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Ending The Cataclysmic Ordeal Of Child Labour In Pakistan

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November 2020 marks 30 years of Pakistan’s ratification of the UN led Child Rights Convention (1990). At the very juncture, the 3rd extension of Pakistan’s GSP plus facility and its commitment to eliminate ‘contemporary forms of slavery’ under Sustainable Development Goals (Target 8.7), compels Pakistan to put an end to child labour and child domestic labour as early as possible.

While expressing his pleasure over securing another two years of tariff free trade opportunity to European Union, the Prime Minister reiterated his ‘zero tolerance’ towards child labour in any sector, area or industry. Despite all those compulsion and claims, the ordeal of working children is not only deepening rather exacerbating and worsening every passing day. No surprise that out of 167 countries, Pakistan ranks as the 3rd largest country, highly insensitive and exploitative to its own children around the world.

As recorded by PSLM and the Labour Force Survey (2017-2018), about 12.5 million i.e. 15.6% children (aged 10-18) are ensnared in inhuman working conditions. Of 23 million out of school children (aged 5-16), a sizable number is preoccupied in meeting with their livelihood needs in abject poverty and duress. Children constitute approximately a quarter of the overall workforce including bonded and other worst forms of labour. Real figures are projected to be higher as DFID funded and ILO supported national child labour surveys (2018-2020) outcomes are awaited to reveal further appalling truths about the extent and sectoral spread of the shame.

According to UNICEF, around 250,000 children are in the backbreaking work of brick-making while 33,000 in carpet weaving or yarn production. Approximately, 1.5 million of them might be categorized as street children involved in trash picking, vending small goods and toys or simply begging. No reliable statistics are available for agriculture and auto industry, and the former area hardly ever catches the eyes of our policy makers. In spite of a two-decades-long civil society’s fire and fury, peshgi-debt bondage is still common both in carpet and brick kiln industry and children happen to be bonded by birth by parents and start working as early as the age of 5-6. A few rupees here and there, no child in any sector earns more than Rs.100 a day while many of the apprentices in low-paid skills receive nothing to save daily meals for a year or so. Transmitting ‘skill’ is their honorarium, asserts ‘ustaad’.

Hidden in plain sight, child domestic labour is highly feminized and is nearly taken for granted. More than 85-90 percent of the so called maid servants are girls of 6-18 years of age, employed almost in every 4th household. 60 percent of them hardly draw Rs.2,500 to 4,000 a month. 95% of the lot, because of poverty, parental sickness or death of a parent and larger family size is forced into work. Four-fifth of the girls doing household chores wish to quit working and join a school like other girls of their age. More than half of them enjoy one or two holidays a month while the rest find an opportunity to visit their home only on Eid or Christmas. Less than half of them can barely read and write while almost all their parents have never been to school. Above 40% of them have to afford the employers’ (including their children’s) physical or verbal abuses while one-fifth of that group frequently falls sick.

Almost in all cases, parents are a party to their children’s socio-economic manipulation. Around 65 percent of them are not allowed to collect their salaries themselves but their parents. Informal employment agents are active in supplying child maids to the desiring families in all metropolitan cities. ‘Underdog families insist putting up their young girls into the well-off families against few thousand rupees in advance,’ argues Irshad Bibi – an agent from Islamabad. Right from Zohra Shah to Tayyaba, number of girls have been subjected to torture for as trivial mistakes as ‘freeing birds’ or ‘losing a broom’ but the ‘vocation’ is neither banned nor declared hazardous. Poorer and un-acknowledged by the state, almost all trade unions and most emancipation programs overlook their toil and tribulations. Even then, Pakistan has yet not recognized ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (C.189).

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 It is a proven fact that psycho-social and emotional impacts of child labour are larger than the span of these children’s childhood. Owing to their vulnerability and low wages, they remain much in demand in the market. Many of them suffer from rejection and unemployment or-under-employment in their adult life when their own needs turn higher. Of all, the destitute, discarded and trafficked children are maltreated and manhandled excessively along with commercial sexual exploitation, harassment and humiliation. Apart from affecting their growth and learning potentials, early-age labour distorts their social, nutritional and mental tendencies too. Trash-collecting minors particularly those collecting hospital waste fatally contract viral, bacterial and parasitic ailments from secretions, waste-blood and patients’ excreta wrapped, assembled in the mess. Many of them are observed eating crumbs from the piles of garbage. Almost every 6th street child is addict to one or another form of intoxicant.

