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Invisible little workers

June 19, 2013


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).

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.

How do the little workers barely older than their wards feel when they watch love and toys being showered by parents on those they are taking care of? This is the fate of the children of the lesser gods.

Isn’t it surprising that they still grow up to be as sane as they are? If a handful of them become criminals can we blame them?