Dark shadow of child labour

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Zubeida Mustafa

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, well­trained 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.

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