Few choices

04 Jan 2015


As 12-year-old Aemal Khan scurries to a table occupied by three bulky men, one of them pulls him closer to whisper something into his ear. Aemal hurriedly extricates himself from the situation and rushes to another table. He doesn’t reveal what it was that the man said, but the anger in his eyes speaks volumes.

Aemal is an orphan who hails from Pishin district in Balochistan. He arrived in Karachi after his father’s demise, to work at a tea shack owned by a family acquaintance named Syed Mumtaz. School was simply never an option for Aemal. “How can a child who has lost his father and whose mother has no source of income be educated?” Mumtaz asks matter-of-factly.

With Aemal now contributing money to the household income, his mother recently sent her younger son to work at the same tea shack. These brothers now work the entire day, so that Mumtaz sends around Rs8,000 a month to their family.

At a different tea shack in another part of town, an exhausted 12-year-old Safdar argues with another worker over some chores he does not want to do. Safdar hails from Rahim Yar Khan, and is one of the many children brought to work at the tea shack with the consent of their families.

Spurred by poverty and enabled by legal lacunae, there seems no end in sight to child labour

Safdar’s daily routine is more demanding than that of many adults working in the city. He wakes up at five in the morning and works till 3pm to serve the customers coming in for the breakfast. He has been assigned the job of sweeping the floors and wiping the shack’s tables. He sleeps at 3pm and wakes up at midnight to help others shut shop for the night, clean the place for the next day, and wash utensils. He usually takes a nap at 3.30am, only to wake up again at 5am to start his day.

Working at the same shack is 16-year-old Ali, who hails from Badin and was referred to the shack owner by a friend. The tasks he is given are similar to Safdar’s, but Ali wanted more from life than a janitorial job. “I used to play a lot in Badin. It was after my Matriculation that I had to come to Karachi. I lost my father two years ago and my family needed the money,” he says.

Ali is a bit afraid of the city’s violence. Just a month ago, a shop worker, aged 24, was shot dead. The deceased had no apparent affiliation with any religious group or political party. The shack where he works was also damaged a year ago, when it became collateral damage to twin blasts. Keeping this mind, the owner does not allow his workers to leave the shack premises, which frustrates the young men.

Many children like Aemal, Safdar and Ali have to go through the absurdities of their lives daily — bonded to child labour by their families, these young boys are vulnerable to violence, exploitation and sexual abuse.

Rahmat admits to paying a one-time amount to the underage workers, and making them work for a longer period of time (two years, in Safdar’s case). Rahmat Ali, to make matters worse, is a relative of Safdar’s.

Zahid Thebo, the provincial manager at the Society for the Protection of the Rights of Child (SPARC), argues that although child labour is prohibited in Pakistan’s law, there are certain lacunas which hamper the complete eradication of child labour. “According to the law, a child becomes an adult when he reaches 14 years of age; whereas Article 25-A clearly states that a person under 16 years of age cannot work and should get primary education. There are two contradictory laws, which don’t conclude whether a child should work or get an education instead.”

Thebo mentions that in the year 2000, Pakistan committed to a millennium development goal of completely eradicating male child labour by 2013, and for all children to be enrolled in schools by 2015.

“It is the end of 2014 already and we are not even half way through. This leaves a question mark on the state’s competence to work against the menace of child labour.”

Child labour, it is believed, cannot end without the help of police. But police see the matter differently.

“If we crack down on the places like tea stalls where child labour is prevalent, the childrens’ parents come and implore the police to let the matter go as they are faced with extreme poverty,” explains Karachi Police SP Syed Salman Hussain.

“The families leave their children to such kinds of places so that they can learn how to work and earn a living. Besides, the children who are out are also given free meals, which lessens the burden on their parents,” the SP says. “There is no check or monitoring system regarding child labour, and therefore, there is hardly any stringent action taken against it.”

But for these families barely surviving below the poverty line, there is no assurance of a stable income either. “It is not necessary for me to send the kids’ salaries every month; this is business and it has its ups and downs,” argues Rahmat Ali, owner of the shack where Safdar and Ali work. “Their families have only asked me to keep their sons and pay them whenever it is possible.”

Rahmat admits to paying a one-time amount to the underage workers, and making them work for a longer period of time (two years, in Safdar’s case). Once their family has accepted the money, the workers, usually in their teens, cannot go home. Rahmat Ali, to make matters worse, is a relative of Safdar’s.

Owners of the tea shack pay lip service to protecting them, but in truth, these children are merely cheap labour to maximise profits. “A few men do abuse Aemal verbally and sometimes physically. I try to keep an eye on such people,” says Mumtaz. “I keep them as my own children but cannot fight my customers if they misbehave, you see, all five fingers are not same.”

In the afternoons, when there is not much work at the tea shack, Safdar is often seen playing with his plastic ball; the only recreational activity he has. Safdar was never admitted to any school when he was in his hometown. “I do not like studying,” he says frankly.

When Ali was asked if he wants to study further, he was more enthusiastic about the idea. “Who would not study if given a chance? I want to live with my family in Badin but circumstances require me to stay here and work.” But can he not read and study here in his free time? “No, I can’t study here.”

Forced by circumstances, these boys have been burdened by misery at a time when they should be exploring life. In Rahmat Ali’s words this is because, “one has to live his life on his own, no messiah will come to save these children and provide them with security. This is the reality of life in this country.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 4th, 2015