are  asked  or  answered regarding  the wellbeing or  happiness  of  such    children.   

The  middle  classes  may tut-tut  at  the  way  the  poor send  their  children  to  work  in  sweatshops,  whether  in  Sivakasi match  factories  or  the  leather  curing industry  of  Tamil  Nadu, or  to  roll  beedis and  agarbattis,   make  carpets  in  Kashmir, or  provide cheap,  easy-to-abuse  domestic  labour in  city  apartments  all  over  the  country. But   the  average  middle  class parent reared on  popular TV serials  considers it  the  height  of  ambition  and  achievement to  get  a  child onto  a  television  show  or  nab  a modelling  assignment. It’s seen  as having  arrived,  both  socially  as  well  as financially.

In  India,  television  has  created an  army  of parents  eager  to  push their children  into  the  limelight,  to  jump onto  the fame bandwagon. There are opportunities galore. A producer friend told  us  he  was  exhausted  dealing  with  aggressive  parents pushing their  kids  at  him  for his TV show.  They didn't  care anymore  if  the  child  missed  school, fell  behind academically,  missed  exams  even. Apparently all  those  things  can  be  shoved on  the  back burner  because  that  one  elusive shot  at   stardom  could  lead to  instant fame, greater  glory  and a  fabulous  income on  the small  screen. 

I  myself  have  never stopped  to  reflect on  the rights  or  lack  of  them,  of  such  children. But  recently my son,  a  filmmaker,   was  invited to  trail such  a  kid,  made  famous  by  a  popular  ad  and  being egged  on, presumably  by  his  parents,  to perform a  superhuman feat (even  for  an  adult),  to  get  into  the  Guinness  Book  of Records. The child  at  five was  already a  confused, almost  psychiatric case.  He  could not  attend  school  as  he  was  unused  to  not  being  the centre  of attraction  and  would  not  tolerate  the  slightest  reprimand  or correction from  teachers. He  could  not  be  a  normal  child like  other  kids  in  a  classroom.  He'd  been  pampered  and given in to  as  a  child star and  was already  behaving  like  a  prima  donna. At five he was definitely a disaster waiting to happen.  

The  question  of  excellence  in  sport is  slightly  more  complicated.  Take the  case  of  Budhia  Singh, the  six-year-old adivasi boy  from  Orissa.  A natural  untrained  athlete,  he  ran 40 miles at  the  age  of  four. But as  soon  as  Budhia  hit  the media  headlines and  national  fame, he  was  in  trouble.  All  kinds  of  people  began to  jump  on  the  bandwagon   to  exploit his untrained,  still untainted  talent.  Budhia's  coach was  alleged  to  have started  beating  him in  an  attempt  to  get  him  to push his  amazing talent  even  further  and  faster  at the  ludicrously  young   age  of  six .  

Most  tribal  kids  are  natural athletes  and  can  outrun, outshoot (in  archery if  they  are  from  a  hunting tribe) and outperform the  average non-tribal  kid in  any  sports meet. Their essentially outdoors lifestyle  renders  them  more supple,  agile and  fit. Or  perhaps like  Africans  and  Afro Americans they  have  special  genes!  

Recently  Anu  and  Krishna from Thulir in  Tamil  Nadu, took  a  group of adivasi youngsters to  Pondicherry to take  part in  a  marathon. The boys  ran  easily and  stayed  the  course with  no  training  whatsoever!  One of  them  came first.  He breasted  the  tape  and  ran  off to  drink some water. The  boy  who  came  second,  a  city  kid,  ran  up  to  the  finishing  line cheering ecstatically. He brandished the  victory  sign excitedly,  jumping for  joy, arms  triumphantly pumping  the  air.  Everyone crowded  around    congratulating  him, assuming  he  was  the  winner. It  took  the  organisers a  while  before  they  realised the  adivasi  kid  had  come  first  but  without  the  accompanying  fanfare. There  was  real  shock when  it  dawned  on  everyone that winning  was  not  part  of adivasi culture. The tribal kid  simply  did  not  think  it  was  a  big  deal. Actually  few  people present  could  even  begin to  comprehend  his  attitude.  

For  us, the  community of   activists,  NGOs, educationists, or  social  workers, it  poses  a convoluted question.  A  moral  dilemma  in  fact. Should  we  lead  these  children  into  the  sports  arena because their  natural  athletic  prowess  excites  us,  reared  as  we  are  in  the competitive  non-tribal spirit?  Even though we know deep down in  our  hearts that their values  are  better? Inherently nobler?  

Perhaps the  most  disturbing  of  all are  those  pathetic   rich kids  who  are  sent  into commercial modelling.  

They  are  generally  upper  or  middle  class  children because few  poor  people  have  access  to  the  corridors  of  power  leading  to  television or  ad  agency hot-shot  producers. Shooting,  cameras,  action,  lights.  It’s  an  unnatural, artificial  world  the  child  is  plunged  into. The  purpose  is  mere  money and  fame. A Gulf-returned, TV-addicted woman was proudly displaying photographs  of her  family. She was carefully grooming her prettiest daughters to become child models. They  were  being  posed,  taught  to  pout suggestively  at  the  camera. The  make-up  added  to  the Lolita  effect. A grotesque parody of  innocent  beauty.  Yet  most  people thought  it  was  cute.  Did  the  child  ask  for  its  life  to  be disrupted??  No. No  child  naturally  has  such  aspirations  or  ambitions. These  are  the  parents' ambitions,  greed and  need.  Projected  onto  a  hapless child  it distorts  forever  the  kid's childhood  and  possibly its future,  particularly if  one modelling  assignment  leads  to  another. The  child  is  completely  and  absolutely vulnerable. Fame  and  glory  can turn  the  child's  head.  Make it vain, precocious  and  unnatural. These  kids  are certainly better clothed,  fed and  cosseted  than  their  counterparts in  sweatshops.  But are  they  mentally better  off? Their  minds  become  warped and  twisted. Many  child  stars  end up  totally  ruined  by  the  orgy of  drugs,  sex and  alcohol  which  they  encounter at  an  early  age,  in  the strange, artificial  industry  they  are  inducted  into. They  are  not  surrounded  by  normal  people. And  they  end  up depressed,  suicidal  and  mentally unstable.  

