NEW DELHI (AP) — Police accompanied by activists from a children’s rights group raided automobile repair shops on the edge of the Indian capital on Thursday and removed 17 children who were employed illegally.
Activists from Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or Save the Children Movement, whose founder, Kailash Satyarthi, was the co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, went from shop to shop, removing children whose hands, clothes and feet were smeared with grease. The group helps authorities prosecute people employing young children.
Children under age 14 are not allowed to work in India except in family businesses and farms. Those between 14 and 18 are barred from working in hazardous conditions. Employers can face up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($675).
In Thursday's raids, the children, who ranged in age from 13 to 18, were taken away by district government officials. Police sealed the shops where they had been working.
A nationwide coronavirus lockdown imposed last year pushed millions of people into poverty, encouraging the trafficking of children from villages to cities to work. The pandemic has also hampered enforcement of anti-child labor laws, with fewer workplace inspections and less vigorous pursuit of human traffickers.
Manish Sharma, director of the Save the Children Movement, said traffickers and brokers found it easier to manipulate parents and children during the economic downturn.
“Many became jobless and many reached the brink of starvation. Traffickers took full advantage of such situations,” he said.
According to UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency, the number of children working worldwide increased to 160 million in June 2021. It warned that an additional 9 million could be at risk by the end of 2022 due to the pandemic.
On Thursday, some parents appeared at the automobile repair shops soon after the raid and pleaded with police and activists to let their children go.
“He is working hard, right? He is not stealing, smoking marijuana, or drinking alcohol,” said the mother of one of the children. She said she only allowed him to work because schools were shut and he was whiling away his time.
Sharma said rehabilitation of rescued children is key. The former employers will be made to pay unpaid wages and the children will be helped in obtaining various government benefits, including admission to schools, he said.
For more than three decades, Satyarthi and the organization he founded have worked to rescue children and create awareness to keep them in school. The group says it has helped rescue more than 9,000 working children since April 2020 and assisted in the arrest and prosecution of 260 traffickers.
Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize along with Pakistani activist for female education Malala Yousafzai.