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Opinion

April 5, 2017

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The child worker

A bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, headed by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, heard the case related to the hiring and torturing of an under-18 child Tayyaba by an additional district and sessions judge of Islamabad and his wife. Both the accused have been released on bail and the criminal case against them will now be heard by a judge of the Islamabad High Court.

When I informed the bench that employment of children in houses is not prohibited under the law, I was asked to submit suggestions to handle the issue of child labour in Pakistan. I have furnished a short note in this respect and would like to share it with the readers as well.

Millions of households in Pakistan are employing children under the age of 18. Many, when questioned, justify it on the grounds of helping poor children. This is ironic as most Child Domestic Workers (CDW) are denied the opportunity to go to school.

Millions of children work in other peoples’ houses on a daily basis. They include children who ‘live in’ and those who live separately from their employers, those who are paid for their work, those who are not paid and those who receive ‘in-kind’ benefits, such as food and shelter.

Despite their important contributions to their employers’ household and the national economy, these child workers are among the most exploited and abused. They face persistent discrimination, exclusion from labour laws, isolation, and dissatisfaction due to the invisible nature of their work. They are young, unaware of their rights, separated from their families and dependent on their employers.

Many CDWs live in their employer’s houses, making them highly dependent upon their employers for their basic needs. Their freedom of movement is often solely dependent on their employer’s discretion. Their isolation makes it difficult for them to seek help or for outsiders to detect cases where CDWs suffer from abuse.

CDW is often characterised by long working hours, lack of rest days or vacation time, and little pay. They often work for a fraction of the minimum wage. Those who live with their employers can be ‘on call’ 24 hours a day. Long hours of work and little time for rest, recreation or socialising negatively impact these children.

The nature of domestic work exposes CDWs to a range of household dangers. Many have suffered serious injuries from the use of hazardous materials and equipment. They seldom receive adequate medical treatment in times of ill health.

CDWs are also frequently subjected to verbal, physical and sometimes sexual violence. Verbal violence takes the form of name-calling, insults, threat, swearing, screaming and shouting. Physical violence may include beating, kicking, whipping, pinching, overwork and denial of food. Majority of CDWs are young girls.

Due to the child’s vulnerability and isolation, sexual violence is relatively common. A CDW may be seen as an acceptable target for sexual harassment or violence by the men or boys of the household. When violence does occur, the children’s dependency on their employers for their basic needs makes them far less likely to report it.

In extreme cases, the conditions and circumstances of CDW can amount to forced labour. Many children are trafficked into domestic servitude, and some are in bonded labour – forced to work to pay off a loan that their parents have received from their employer.

The existing laws of Pakistan do not cover CDWs and thus fail to protect them from abuse and exploitation. No law addresses the unique circumstances of CDWs.

Child labour is generally legally permissible in the country due to loopholes in the relevant legislations. Employment of all children in the age group 14 to 18 years is allowed in all sectors whether formal or informal. There are a few laws that prohibit child labour under 14 years in certain sectors. Since a large portion of children also work in either the agricultural sector or are self-employed, these areas are totally unregulated. There is a need for the federal and provincial governments to broaden the scope of child labour laws and to plug the large gaps.

The constitution of Pakistan only prohibits child labour below the age of 14 years in factories, mines or hazardous employment. The latter term remains undefined but one can argue that CDW falls into this category. Additionally, the Factories Act 1934 prohibits under-14 employment in factories, the Mines Act 1923 in mines and the Shops and Establishments Ordinance 1969 in shops, offices and restaurants.

The Employment of Children Act 1991, applying to Islamabad and Balochistan, has a schedule with two parts that lists 38 sectors where employment of children under-14 years is prohibited. Domestic child labour can easily be added by the federal government to this schedule. Employing a child in contravention of this law is punishable with imprisonment extending up to one year, or with fine going up to Rs20,000, or with both.

The KP Prohibition of Employment of Children Act 2015, the Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act 2016 and the Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act 2017 are similar to the Federal Employment of Children Act but also do not apply to CDWs. These provincial laws also empower the provincial government to notify child domestic work in the relevant law’s schedule.

Article 25-A of the constitution requires the state to provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and 16 years in such manner as may be determined by the law. Permitting children to work over the age of 14 years but below the age of 16 years contradicts Article 25-A as it is almost impossible for a child to work and study simultaneously.

It is about time all concerned authorities and relevant stakeholders realised that ‘a child employed is a future destroyed’. Poverty may be a major cause of child labour but poverty is also caused by child labour. A child who fails to go to school will end up working in menial jobs without learning any major skills and will consequently remain poor. The vicious cycle of poverty will thus continue to be perpetrated. State intervention is required to break this cycle, and the sooner it is done, the more Tayyabas we will be able to save.

 

The writer is an advocate of the Supreme Court. Email: [email protected]

 

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