Given the lack of will, home-grown planning and capability, three decades witness the legislative and programmatic failure of eliminating child labour since 1990. The Prohibition of the Employment of Children Act (1991) and the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act (1992) failed to comply with the principles set forth by ILO and implement policies and strategies to emancipate children from bonded and other worst forms of labour. Despite ratifying ILO’s Conventions 138 (of minimum age), 182 (of worst forms) and 100 (of equal remuneration) from 2001 to 2006, the country could not secure any success through its time-bound and other programmes.

Right from assisting Pakistan Carpet Manufacturers and Exporters Association in 1998 to eliminate child labour, to National Policy and Action Plan in 2000, assisting Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2003-2004, Combating Abusive Child Labour-II (2008-2013), National Time Bound Framework (2008-2016) and Pakistan’s Decent Work Programme (2010-2015) and its second phase (2016-2022), dozens of programs were implemented to prevent, withdraw and rehabilitate child labour. To sum up, all such initiatives implemented as part of the National Policy and Plan of Action with the assistance of ILO, UNICEF or some other donors either aborted half way through or achieved a limited success.

Post 18th Amendment, the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development (MoOP&HRD) is authorized to implement labour rights standards including elimination of child labour and reporting to the respective UN Treaty Body. In 2012, it was ILO, with EU’s financial assistance, which facilitated provincial labour departments to develop and enact legislation on prohibition of child labour and enforce it as well. Sindh Child Protection Authority was legislated in 2011 but not with the required vigour. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared Child Domestic Labour illegal and unconstitutional. The following year, Domestic Workers Employment Rights Bill was introduced in the Senate Standing Committee on Law while in 2016 the Senate approved the Domestic Workers Employment Rights Bill to protect and regulate the rights of the domestic workers in ICT.

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The Punjab Domestic Workers Act was introduced in 2019 but still awaits notification. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh’s Prohibition of the Employment of Children’s Acts (2015, 2016, 2017) proscribe employing a child under 14 and 15 years of age. The minimum age for ‘hazardous work’ still remains 14 in Balochistan and Islamabad, but has been raised to 18 in the rest. Though it is encouraging that in August 2019, the Balochistan Assembly resolved to ban child labour in its coal mines and take action against those violating the norm but the practice continues unnoticed. Last year, it also legislated on Bonded Labour Abolition (System) Act 2019. So far, Punjab is the only province to come up with the Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Act 2016 and the Domestic Workers Act 2019. Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan have been so far unable to enact against this enigma. National Commission on the Rights of Children (NCRC) was enacted in 2017, and it took federal government 3 years to notify it in March 2020. Despite having sufficient powers, including the one to summon the violating entities, the Commission runs with meagre resources.

The Federal and Provincial Tripartite Consultative Committees, including ministries, employers and employee representatives have had several meetings but without any remarkable outcomes. Similarly, the task forces and District Vigilance Committees are functional but in name. Concerned agencies such as Police, Provincial Labour Inspectorates, Federal Investigation Authority, Labour Courts, Child Protection Authorities/Units possess no record of their efforts to minimize child labour and child domestic labour. Nonetheless, help lines are operated but with external financial assistance and expire with the life of the project.

Despite multiple legislations, neither the federation nor the provinces have ever been triumphant in enforcing the prohibition of even the worst forms of child labour. Succumbing to the employers’ pressures, the labour inspectors in Sindh and Punjab, where they are there at least, are frequently barred from inspection, let alone sealing an establishment employing children. Also the respective departments are devoid of any resources to randomly visit, scrutinize, record and report their observations about hazardous industries extracting children’s sweat and blood.

More or less there are 109 laws, directly or indirectly pertaining to child rights, but the fact is that neither legislation, nor programmatic measures with colossal foreign funding and external assistance, may ever strike a significant difference without indigenous will, political commitment and effective regulation of Multi-National and Trans-National sweatshops and supply chains. Dysfunctional, conflicting and convoluted laws also cause exploitation of children to continue.

Contrary to the convention, rules of business are formulated not by the parliament but by the bureaucrats who often procrastinate and obstruct implementation. Right from auto to mining, leather, sports, surgical to chemical industries as well as to begging and household arena, there is hardly any sector free from innocent souls’ investment and toil. In a nutshell, a holistic policy is desired to address poverty, over-population, socio-cultural norms and access to education to gradually eliminate child labour. Public and private stakeholders need to be taken on board and the National Strategic Framework to Eliminate Child and Bonded Labour devised with the support of ILO must be implemented by MoOP&HRD in letter and spirit.

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Naya Daur