All work and no play

South Asia must rid itself of the most heinous forms of child labour.

The debate on child labour in South Asia has today entered a phase where, compared to two earlier phases, it is more mature, knowledgeable and practical minded.

The first phase, started in the mid-1980s, involved recognition of the problem itself. However, many activists projected highly exaggerated figures and horrific situations without the backing of scientific surveys. Some international agencies quickly accepted these claims, and the world media was only too happy to report on the dismal situation in the Subcontinent. The governments, meanwhile, went on the defensive andspent a lot of energy issuing denials or challenging the numbers.

Sadly, this profuse show of concern from all sides did little to improve the lot of the millions of South Asia´s working children. The main outcome was the palpable hostility generated among consumers in the industrialised nations towards specific products and their exporting countries. Many children were dismissed due to the publicity and pressure, and they often ended up in jobs that were even more exploitative; some landed in beggary and some even in prostitution.

The second phase started with the ratification of United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (1989) by six countries of South Asia over 1990-92. Though a few still insisted on playing the numbers game, other activists and governmental institutions did actually start some serious deliberations. The governments, for instance, enacted new laws on employment of children in factories or in otherwise hazardous occupations. They also spelt out the minimum age (between 12 and 15), the acceptable conditions of work, and formed implementation and monitoring committees. Some collective efforts were also made by SAARC, including the convening of ministerial meetings on children. However, this phase too, failed to deliver concrete policies and action plans.

The third phase, presently underway, began with the signing during 1992-94 of memoranda of understanding by most of the South Asian countries with the International Labour Organisation on the International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour (ipec). Besides formulating policies and action plans, an attempt was finally made to properly understand the problem of child labour and to determine its nature and extent. In the case of Pakistan, the result of the first nation-wide child labour survey was made public in late 1996.

Work and labour
Much of what is termed ´child labour´ actually requires few hours of work from children and are mostly undertaken on family farms or enterprises. Work in such situations is neither harsh nor exploitative. In fact, some experts argue, this kind of work prepares children for adulthood in the particular socio-economic conditions of South Asia.

As opposed to such "child work" are those activities where children do the job of adults, are poorly paid, and are denied education. Such conditions add up to denying the young their very childhood. Children who are too young to work are on the job for longer hours than adults. Working 50-plus hours weekly is the norm in South Asia, under unhealthy and dangerous conditions.

It is clear to planners and activists that strategies for tackling child labour should therefore clearly differentiate between "child labour" and "child work". There must be rehabilitation programmes for children who lose jobs. The plans must also study the situation of working children in various arenas, including the organised sector, informal sector, hazardous occupations, agriculture, domestic services, and the sex trade.

The strategies to end child labour must also tackle the broader issues of poverty, unemployment, under-em-ployment, working conditions, labour laws, education and training, and social security. They must clearly spell out the steps to be taken in the short-, medium- and long-term, and specify the role of government, employer and worker organisations, exporters and the media.

The roadmap
Community pressure groups. The complex and challenging task of restoring childhood to tens of millions of South Asian children requires a coalition between the state and civil society. Coming to specifics, there should be no hesitation in immediately withdrawing children who are in hazardous occupations. The regional countries do have laws dealing specifically with such occupations, all that is missing being their implementation.

The effectiveness of existing laws can be enhanced by building social pressure and motivation, which can in turn influence behaviour. This can be done through tripartite committees, consisting of government officials (including those of local bodies), employers (including trade- and location-specific organisations), and representatives of workers (including concerned citizens, elders, and teachers in rural areas). These committees should function at all levels – from the national and provincial (state) all the way down to cities, and localities within cities, and also to village blocks.

Working and studying. Children who work should have greater access to education, particularly at the primary level, and to training institutions. Given the number of working children and the way the labour market functions, this cannot be achieved through government efforts and formal schooling alone. The private sector must get involved, and members of civil society will have to participate and contribute. A recourse to non-formal primary education must be made, allowing flexible study hours to the pupils. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (brac) experience in Bangladesh has clearly demonstrated how non-formal primary education can work with the support of local groups.

For vocational training, the traditional system ustaad-shagird (master craftsman-trainee) needs to be fine-tuned, with a special focus on improved working conditions. The "open-tech" programme of Pakistan´s Allama Iqbal Open University provides one model, where the faculty approaches the ustaads and owners in, say, a neighbourhood specialising in automobile repair, and motivates them to spare their shagirds for two hours twice a week. The employers provide space for the working children to assemble, and the University provides functional literacy classes and programmes to upgrade skills. This Pakistani experience could well be replicated in other South Asian countries, preferably through their respective open universities.

Practical education. The curricula of post-primary education has to be adjusted to respond to the needs of the labour market. The employment scene in South Asia in the foreseeable future will continue to be dominated by the informal, agricultural, and rural non-farm sectors. Children must therefore be trained in areas relevant to these sectors – how to organise a business, open a shop, start a poultry farm, obtain credit, manage a store, do marketing, open a letter of credit, operate livestock farming, bee keeping or horticulture, prepare land for cultivation, procure raw materials, and so on.

Domestic child labour. Bringing about a change in social attitudes is also essential within households, which employ a large proportion of our working children. Most employers of domestic children in South Asia share the perception that hiring children as domestic servants is essentially a humanitarian act on their part, a form of social service. Such a grave misconception – for how can there ever be justification in making children earn their keep? – needs to be removed through media campaigns and sensitisation work by the tripartite committees.

Social security. It should never be forgotten that many children work in order to supplement their families´ meagre incomes. Any intervention to alter the status quo has to take into account the fact that a meaningful social security system does not exist as yet anywhere in South Asia. There must be a mechanism to care for the needy and under-privileged families even as their children are taken off the labour rolls. In the case of Pakistan, a social security system can evolve out of the Zakat Administration and the Pakistan Baitul Mal (these are Islamic institutions for collecting tax for the benefit of the under-privileged). A similar evolution could overtake existing institutions in the other countries.

Policy-makers in each country need to focus on developing effective social security nets to meet the commitment to working children made by the SAARC organisation, which is to remove children from hazardous occupations by 2002, and to completely eliminate all child labour by 2010. Governments need to adopt policies that will generate productive employment opportunities for all able and willing-to-work adults. Initiatives like those of Bangladesh´s Grameen Bank must be replicated so that small, collateral-free loans on group guarantees can be arranged for a range of self-employment activities.

Co-operative mechanisms. The South Asian neighbours must pool their knowledge and share experience regarding child labour. There can be joint research, particularly about the nature of labour-intensive activities which tend to hire children, and the society´s response. The SAARC member countries can also take joint stands at international fora when it comes to coordinating their activities to eradicate child labour on the one hand, and countering ill-informed but economically devastating allegations on the other.

Right of the young
The centuries-old tradition and practice of using children as labourers can hardly be eliminated overnight, and no one agency, governmental or otherwise, can address the task alone. Neither will mere legislation or strong-arm tactics work. It will be some time before working children disappear from the face of South Asia, to be replaced by youngsters going to school, enjoying family life and running carefree. However, it will happen if those engaged in this longhaul campaign have the conviction that enjoyment of ´childhood´ is a fundamental right of the young. Rather than labour in the sweatshops, the young should be at play, study or rest.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian