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November 4, 2019

Pakistan pays a heavy price every time cheap child labour is sold


November 4, 2019

Arbi is a dusky little girl with an oval face. She wears her hair in bunches, and the golds in them flash at the temples. She has small white teeth, which you can glimpse whenever she whispers in the Sindhi language. She’s staying at the Edhi Centre in Mithadar while her family is being searched for.

The girl was found by the Frere police in the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) neighbourhood on October 23. She had run away from the bungalow where she was hired as a domestic servant, because her employers beat her. The police admitted her to the Edhi Centre, a common practice in such cases because they don’t have a facility to handle such matters.

In the room there were many other children her age and younger. It was their siesta time. Some were actually sleeping, some were only pretending and some were whispering in each other’s ears. Arbi was busy talking to a girl her age before she shook my hand and sat up for a chat. She grew impatient as the subject of her home came up.

She said that after escaping from her employers, she was walking down a street when the police stopped her to ask where she was headed. “I told them I was going to Quaidabad, but they brought me here,” she said with a hint of annoyance. “Drop me home!”

Probably just five years old, her naivety made her think people would know where her home is in Tando Bago (a town in District Badin) or at which graveyard her baba (father) works in Quaidabad or at which bungalow her Chachu (paternal uncle) is employed in DHA.

“Chho na [Why not]?” she insisted when, after a blank pause, she was told I can’t drop her home. But Humera, a young Sheedi woman who works at the centre, intervened: “Brother Faisal — the one with the big beard — will take you home,” she said. Arbi blurted: “Then what is he [yours truly] doing here?”

The Edhi worker said Arbi hasn’t adjusted yet. “Children usually land here either because their parents are dead, divorced or either or both of them unwilling to take their responsibility.” Arbi’s case is different. She was forced into labour, something she doesn’t even understand.

Humera said girls make up most of the abandoned kids. In her heavy Lyari-accented Urdu, she added: “We girls are burden on our families. That’s why they throw us away. They won’t do this to boys because their gender makes them feel proud, the same, a part of them — unlike us.”

Edhi Foundation head Faisal Edhi explained that it was a case of child abuse, and maybe the girl was sold off by her father to the bungalow owners against a lump sum or a monthly payment or both. “We’re looking for her family, and when we find them, the girl will be handed over to them.”

He, however, was afraid that she’d be sent back to the same employers or to other people for as low as Rs2,000 to Rs3,000 a month. “It will also make her vulnerable to sexual abuse, but neither do we have a legal right to keep her here [if her parents are available] nor is there a state-run facility in Karachi to hold her.”

Personally, he doesn’t feel like sending her back to her father, “because he would do the same thing to her again. Ideally, keeping a kid out of school should be punishable, but we don’t have such a system. Maybe we want to keep our generations illiterate”.

Generational deprivation

Rukhsana, in her 40s, is a healthy-looking woman. She’s a mother of six boys, the eldest of whom is 21 years old and the youngest is nine. She hails from Rahim Yar Khan and has been working as a domestic help at houses in Karachi since her family moved here, even before her marriage.

She has been living in a makeshift house on an abandoned plot in Gulistan-e-Jauhar for the past eight years. Recently, two daughters of her sister, who has also moved to the city, have started accompanying her to work. They help her with her responsibilities and this way they can clean more houses in a day.

The younger girl, who is around 11 years old, is more suitable to be a babysitter. She takes care of the children of her aunt’s employers and this way makes some bucks for herself. “People ask me to send her in for special occasions, and some even ask for her to live with them as their help,” explained Rukhsana.

She said the wage for a child help ranges between Rs2,500 and Rs5,000. The employers also provide them with food and clothes, and let them sleep at their house. Their salary goes directly to their family, who could meet the child at the employers’ place. For a brief stint, the wage may range between Rs100 to Rs500.

“Many people from a background like ours or even worse can’t afford to send their children to school — boys or girls,” said Rukhsana. “The best option for us is to start earning as early as possible so we can save some money for better shelter or to pay off our debts.”

According to senior journalist Sarfaraz Memon, disadvantaged families tend to make more children. “They’re forced to think that the higher the number of their kids is, the stronger their financial situation will be, and this is because the economic conditions have made it difficult for one person alone to feed the entire household.”

He shared a story of a woman who worked at a house in Sukkur. “One day she felt sick and couldn’t do all the work alone, so she started taking her eight-year-old to work to help her. Then one day, due to her worsening health, she couldn’t make it to work herself, so she sent off her eight-year-old and four-year-old to work.”

Memon doesn’t see a way out of this in at least the next four to five years. “It’s a mammoth job. The way people have been kept illiterate and underprivileged for years and the way the government machinery works, it seems an uphill task. Here you’ll find entire families working from dawn to dusk just for Rs1,000.”

He said that though Sindh has a family welfare department, you won’t find it in the field. “Its outreach employees are being paid just to sit at home, and no one seems to be questioning them. A mother was in the news recently for begging for money outside the Civil Hospital Mithi so she could take her baby to a Hyderabad hospital in an ambulance.”

An epidemic

The Sindh Assembly passed the Prohibition of Employment of Children Act in 2017 to regulate and stop child labour. Though its Section 3(1) reads “No child shall be employed or permitted to work in any establishment”, the word “establishment” here refers to industrial, commercial, agricultural, mining, business, trade, undertaking, manufacturing or any other economic facilities, but not houses.

Labour and human rights activist Zehra Khan agreed that poverty and lack of education are the driving factors of child labour. She said child labour has many different forms; it’s found in houses, and at shops and factories, but the current laws don’t cover domestic labour, and even the draft of domestic labour laws doesn’t address child help.

She said the Sindh Labour Department has been planning to conduct a survey on domestic child labour for the past two years, but there seems to be no such luck. She said that even if the law is formulated, she isn’t convinced that it will be enough.

According to a 2017 Refworld report, children in Pakistan engage in the worst forms of child labour, including forced domestic work. It states that 31.5 per cent (around 3.7 million) of the children between five and 14 years of age in Sindh are working even when the provincial law prohibits employment of children under 15. The report also states that the country hasn’t conducted a child labour survey since 1996.

Talking about the issue, the provincial labour department’s former joint director Gulfam Nabi Memon said that the official survey on child labour in Sindh is under way, and its mapping and listing have nearly been completed. “Within the next two weeks, we hope to start the enumeration process. This survey is being conducted on a wake-up call given by Unicef, which is also partially funding it.”

He said the department has sent the draft of the Sindh Domestic Labour Bill to the cabinet seeking its approval, and as soon as it’s done, it will be tabled in the assembly. He said the domestic law addresses child help and completely prohibits it. “No child under 15 will be allowed to work anywhere, be it at home or any other place.”

Memon, who was a driving force behind the Sindh Home-Based Workers Act and the Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, said that the beginning of the domestic workers law stemmed from the Tayyaba torture case in Lahore and the deficiency in the employment of children act, which didn’t cover the children employed at houses.

“Taking notice of the Tayyaba case, the Supreme Court had directed all the provinces to legislate against employment of children as domestic workers. We don’t have a time frame within which we’ll be able to formulate the law, but I hope it’s soon.” Murtaza Wahab, the Sindh chief minister’s adviser on law, and Shehla Raza, the provincial women development minister, were asked to comment but they didn’t respond.