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?
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