Invisible little workers

By Zubeida Mustafa

JUNE 12 was Day against Child Labour. It is a shame that we still have to observe such a day. But we must if we have to make our society less insensitive towards children.

On this occasion, Sparc, which has been struggling since 1992 for the protection of the rights of the child in Pakistan, launched a weeklong campaign focusing on child domestic labour. It demands a ban on it. This is a laudable move though the strategy needs to be well-thought-out.

As is the case in Pakistan, anomalies abound. First of all, we do not even have reliable data. How many children are there in the labour force? The government has not conducted a survey to collect information since 1996 when it stated that three million children were working in the country. Today various agencies give much higher numbers which range between 10 and 12 million (the International Labour Organisation and Unicef, the UN children’s agency).

Child working at brick kiln. Picture courtesy:
Child working at brick kiln. Picture courtesy:
Another dichotomy is the definition of the child — that is the age under which a person is a child. Many laws that regulate the employment of children in ‘hazardous’ occupations such as mines and factories define the child as being under 14 years of age. Article 25-A of the Constitution that makes education compulsory for children specifies the cut-off age as 16 years.

Nadra treats people as adults when they are 18. That is the age when they are also entitled to vote. ILO’s Minimum Age Convention (C138) specifies 15 years as the minimum age for the employment of children for “light work”.

These variations cannot be taken lightly because they contradict each other and create confusion making it impossible to implement the existing laws. As it is, law enforcement is the major challenge faced when attempting reforms. In that context, child domestic labour dubbed as ‘hidden servitude’ is most difficult to identify and eliminate or regulate. Not much thought is given to it and generally the acceptance of domestic child labour has been internalised. It bursts into the limelight when a tragedy occurs.

And tragedies occur in plenty. From January 2010 to August 2011, 18 cases of violence against child domestic workers were reported. Thirteen of them died. In 2013 up to May nine cases of abuse have been registered and five deaths have occurred. Most of the victims were girls, who constitute 68pc of children employed in homes.

All child workers are kept in exploitative conditions — with long working hours, being assigned hard and hazardous duties, and receiving low wages. One doesn’t really have to ask the employers — and to my knowledge no survey of this kind has been conducted — as to why they hire children for domestic work.

Though no survey of the sort has been conducted the answers are so obvious. Children’s salaries are low. They do not protest and submit to all orders. Above all, they have no protection and employers are heartless.

The question that needs to be asked is from parents. Why do they send young children to work away from their families? Invariably the reason cited is poverty. In the broader context, it rests on the state and society to improve conditions so that the little ones do not become victims of this unholy connivance between parents and employers.

It is also time to hold those working for the population sector accountable for the horrendous phenomenon of parents having huge families and then using children to support their families. Poverty is so directly linked to the failure of our population programmes, especially when we have such a huge unmet need. This in demographic terminology means parents who do not want more children but have no access to contraceptive services.

The state also has a responsibility in the matter. Sharmila Farooqi, an MPA (Sindh), who was the chief guest at Sparc’s seminar last week, was right when she said it was difficult to get the state to keep a check on child domestic labour given its invisibility. She emphasised the importance of tackling the issue at the social level.

However, one cannot absolve the state of its responsibility in the matter. It must respond to Sparc’s demand to include domestic work in the list of banned sectors from which children must be kept out under the Child Employment Act of 1991.

Apart from that, it is time the state took its responsibility of providing compulsory and free education under Article 25-A of the Constitution for children from five to 16 years of age seriously. If this were done, children would be in school rather than slaving in their employers’ homes. If any state functionary defends the government’s performance in the education sector, she or he has much to answer for.

Surprisingly, no one thinks much of the damage that is caused to a child’s psyche when she is taken away from her family, is subjected to physical and verbal abuse, and is starved of love. I have actually seen young girls tending the little children of their employers and feeding them fancy food in restaurants while being denied the food themselves.

Source: Dawn

2 thoughts on “Invisible little workers

  1. I would like to share with you some updates regarding child domestic labour.

    Recently the CRM Punjab, the Institute for Social Justice (ISJ), Pakistan Intititute for Labour Education and Research (PILER) and Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child have launched an online signature campaign to ban child domestic labour in Pakistan:

    The campaign highlights about the unending plight of CDWs. They are continuously sold, exploited, abused, rapped, tortured and killed. It is unfortunate that no other occupation in Pakistan has resulted deaths of children mainly girls than CDL. Since January 2010 to June 2013, about 41 cases of CDWs are reported in the media and by civil society organizations. Of these children, 19 died due to severe torture inflicted on them or were poisoned to death by their employers. Hope you will support the campaign and will sign it.

    In addition to the campaign, there is brief paper on the state of CDL in Pakistan, which is being jointly produced by the same organizations which have launched this campaign. Please check it at:

    The paper produced by the respective organizations provide an insight of the issue and shows how society and the state have morally corrupted or died which has resulted so many deaths of innocent and marginalized children of poor areas. It reports that in six months of 2013, 10 cases of CDWs were reported, and of which 3 children have died due to torture by their employers. The children of all ages have become victims of brutal torture but majority of them are girls. Out of 41 reported cases of CDWs, 34 were girls.

    It is interesting to note that in majority of cases the employers rarely confessed of inflicting torture rather projected story of suicide or accident. Starting from Shazia Masih, 10 years old girl maid, in January 2010, the strong and influential employer claimed that Shazia had fallen from stairs but medical reports proved that she was brutally tortured and kept without food and medical treatment for weeks, which resulted her death. In 2010, the brutal torture story of the Sumera Masih, 14 years old girl maid, and her five family members by her employer and the police in Islamabad shows how the state agencies meant to protect its citizens are in the business of torture.

    The report also provides the list of each CDWs and how and what happened to them is given in Annexure 1, 2, 3 and 4. Every individual case is sheer and open violation of fundamental human rights mainly the right to protection, survival and life. The list of cases also reveals that CDWs belong to the low or marginalized strata of society; usually orphans and from religious minority groups such as Christians and Hindus. It has widely been observed that in urban areas middlemen do play active role in bringing children from rural or slum areas so that employers do not face parents of children and any other issues or formalities as was reported in Shazia Masih, Tehmina and various other cases.

    The report says that in Pakistan, CDWs are deprived of all fundamental rights given in the Constitution of Pakistan (such as Articles 11, 25 (3), 25A) and even the right to life. In the light of the UNCRC and its Optional Protocol on Sale of Children, ILO’s Conventions 138, 182 and 189 and the Constitution of Pakistan, CDL should be declared a form of slavery and the worst form of child labour and immediately be banned.

    I hope you would go through the given report and make it part of your campaigns for the protection of child rights.

    Sincere regards,


  2. The little workers are no more invisible but very much visible. The parents, society, employer and authorities know perfectly the cruelty these little workers are getting. Even the little worker knows perfectly that he/she has been deprived of education and softness of a child's life style.

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