Child labour is a reality in Pakistan. Many organizations have estimated that there could be anywhere from 8 to 19 million child labourers in the country. The age of a child is defined from age five to age fourteen, of which there are 40 million in Pakistan, according to a survey last year by the Federal Bureau of Statistics, funded by International Labour Organization’s IPEC (International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour). This means that nearly half of all children are working. This is unacceptable given that a principle of policy in Pakistan is to provide free education and rid the country of illiteracy. In many cases, the parents of child labourers cannot afford an education for their children or they believe that education does not lead to marketable skills. However, statistics show that most child labourers go on to have children that do not attend school and the cycle of poverty continues. This article will be divided into three sections: the first will discuss the laws regarding child labour and why child labour continues to be a reality; the second will look at different industries where children work and how they affect the wellbeing of those children; and the third will examine possible solutions.
Laws Governing Child Labour
First, a definition of child labour is in order. The definition given by the International Labour Organization (ILO) is fourfold: working during early age; overwork or giving too much time to work; lots of pressure to work; and lastly, a readiness to work for low pay. Article 11 of the Pakistani Constitution prohibits slavery, trafficking and the participation of children under 14 in hazardous employment. Hazardous employment includes many different occupations such as transport, factories, mines, work involving agricultural machinery and pesticides, and carpets. In 1995, the government passed the Employment of Children Rules, which mandates, among other things, that work places have to be clean and that proper ventilation has to be provided, according to The State of Pakistan’s Children 2006 report by the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC).
Pakistan has also ratified several conventions on child labour including the 1957 ILO Forced Labour Convention and in 1990, the UN Rights of the Child Convention, the SPARC report states. In spite of all the positive laws that Pakistan has enacted, there were two laws passed by the government that ensure the continuation of child labour. In 1991, the Employment of Children Act was passed, which allows families to employ children under 14. This regulation means that government inspectors will not investigate homes. In 1992, the government passed the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, which cancelled all the debts of people in bonded labour, according to the SPARC report.. Bonded labour effectively means that families have acquired debts, which are repaid through work. The debts pass to the next generation, ensuring a continuation of poverty. Although the passing of that act may seem like a positive step, the children who are bonded or their parents are often illiterate and would not know about the existence of this law. Thus, bonded labour continues.
The Reasons Why Child Labour Exists
Child labour continues to be a reality for various reasons. In Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), for instance, at least 1.1 million children are engaged in hazardous labour according to SPARC, although this is most likely underestimated because home businesses are not registered. In NWFP, 50 percent of children in primary school drop out and many parents are also addicted to heroin, which forces the children to work, NWFP also has a very low literacy rate compared to the rest of Pakistan: just 37.3 percent, according to a report by IRIN Asia (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), Statistics show that 50 percent of children that are trafficked for work live with parents who cannot read, according to SPARC report, thus education plays a big role in child labour.
As mentioned above, the Pakistani government passed a law forgiving debts for all bonded labourers; however, the practice still continues. The SPARC report reveals that 52 percent of households with child labourers have debt. In the carpet industry alone, half a million children must work due to family debt, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report on Pakistan (July 2008). In addition, most of the families that are bonded have no land, which means that bonded labour, much like child labour in general, is mainly a rural problem. In Sindh province, the bonded labourers are treated basically as slaves. Most of them are men and their wives and children “are also captives of the feudal lords”.
Industries using Child Labour
Child labour occurs in many different industries. One of the most prominent is the carpet industry, despite the fact that the government designates it as hazardous labour. UNICEF has estimated that approximately one million children work in the carpet industry and that many of these children started working there when they were under 10 years old. However, these statistics may be meaningless because, as stated by the Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association, 90 percent of carpet weaving is done in the home and therefore, they do not know whether parents or children are working.
Approximately one quarter of the children in the carpet industry are girls, and due to a prevailing view that girls have less worth than boys, many are sexually abused, states the SPARC report. The most common ailments in the carpet industry are back pain, poor eyesight and respiratory disorders. If school was free and was timed to suit the children and parents, 90 percent of parents say they would send their children to school, this report further reveals. However, many parents also say that children should be working because unemployment has recently been rising and children should be learning skills that will aid them in getting a job.
One of the worst kinds of child labour is domestic labour, mainly because it is hidden away and not regulated by the government. In addition, because child labour is mainly a rural problem, domestic labour is often unrecognized because it takes place mostly in cities such as Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. One-quarter of all homes in Pakistan use children in their homes for many types of domestic chores and 62 percent of them are girls, according to SPARC. Many of these children are physically or sexually abused and they are forced to work long hours. Children working in the domestic sector rarely go to school and they do not have the chance to interact with other children. Lastly, the work is often unpaid. This is a very tragic situation because the government does not include domestic work as a hazardous occupation.
Another industry in which many children are involved is the surgical tool industry. In Sialkot city, at least 5800 children are working 8 to 10 hours day and 6 days each week. The main reason why children are used in this industry is because the work requires very quick hands. The children experience many terrible things in this industry including burns, respiratory illness and carpal tunnel syndrome. 95 percent of the children report bad sleep and 40 percent experience physical punishment at work. This is a horrible state of affairs, especially given the fact that children represent 30 percent of the workers in the surgical tools industry, according to SPARC report.
Solutions to End Child Labour
Attitudes will have to change if child labour is to be eradicated. One of the main reasons why child labour continues to exist is that girls are seen as worth less than boys. In most families where children work, there is an average of 8 children and if girls are employed, the families have at least 9 children. If women were involved in the formal sector, it is more likely that they would have fewer children and also delay the age at which they have children. Thus, the government should find a way to empower women and children. In addition to this, the Pakistani as well as Western governments must invest more money into the education system. It is clear that many parents do not want to send their children to school either because they must pay or they view the school system as inadequate. If parents want their children to succeed in the future, they must have faith that school will help them and primary school must be free. According to a survey, 24 percent of children believed that school did not teach them any useful skills, as stated in an article on YesPakistan, a website service of the Human Development Foundation of North America. The government could open schools that teach lifelong skills to children who must work.
Although the government passed a law that forgave all debts, this law has not been enforced. As mentioned above, children that work are usually illiterate and are not familiar with laws passed by the government. Many of their parents would be unaware of this law as well. The government should employ counsellors that work with illiterate people and make them aware of such developments. In addition, with regard to enforcement, the government should pass a law declaring domestic employment hazardous. Most children work at home and parents are often not mindful about regulations regarding child labour – these must be enforced.
In conclusion, the continuation of child labour is a tragic situation. There have been many positive laws passed that regulate child labour and Pakistan is a party to many conventions that prohibit child abuse in labour, but these practices are still a reality. In many industries, children suffer injuries that should not happen in childhood and they lose a very important thing: the opportunity to play and be with other children their own age. Most of them do not go to school and miss the chance to learn skills that will last their whole lives. If the government can do only one thing, it should work to end this practice that dooms many families to a lifetime of debt and poverty.
Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child “The State of Pakistan’s Children 2006″ http://www.sparcpk.org/publications/sopc_2006.pdf
IRIN Asia “Child labour still widespread in NWFP” http://www.irinnews.org/report.aspx?reportid=26413\
U.S Department of Labor “Pakistan” http://www.dol.gov/ILAB/media/reports/iclp/sweat/pakistan.htm
YesPakistan.com staff writer “Policy considerations for ending child labor in Pakistan” http://www.yespakistan.com/people/child_labor.asp