In Asia, movements of working children have been emerging since the 1990s, but with the exception of two regions in India, they still have little continuity and are hardly networked with each other. Usually supported by non-governmental organisations, working children have repeatedly articulated themselves in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia and more recently in Mongolia. In India, Bal Mazdoor Sangh in the Delhi area and Bhima Sangha in the Bangalore area are particularly noteworthy. These two organisations will be presented below.
Bal Mazdoor Sangh and Butterflies Child Rights in Delhi
Bal Mazdoor Sangh sees itself as a union of the working children of the street. It was founded with the support of the NGO Butterflies Child Rights, a programme in Delhi since 1988 for children living on the streets.
A basic assumption of Butterflies is that poverty can only be overcome through community participation and democratic procedures. From the beginning, children were not - as is usual in India and other countries - seen as objects of charitable care, but as active subjects. In its programmes Butterflies successfully builds on the knowledge, skills and abilities of working children and so-called "street children". The children are encouraged to take responsibility for the planning, implementation and evaluation of their activities or to develop a critical attitude towards their environment and also towards the street workers. An important concern of Butterflies is to strengthen the children's relationships with their families and, where possible, to enable the children to return to their families. Butterflies also organises public campaigns for children's rights and reminds political leaders that they are responsible for the welfare of all children.
Children's councils have developed into a permanent organisation with members
The Bal Sabhas, the children's councils, have an important function in the participation of children: children meet at contact points to discuss things that concern them. In times of crisis, such as when the police or employers use violence, exploitation or blackmail, the children call an emergency meeting of the Bal Sabha. Because the children's councils, on the other hand, were often unable to do much, the adults felt that the children needed an instrument through which they could act collectively. They therefore proposed the creation of a sangh, which means union, association or forum.
The children's union Bal Mazdoor Sangh emerged in this way from the work of Butterflies in 1991. Bal Mazdoor Sangh was originally founded by 14 working children and so-called "street children". They gave themselves a six-month trial period. Today more than 300 children and youth are members. In order to obtain official registration, the children and youth had to give themselves a structure that complies with Indian trade union law. They elected official representatives and nominated two adults, including a lawyer, as secretaries to complete further formalities. All union members pay dues and receive membership cards.
In terms of content, Bal Mazdoor Sangh's work includes negotiating better wages and working conditions or raising awareness for children's rights, as provided for in the Indian Constitution and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. They want to make violations of the Convention and the Indian Constitution public and take action against these, as well as exert public pressure on the political leadership - regardless of whether the children are members or not.
Schools should adapt to the needs of working children
Bal Mazdoor Sangh advocates that the worst forms of exploitation of children be abolished. At the same time, they demand that the situations of the families and communities from which the children come be taken into account in political decisions on child labour. The children also demand that their work be regulated in such a way that they are not exploited and can work in safety and according to their needs. They demand good schools tailored to their situation, education and access to the health system. They also call for more efforts to create jobs for adults and reduce poverty.
When important issues need to be discussed or programmes initiated, the Sangh representatives ask the Butterflies contact points for support and call for plenary meetings. In this way, the Sangh have so far organised demonstrations, sit-ins, press conferences, meetings with politicians and negotiations with employers. To keep the flow of communication going, the working children's union also publishes a wall newspaper that is posted at all strategic points. The newspaper is aimed at so-called "street children" and working children, but also at adults. Each issue focuses on a specific theme, event or problem.
Adults support the activities
Two concrete examples of how Butterflies and Bal Mazdoor Sangh can work together: Some of the working children are in the process of turning a Butterflies health programme into a health cooperative which they will manage themselves. Some of the youths are already working in the mobile health service and are to become paid employees of the cooperative in the future. Other children and youth run a restaurant at a national bus station with the support of Butterflies.
They use rent-free accessible rooms of the municipal administration for their events, theatre or other activities. They also negotiate with local workshop and company management to create training places for young people. In this way both Butterflies and Bal Mazdoor Sangh ensure their integration into society.
Bal Mazdoor Sangh and Butterflies are striving for a supra-regional and international movement of working children and so-called "street children" and have established contacts with organisations in Nepal and Sri Lanka that work with children in a similar way. Their main goal, however, is to advance the movement in India itself.
Bhima Sangha and CWC in Bangalore
The South Indian children's union Bhima Sangha was founded in the early 1990s in Bangalore, the capital of the Indian state of Karnathaka, as a result of a trade union action. With many working children attending meetings of adult workers' unions (at times accounting for 40 per cent of those present), trade unionists had worked with working children in the mid-1980s to draft a bill that distinguished between child labour and child work. It specifies precisely which activities are unsuitable for children and how they should be phased out gradually with transitional arrangements which take account of the interests of children and their families. In order to introduce the bill, the adults founded the non-profit association CWC - The Concerned for Working Children. CWC's declared intention was to improve the lives of working children and their families.
From the beginning CWC aimed at a society without exploitation. The working children should be supported to become aware of their life situation, to recognise problems and to consider action steps together. Since the beginning of its commitment to labour legislation, CWC has developed its programme in constant exchange with working children.
Focus on education and training
In 1989 CWC established a centre in Bangalore where more than 80 children per year receive education, but also receive help and advice. It has eight contact points at markets and bus stations, where trained street workers work. The children who visit the centre regularly publish a newspaper ('Bhima Patrike'). Through this means of communication, the working children moved together and formed children's groups. CWC is also present in many rural areas and has set up schools in 60 villages adapted to the conditions of working children.
In 1990, after some children's groups came up with the idea of a larger union, CWC proposed to the children to form their own union. Thus Bhima Sangha was born as a socially oriented organisation for and by working children. It demands that working children have a right to protection and respect, and insists that they have equal opportunities and a say in all matters that affect them. CWC is the address for the children's union to turn to for information and support. CWC also houses the premises of members and official representatives of Bhima Sangha.
Child credit cooperative finances many projects
In all activities of Bhima Sangha the children make their own financial contribution, because it is assumed that they are more likely to stick to one thing if they had to do something for it. With the support of the street workers, the children have developed a savings programme and set up a credit cooperative, into which each member pays two rupees a day. In this way they want to give their members access to school, training courses and medical care. They also plan to grant loans in order to set up small businesses.
Bhima Sangha currently reaches about 13,000 children and youth aged between six and 18 in Bangalore and six other districts of Karnathaka. In the cities almost half of the members are girls. These children have various jobs: they work in cafés, garages, small businesses or, for example, as self-employed rubbish collectors, shoe shiners, porters and salespersons.
In 1996 Bhima Sangha hosted the First World Meeting of Working Children and Youth in the city of Kundupur together with CWC. Bhima Sangha also participated in national and international meetings of working children in Africa, Brazil and Latin America. More recently, Bhima Sangha and CWC have been working with other Indian NGOs to form more children's unions and to establish an organisation of working children for the whole of India.