Ques­tions About Child La­bor

South Asia is marred by child la­bor, a prac­tice that is seen as eco­nom­i­cally and so­cially vi­able for most poor fam­i­lies. But should it con­tinue?

Southasia - - Child labor - By So­nia Jawaid Shaikh The writer is a grad­u­ate in Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and Lan­guages from Univer­sity of Karachi.

In 2008, a BBC Panorama doc­u­men­tary on high end Bri­tish re­tailer, Pri­mark, ex­posed that its hand­stitched, se­quins-rid­den blouses were ac­tu­ally the work of poorly paid In­dian chil­dren. The pro­gram was able to cause quite a stir with the Pri­mark man­age­ment and forced them to can­cel all or­ders on the blouses shown in the doc­u­men­tary.

The sub­ject of child la­bor has been ar­gued for years and var­i­ous coun­tries have adopted laws that re­strict the im­port of prod­ucts where child la­bor is in­volved. But has the ban im­proved the lives of chil­dren across South Asia where hun­dred and thou­sands of them ‘con­trib­ute’ to their fam­ily in­comes?

Mil­lions of South Asians live be­low the poverty line and barely find means to sub­sist. In­evitably, chil­dren too be­come se­verely af­fected, deep­en­ing state prob­lems for an­other gen­er­a­tion. Since ru­ral South Asian fam­i­lies tend to be large, chil­dren of­ten fend for them­selves from a very early age. In such con­di­tions, ex­pec­ta­tions of ed­u­ca­tion or parental aware­ness are too high and pale in com­par­i­son to such hard­ships as lack of food. The vi­cious cy­cle of poverty can­not be bro­ken un­less there are strict poli­cies for able-bod­ied adults in terms of in­come gen­er­a­tion. Only then can the ben- efits trickle down to the chil­dren and re­lieve them of the pres­sure to find work rather than at­tend school.

The size and depth of poverty in South Asia en­sures that many chil­dren will con­tinue work­ing in in­dus­tries, sweat­shops, homes and fac­to­ries. While the con­cept of child la­bor is ab­horred, no stroke of the pen can end it im­me­di­ately and, even if it does, it will se­ri­ously af­fect the eco­nomic con­di­tions of such fam­i­lies and the in­dus­tries for which these chil­dren work. Many de­vel­op­ment poli­cies aim to achieve ‘goals’ for a group they tar­get but in turn over­look the ba­sic needs of the same group, thereby af­fect­ing them ad­versely. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers be­lieve that stamp­ing out child la­bor will en­cour­age chil­dren to pur­sue an ed­u­ca­tion but if a fac­tory forces them out, does it nec­es­sar­ily force them into a school? In ef­fect, these chil­dren may ac­tu­ally be pushed to find other means of con­tribut­ing fi­nan­cially to sus­tain their fam­i­lies.

Cir­cum­stances need to be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion when pre­par­ing poli­cies to ad­dress the is­sue. For chil­dren work­ing in sweat­shops, gov­ern­ments can de­cide on the num­ber of hours, the kind of work they do, the con­di­tions un­der which it is done, gender-based work laws and pay scales. Af­ter­noon school­ing could also be a vi­able op­tion as it would al­low the chil­dren to work in the morn­ing. This may sound like le­gal­iza­tion of child la­bor but it is more of an im­prove­ment of work­ing con­di­tions of our chil­dren. It also means that the state must pro­vide the poor strata of the so­ci­ety with op­tions that would fa­cil­i­tate them and en­cour­age them to ed­u­cate their chil­dren. Poor fam­i­lies nor­mally think that if their chil­dren start go­ing to school, it would take a chunk away from the fam­ily’s in­come. They may be right, but many, if not all, chil­dren can ben­e­fit with strict con­trols on work­place safety for chil­dren, laws and the avail­abil­ity of flex­i­ble school­ing hours.

Ul­ti­mately, all poli­cies re­lated to child la­bor in South Asia must be made with a fu­ture in mind. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers must de­cide on a time frame when they be­lieve that child la­bor will fi­nally be elim­i­nated from their coun­tries. It is only with a re­al­is­tic and fair ap­praisal of cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing child la­bor­ers and their fam­i­lies that we can think about lim­it­ing the prob­lem to al­low chil­dren a child­hood, brighter prospects and hope.

School or work: a painful dilemma

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