School: Aberdeen Grammar School, Aberdeen
Hidden away in the heart of Vellore, in the south of India, Neelam eased herself off her floor-mat as the sun painted the sky with vivid gold and saffron streaks. Slowly and methodically, she combed out her long curly black hair with her red comb and plaited it so that it hung down her back.
Then, she fixed herself an inadequate breakfast of white rice boiled in water, seasoned with salt and a little onion which she had bought with the last of that week’s pay. Since her parents had been murdered because of prejudice according to caste, she and her brother had been living on practically nothing.
One last time, she checked on her brother, Satya, who was still fast asleep. She lightly kissed him on the cheek.
Her worn chappal on her chapped feet, she stepped outside ready to brave the outside world. She picked her way through the piles of rubbish and faeces lining the road with the crisp morning breeze in her face and the sweet, familiar smell of wood-smoke.
Having reached the broken-down building where she worked, Neelam greeted her boss with a wary half-smile.
“What should I do today, sir?” she asked, keeping her eyes down.
“You can start embroidering the saris today, little girl,” said the man gruffly.
Neelam gave a slight nod and lightly scurried across to the next room where she found herself in the middle of ten other children who were about twelve years old. They were sewing metallic designs onto vast sections of deep, vibrantly coloured cloth. Gingerly, she sat down next to a pretty, malnourished girl with a shiny long plait down to her hip which was tied with a coral ribbon.
“Where shall I start?” she asked the girl carefully.
“Here,” she said smiling warmly. “You see how we have traced the pattern out in chalk? That makes it easier for us to follow the design. Those of us who have been here for long can sew even without the chalk. I wish I could!”
All this was said in a single breath, without stopping.
Slightly bemused, Neelam said “I have been here for a month. Sir said I could work here today so I came... what are you called, by the way?...” She paused and smiled shyly.
“Oh, sorry. My name is Vaira. I'm eleven years old. What is your name?”
“My name is Neelam and I'm maybe about ten or eleven. I was seven when my brother, Satya was born and he is four now...”
“Oh! Your name means sapphire and mine means diamond! That’s incredible! Both of us are named after jewels! Anyway, it’s good that you are eleven. Everyone else is older than me. It’ll be good to have a friend here.”
“Yes. It will. Err...don't you think we should start working now? Sir might see us talking and-“
All of a sudden, the very man Neelam was speaking of was standing in the doorway.
“Speak of the devil...” murmured Vaira softly.
“WHAT AM I PAYING YOU FOR?” he thundered.
“We weren’t talking for long, sir. Just for a little -” Vaira began.
“Vaira. Come here.” His tone was soft and unpleasant. “Do you remember what I said to you the last time I found you not doing your work?”he said politely.
All at once, what was about to happen dawned on the other children.
Fearfully, they huddled close together and waited with bated breath.
The boss slowly, reverently even, pulled out a long, bamboo cane and strode back to where Vaira was standing. He raised the cane and -
The cane dropped.
The boss looked at Neelam as if he was waiting for an explanation.
She didn't say anything.
“Well then,” he turned around to face the group.
Neelam had risen to her feet. “You shouldn't...” she began, and then she faltered.
“Well, well, well,” chuckled the boss nastily. “Neelam, I have a little gift for you because you tried to stand up to me,” he spat out.
She swallowed and looked at Vaira.
The sound of the bamboo cane coming down cleanly on Neelam’s back rudely interrupting the heavy, still silence.
So did her shrill cry of pain.
There are around 168 million child labourers in the world today. 120 million of these helpless children are under that age of fourteen. Some are involved in drug trafficking, are child soldiers and some are even slaves.
A further estimated 100 million children will be child labourers by 2020.
Most of their employers do not know that what they are doing is illegal.
The children are not well-treated.
They will never have a childhood, a chance to dream or have a sense of security.
But in the midst of all the soil of immorality, there is a tiny seed of hope.
Organisations like the International Labour Organisation, the Child Labour Organisation, the United Nations Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund do a lot of work with governments to eventually end child labour.