Child labour, in layman terms, can be defined as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development.
More than 12.5 million children are involved in child labour in Pakistan. According to Reuters, “Pakistan’s Labour Force Survey, 2014-15 showed that of those children aged between 10 and 14 years active in child labour, 61 percent were boys and 88 percent came from rural areas.”
In Pakistan, 38.8 percent of the population is living in poverty, with one in four individuals living in acute poverty. For many citizens in Pakistan, it is hard to find a job or to secure one paying enough to provide for a family. Students from impoverished backgrounds who are unable to enter school are most likely to become affected by child labour in Pakistan.
There are several forms of child labour across the provinces. These include farming, raising livestock, fishing, weaving carpets, in tanning/leather industries, brick kilns, mining and quarrying, welding and steel fabrication, carpentry in small workshops, domestic work, providing services in hotels, restaurants and tea stalls, transportation sector and gas stations, scavenging and sorting recyclables, street vending and begging, automobile repair, forced labour and worst form of child labour existing in a shape of sexual exploitation and human trafficking, forced recruitment by non-state actors for the use in armed conflict and being engaged in other illicit or illegal work/business.
There are multi-faceted causes for child labour and Pakistan faces the worst consequences of this menace. The International Labour Organization (ILO) suggests that poverty is the single greatest cause behind child labour. Poverty levels appear to necessitate for children to work in order to allow families to reach their target home income. However, other reasons which have forced families into forced labour from children include low quality of education/lack of free education for the poor, lack of job prospects and lack of political will to make policies and poor enforcement mechanism for the elimination of child labour.
The government has established several laws and regulations related to child labour. However, gaps exist in Pakistan’s legal framework to adequately protect children from the worst forms of child labour, including with regard to minimum age for work and hazardous work. Pakistan’s legal framework includes both domestic and international laws under which it is obligated to comply and develop a robust enforcement mechanism.
Furthermore, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan devolved all child welfare and labour issues from the federal government to the provincial governments. In 2017, Sindh Province enacted the Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, which establishes 15 as the minimum age for employment and 19 as the minimum age for employment in hazardous work. During the same period, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa enacted the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Free Compulsory Primary and Secondary Education Act, making education free and compulsory for children between ages 5 to 16. The Punjab provincial assembly also passed the Punjab Destitute and Neglected Children (Amendment) Act, which increases the penalty for using children for begging and prohibits the use of children to sell goods with the intention of begging.
In addition, in 2018, the federal government enacted the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons Act, which brings the law into compliance with international standards by exempting children from the requirement that force, fraud, or coercion must be proven in order to constitute trafficking and by including all trafficking for forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation. The federal government also enacted the Islamabad Capital Territory Child Protection System Act in 2018. The Act lays out the minimum age for work and hazardous work, provides a hazardous work list, and prohibits criminally worst forms of child labour in the Islamabad Capital Territory. A number of laws contain provisions prohibiting child labour, or regulating the working conditions of child and adolescent workers. Most important laws include The Factories Act 1934, The Employment of Children Act 1991, the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act 1992 and the Punjab Compulsory Education Act 1994.
In addition, Pakistan is a signatory to several international human rights treaties which safeguard the rights of children and prohibit child labour and modern day slavery. Pakistan has ratified International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention on The Rights of Child (CRC), ILO Minimum Wage Convention 1973 and Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 1999; all of them safeguarding the rights of children and underlining the right of education for all persons. However, gaps exist in Pakistan’s legal framework to adequately protect children from the worst forms of child labour, including with regard to minimum age for work and hazardous work.
In order to obtain effective elimination of child labour, government should fix and enforce a minimum age or ages at which children can be employed in various fields. Within limits, these ages may vary according to national social and economic circumstances. The general minimum age for admission to employment should not be less than the age of completion of compulsory schooling and never be less than 15 years. But developing countries may make certain exceptions to this, and a minimum age of 14 years may be applied where the economy and educational facilities are insufficiently developed. Sometimes, light work may be performed by children two years younger than the general minimum age.
Right to education is inversely proportional to child labour. Elimination of child labour will eventually lead to the greater protection of this constitutional right, hence increasing the literacy rate. In any effective strategy to abolish child labour, provision of relevant and accessible basic education is central. Nevertheless, education must be embedded in a whole range of other measures, aiming at combatting the many factors, such as poverty, lack of awareness of children’s rights and inadequate systems of social protection that give rise to child labour and allow it to persist.
Child labour can be abolished through legislative measures. However, that is not the proper way to do it unless there exists a clear definition of what constitutes child labour in the legal framework of Pakistan. There are economically active children in the society apart from child labourers. Child labourers are economically active children who do work that prevents them from going to school. Hence, this option can be struck down for eliminating child labour. The legal framework must have clarity on the definition of child labour. It must be inclusive and cover all forms of work that children are engaged in. This can be possible only when the parliament itself is clear as to who would amount to a child labourer.
In order to ensure this right and eliminate child labour, it is necessary to enforce child labour laws, labour laws, and laws for education. This will further strengthen the compliance to international standards and there will be no liability on Pakistan as a state for breaching these international obligations which become binding once a treaty is ratified. HH
The writer is a lawyer.
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