CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Activists have criticised a bill that bans the employment of children under 14 in more than a dozen occupations, but allows them to work for their family businesses, saying the legislation justified child labour.
The Rajya Sabha passed an amendment to the Child Labour Act late on Tuesday, which would allow children under 14 to help their parents with home-based work, including farming, after school hours and during holidays.
The bill also introduces heftier penalties of between six months to two years for those found guilty of breaking the law, and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($740).
"The law is being changed after 30 years and yet it has found a way to justify some form of child labour," said Enakshi Ganguly, a founder of the charity, HAQ: Centre for Child Rights.
The bill, which is expected to be passed by the lower house of parliament, also allows children aged between 14 and 18 to be employed in other professions not designated as "hazardous".
For example, children working as artists in the entertainment industry, including advertisement, films, television serials have been granted an exemption to work under the new law as long as it does not affect their schooling.
India is home to 5.7 million child workers aged between five and 17, according to the International Labour Organization, which estimates there are 168 million child workers globally.
More than half of India's child workers labour in the fields, and over a quarter in manufacturing - embroidering clothes, weaving carpets or making matchsticks. Children also work in restaurants and hotels, and as domestic workers.
Defending the bill, India's labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya told parliament the new law was stringent and would reduce child labour in the country.
He also said that a family-run business would be less exploitative because it did not pit employer against employee.
"It is very difficult to establish who is not part of family in our social fabric," HAQ's Ganguly told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Everyone is an uncle and who is going to check the validity when a rescued child labourer says he worked for his uncle."
Parliamentarians opposed to the amendments argued that allowing children to work in the family business undermined the
"Would we even dream of allowing our children at home to come back from school and assist us or work for us? What is not right for our children is not right for a child from an economically weaker background," lawmaker Kanimozhi Karunanidhi told parliament.
During the debate in parliament, questions were also raised about exposing children to pesticides used in farming or other hazards in home-based business like carpet-weaving, bangle-making and rolling beedis.
($1=67.188 Indian rupees)