Dark shadow of child labour

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

HERE is some shocking bit of news that bodes ill for Pakistan’s future. A seminar organised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was told that child labour was on the rise in Pakistan.

Given the flawed data collection, it is difficult to ascertain accurate statistics but the labour force survey of 2007-2008 put the total number of 10- to 14-year-old child workers in Pakistan at 2.6 million.

But in 2005, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimated that nearly 10 million children were working in the formal and informal sectors. It seems that the government conventionally under-reports the size of the child labour force. With 21 million children in this age group of which only seven million are enrolled in school, a whopping 14 million have to be accounted for.

True, not all of those absent from school are in the work force. But a substantial number are. Their plight casts — or should cast — a dark shadow on our collective conscience. There is something seriously wrong with a country which not only fails to educate all its children but also depends on them to keep its economy afloat. These dreary facts have grim implications. Pakistan is heading back into the Dark Ages with only a few lucky ones receiving education.

Hidden in the numbers are some alarming and hideous truths.

Truth #1: Poverty is on the rise compelling many parents to send their children to work for a pittance. If they don’t they will starve. They don’t have a choice. It is better to make a child work rather than ask him to beg or, worse still, to sell one’s children.

Truth #2: All our tall claims about educational reforms notwithstanding, education is a failing enterprise. The millions we have begged and borrowed to pump into this sector have gone down the drain because a majority of children who join primary school do not go on to the secondary level. In other words, most of them drop out after a few years of initial schooling. They are back to square one to lose whatever literacy they have acquired.

This dual phenomenon reflects poorly on a system that is unable to retain its students in school because the quality of education is poor and not relevant to their lives. Moreover, secondary schools are more inaccessible than primary institutions and not sufficient in number.

Truth #3: Our economic productivity is on the decline since the presence of children in the work force in large numbers does not really improve the performance of the various economic sectors. Children may be intelligent and quick to learn but they are no substitute for qualified, well-trained adults with mature minds.

Truth #4: Our population planning programme is in a total mess. A country with 12 per cent of its population in the age bracket of 10 to 14 years seems to be fighting a losing battle with demographic explosion. Forty per cent of Pakistan’s population is under 15, which presents a gloomy outlook for the future.

Truth #5: Ours is a nation of exploiters. How do children find a job especially at a time when unemployment is so high?

The fact is that selfish employers opt for child workers because they are paid less and can be manipulated. An adult is capable of demanding higher wages and resorting to unionising to have his rights conceded.

Truth #6: We are adept at passing laws and signing conventions but inept at implementing them. There are many laws on the statute books to protect children from the evil of child labour. The government is also a party to many international conventions such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 and ILO conventions 182 and 138.

Two laws, namely, the Employment of Children’s Acts of 1991 and 2001 specifically address child labour while the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act 1992 is applicable to children as well. There are lacunae in these laws that need to be removed for which civil society organisations have been lobbying.

It is a pity that the gravity of the problem of child labour has not been recognised in the country. It is not just the size of the population affected that makes the issue so grave.

The exploitative conditions in which children work are horrifying. Since they are not in a position to defend themselves, children become the victims of oppressive treatment meted out to them by their employers. Young children have lost their lives because of the brutalities inflicted on them.

The worst sector is that of child domestic labour which often involves children of a very young age — even five- or six-year-olds — and creates great emotional stress for the victim since he is isolated from his family and vulnerable to the excesses of his employer, which may include very long working hours, a low salary and verbal, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

The worst part of the malaise of child labour is that it is not widely recognised as such. People are known to even purchase children for domestic work. They feel that the financial transaction has given them rights over the services of the child. The human dimension does not strike most people who employ children and rob them of their childhood, something they would not do to their own children who are the beneficiaries of the services of the child worker.

Until this nation learns to treat its children as the future of the country and invests in their education, health and security while seeking to nurture them, the outlook for Pakistan will remain as bleak as its present.

The State of Pakistan’s Children, 2009, (a report that has been prepared meticulously and with devotion to the cause of children since 1997 by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child) speaks of the need of building with like-minded organisations alliances against child labour. This is a valid recommendation if public opinion has to be mobilised against child labour.