Child Labor and Occupational Disabilities

Thinking about disability and health outcomes among child laborers really hit me when I started reading the case studies of some of Shaishav’s Balsena’s (children’s collective) child laborers and visiting places where they had been found. Many of these children had worked in seriously hazardous conditions, such as salt pans, where their bare skin is exposed to high temperatures and chemical toxicity causing severe skin irritation and internal problems which manifest later in life such as stiff legs and tuberculosis (TB). Other places of work included mechanic shops, garment finishing, plastics factories, dhabas, and street food vendors. Each workplace had a specific set of hazards which contributed to a common set of ailments among the children they employed. [1]

Furthermore, it is difficult to regulate the types of workplaces that child laborers are found in because they are often small workshops and home-based work taking on contracting work from bigger more established enterprises. These smaller workplaces are often exempt from current labor laws. And as the Bureau of International Labor Affairs states: “Even if these establishments were covered by the law, they are much more difficult to monitor and have less economic capacity to work towards higher standards of occupational health and safety.” [2]

It is necessary, if at all possible, to separate disabilities which were occurring due to poverty from those occurring due to their occupation. Distinguishing these differences can help establish the etiology of an disability or illness and thus prescribe better treatments. For instance, the type of TB that children working in salt pan may be quite different from the type of juvenile TB normally seen in a non-occupational setting. Unfortunately, there are not many studies on how child laborers’ ailments differ according to their occupation, only studies that prove disability has a higher incidence and prevalence among them. [3]

Children with Disabilities participating in Shaishav’s Child Rights Week activities Photo Credit: Shaishav.

I also explored how accessible disability services were for parents of children involved in labor. Usually, they receive services through the government or NGOs. During my research, I came upon a handbook for parents of children with disabilities. [4] The English handbook published in 2002 gives a comprehensive overview of recognizing disabilities and treatments and schemes available to help the parents and the children. While the criteria for physical disabilities was pretty straightforward, criteria for disabilities related to cognitive functioning, emotional control and learning were much less clear. The manual was also in English, so I believe many parents probably rely on the outreach of NGOs such as Childline to get informed about what government benefits are available to them.

In fact, Shaishav itself, through its Childline division, held many seminars and training within slum areas for parents to learn more about the social service benefits they were entitled to. Shaishav also trains its Balsena children to be more respectful of people with disabilities and how to refer to them as as differently-abled. Many of Shaishav’s events hold modified activities specifically for children with disabilities so that they may also participate in events such as Child Right’s Week. In these ways, Shaishav aims not only to change the negative perceptions of children with disabilities but also provide their parents pathways to access services which assist them.


  1. Yadav, S. K., & Sengupta, G. (2009). “Environmental and Occupational Health Problems of Child Labour: Some Issues and Challenges for Future.” Journal of Human Ecology 28(2): 143-148.
  2. C, N. D. (2008). Child Labor and Human Rights: A Perspective. Delhi: Kalpaz.
  3. Ibrahim, A., Abdalla, S. M., Jafer, M., Abdelgadir, J., & Vries, N. D. (2018). “Child Labor and Health: A Systematic Literature Review of the Impacts of Child Labor on Child’s Health in Low- and Middle-Income Countries.” Journal of Public Health: n.p.
  4. Government of India (12 Feb 2002). The Handbook for Parents of Children With Disabilities. Planning Commission.

A recent Emory University graduate interested in child welfare and poverty alleviation, Subha would like to eventually work for an NGO. By serving with Shaishav as an AIF Clinton Fellow, she hopes learn more about their world class philosophy for children's empowerment. Prior to joining AIF, Subha interned at the American Association for People with Disabilities in Washington, D.C., and the Global Village Project in Atlanta, Georgia, as a development and policy intern.

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