Most of the  Indian population  with  television  access is  currently in the  middle of being   rendered brain  dead,  their intelligence  numbed  by  popular programmes designed  to  win  hearts  and  ruin minds.  Very  few  people  would  fault  the ambitious,  pushy,  rich or middle class parents  for  exploiting  their  children on  the  silver  screen. 

However,  Article 39 of the Constitution requires that "the tender age of children is not abused". And  additionally, that no  child  "is  forced by economic necessity to enter vocations unsuited to their age or strength". Strangely though, child labour per se, is not illegal in India.  

Child  labour in  India is governed  by two important  laws. These are the Factories Act, 1948 and the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986. These two Acts are aimed at protecting children below 14 from being employed in certain specified factories and hazardous occupations. Penalties are imposed for non-compliance -- 3-12 months imprisonment or a fine of Rs 10,000-20,000 for a first offence, and a mandatory jail term of six months to two years for repeat offences. But both these Acts sees the “abuse of the tender age of children” more in a physical context.   

So, of course, the sports, film and ad industries are not covered by this or  any  other Act to protect children. We assume  wealthy or  middle class  parents are  more  responsible  than  the  poor. That  they  would  not  allow  their  children  to  be  harmed.  So does  the  government  of  India.  And  it’s  difficult  to  measure mental  and  spiritual  damage. Or damage to the  child's spirit  and soul.

Given the exorbitant cost of TV advertising, there is an overarching need for ad films to capture audience attention in a  flash, without the viewer  becoming  bored and switching channels. We are  talking seconds  here,  not  even  minutes. This  intense competition for attention induces advertisers to use  not  just  young  children  but  even  infants and babies,  in  order  to  grab  and  hold   audience attention  for  those  few all-important seconds. 

Ask any advertiser and they will tell you that there is nothing like a child star to sell a product – from soap (remember the awardwinning ad of the Nirma girl whirling around in a mini frock?) to mobile service providers like the famous Vodafone boy now girl with the little pug. Practically every other car ad features a child.  

That children sell products has obviously grown to become an unchallenged advertising axiom. But at what price to the child?    

The fact  that  children  under  14  are used extensively in  the  advertising industry has  complicated implications. The average  child  labour  laws are  made  to  cover kids between 5-14 years, so  children below  5  are  not  considered  at  all. This is  the  only industry that employs  babies, toddlers and even newborn infants.

India  needs to wake  up  to  the  fact  that  child  labour  extends  to  the  fast lane  used  by  Indian  high  society  too. We  must look  to the west  here,  to  implement  new  laws  safeguarding  rich  kids  from  their avaricious parents.

Professor R Vaidyanathan from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, who has  examined  Swedish  and  US laws and  practice  pertaining  to  children  and  advertising, argues in an article in the  Hindu Business Line that the EU and US for instance has  better  regulations  governing  children in the   advertising industry. They address two inter-related issues... One, using child labour to promote products. And two, luring young children to demand these products of their parents. These  issues are inter-related as, unless child actors are used, the persuasion may not work with the child audience watching the  ads.  He suggests we need regulations such  as  the Self-Regulation Code of Children's Advertising prepared by the European industries cell, based in Brussels (November 2001 code) which  stipulates  that the advertisement should not exploit the inexperience or credulity of children. There  is  more. The  Code also clearly points  out  that the advertisements should not undermine the authority or responsibility of parents. It should not include any direct appeal to children to persuade their parents or other adults to buy advertised products for them. Programme personalities, live or animated, should not be used to sell products in or adjacent to programmes in which the same personality appears. The list is long and runs to several pages. The  Indian government  needs  to  adopt  this  kind  of practice after  adapting  it  to  Indian  conditions.

It is high time we recognised that the “tender age of children” can be abused in myriad ways. And that masking this abuse through glamorisation, stardom and often immeasurable financial gain is no longer acceptable. If we are to call ourselves a civilised society we must see the unabashed use of children to generate profits for investors for what it is – a blatant and criminal abuse of the rights of a child. 

I  discovered  a  quote  which helped  sum  up   the spirit  of  my disquiet  with  children  being  exploited  commercially  in  advertising  and  modelling.  Dr Olson Huff, MD, President of the North Carolina Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics,  puts  it  passionately  and  powerfully. 

"It's a sad day for us all when our children are so trivialised as to become objects of exploitation for economic gain. It is an even sadder day when their bodies are used to broker for commercial enterprise and their innocence destroyed by greed. 

“Such is the case when children are used as objects to advertise products which project them into positions of sexual manipulation and fantasy. We should be aware of their exploitation and be sickened by it. At the centre of our moral, ethical, and religious beliefs is that we are responsible for nurturing and protecting our children. When we begin to relent on those standards, especially for economic gain, we have begun to tear down the pillars on which are built our hopes, our dreams, our beliefs and our futures.  

“We should never, never allow this to happen!"

Infochange News & Features, May 2010