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  Issue No 17 Official Organ of LaborNet 11 June 1999  





Child Labour: Kerala’s Recipe

By Samuel Grumiau - ICTUR

Of India's 55 million slave children, not one is to be found in the state of Kerala, in the south of the sub-continent.

Child labour is almost non-existent there and the literacy rate is 91%. Historical and political factors explain this success.

Nobody can prove it, but everyone in Kerala is proud of the fact that the apostle Thomas is said to have stayed there almost two thousand years ago. True or not, this anecdote frequently serves to illustrate the long tradition of Christianity in this state. Contacts with the outside world started when Vasco Da Gama, seeking a route to the Indies via the Cape of Good Hope, landed in Kerala in 1498. From then on, missionaries flocked in. Next to each church they built a school which took in children regardless of caste, religion or their parents' income.

They were to maintain this egalitarian attitude throughout the long years of colonisation. And the number of schools kept rising, even if they did not cover the needs of the whole population. The missionaries' action was soon copied. The other religious communities (Hindu and Muslim) also began to open schools. However, the children from the "lower" Hindu castes continued to visit the Christian schools. There they became aware of their rights and demanded reforms, in particular the abolition of the caste system, which maintains a substantial portion of the population in a state of slavery vis-à-vis the "higher" classes. These social reformers won their first victories at the beginning of this century, thanks, in particular, to the influence of Mahatma Gandhi.

Whilst the other Indian states entered the 20th century with little progress having been made, Kerala was ahead in terms of social equality and access to education. Not all children had as yet the opportunity to go to school, but the four hundred years of Christian influence had created an awareness amongst the population of the importance of education. On average, Kerala's inhabitants were better trained than other Indians when the country gained its independence in 1947.

In 1957, when the Communist party came into power, the government immediately undertook a redistribution of land, with the large landowners losing part of their croplands to the landless inhabitants. New schools were opened, trade unions encouraged and a minimum wage genuinely applied. These social reforms have never been called into question by the Congress Party which, since 1957 has held power alternately in Kerala (with the Communist party).

Kerala's government-financed schools have proved increasingly successful since independence. Enrolment is free and free school meals encourage poor families to send their children. The minimum wage, which is higher than elsewhere in India, allows parents to survive without their children having to go out to work. Anyone who has not enrolled his son or daughter in school comes under pressure from the other inhabitants of the village. Enthusiasm for literacy is such that non-governmental organisations are being set up in Kerala to educate elderly people who were unable to attend school when they were young. Teachers give courses free of charge in every village so that they can at least read and write their names. In this way every inhabitant in Kerala gets used to reading newspapers and takes an active interest in what is going on in the world....

Graduate exodus

However, Kerala's young people are confronted, at the end of their studies, with a lack of work to match their qualifications. The economy of this southern state remains largely agricultural. The lack of natural resources, the higher salaries and constant trade union demands have dissuaded industrialists from setting up shop in Kerala. The lack of jobs has provoked a large exodus of labour towards the countries of the Persian Gulf, the west, or the other regions of India. Of the three million Indians who work in the Gulf, a third come from Kerala (whereas this state counts for just 3% of India's population).

Every year they remit a large portion of their salaries to their families, who use the money to improve their living standards and... to enrol their children in prestigious private schools. These too will in turn leave to seek their fortune abroad.

As we can see, it is a whole range of factors that allow Kerala to boast a literacy rate of 91% (compared with an India-wide average of just 52%) and to have almost eradicated child labour. "Almost", because the exodus of workers has, in turn, produced a shortage of unskilled labour.

This demand is filled in part by the arrival of inhabitants from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. These do not have the same history and, like most Indians, use their children to make ends meet. This phenomenon nonetheless remains marginal and does not harm the good reputation which Kerala has won for the education of its children. University graduates from the whole of India and the world at large visit the state regularly in order to study how so poor a state obtains such good educational results.

The ILO is discussing Child Labour this week -- see next week's Workers Online for more details


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*   Issue 17 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Class Consciousness
Long-time ALP member Michael Thomson has thrown a few grenades with a new book arguing that middle class trendies have taken over the ALP.
*  Legal: Reith¹s AWAs Dealt a Blow
ASU v Electrix rules that AWAs can't be a take it or leave it proposition.
*  Unions: Survey Misses the Point
Last week's attempt by the Australian newspaper to rank trade unions contained some fundamental flaws.
*  History: The Light on the Hill
Fifty years after his seminal address, Ben Chifley's words still ring true -- and still challenges Labor.
*  International: Child Labour: Kerala’s Recipe
Of India’s 55 million slave children, not one is to be found in the state of Kerala, in the south of the sub-continent.
*  Review: Bazza Mckenzie Holds His Own
Tony Moore on perhaps the greatest Australian movie ever made.
*  Women: Equal Pay - We've Come A Long Way
Thirty years have passed since women around Australia raised their fists in victory at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission's historic equal pay for equal work decision.
*  Activists: Throwing Off the Chains
Thirty years ago, Zelda D'Aprano was so incensed by the lack of progress in achieving pay parity that she twice chained herself to public buildings in Melbourne.
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, a summary of industrial news for trade unions.

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