Hopscotching through the law

While several laws dealing with child labour have been enacted, issues related to practicality, enforcement and consistency remain

Hopscotching through the law


orld Child Labour Day is observed on June 12. The day aims to draw attention to the prevalence of child labour and the measures and efforts required to end it. Governments, employers and workers’ organisations, civil society and millions of people from around the world come together on this day to raise awareness of the suffering of child labourers and what can be done to bring an end to child labour.

According to the International Labour Organisation, child labour is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity and that is harmful to their physical and mental development. When children or young persons are engaged in work that has no negative effects on their well-being, physical or mental growth, or educational performance, it is generally seen in a positive light. The opportunities for light work and decent employment are welcomed and constantly promoted internationally.

Globally, it is estimated that more than 160 million children aged 5 to 17 are trapped in child labour. 79 million of them are engaged in hazardous work. Approximately 3.3 million Pakistani children are estimated to be trapped in child labour, robbing them of their childhood, their health and education.

For their part, Pakistani legislatures at national and provincial levels have made significant efforts. A commitment to end child labour and advance education has been reiterated in the introduction of laws like the Employment of Children Act, 1991, applicable in Islamabad; The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Prohibition of Employment of Children Act 2015; The Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Act, 2016; The Punjab Restriction on Employment of Children Act, 2016; and The Sindh Prohibition of Employment of Children Act, 2017. These laws deal with child labour issues and demonstrate a commitment to eradicating child labour and protecting the rights of children.

However, issues related to practicality, enforcement and lack of coherence pose major challenges. For instance, the Punjab child labour law sets the minimum age (at which work could be started) at 15, whereas other provincial jurisdictions of Pakistan have set it at 14 years. These laws also have varying definitions of an ‘establishment’ where children can work and a labour inspector may take cognisance of child labour complaints. Labour inspectors, appointed by the government, have a crucial role in enforcing these laws. They have the authority to visit specified establishments, investigate complaints and take legal action against employers who employ child labourers or violate the provisions related to child labour. But many areas are not covered under the definition of an establishment. This, at times, makes these laws toothless.

The Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019, was passed to regulate domestic work. This law bans the employment of children under the age of 15 as domestic help. 

Child domestic labour is a modern form of slavery. According to an estimate, every fourth household in Pakistan engages a domestic labourer and 8 percent of all children engaged in child labour are involved in domestic work. This is a major cause for concern. Children working in domestice households are exposed to various forms of abuse – physical, mental and emotional – as well mistreatment through malnutrition, starvation and exhaustion.

The Punjab Domestic Workers Act, 2019, bans the employment of children under the age of 15 as domestic help. Children over the age of 15 and under the age of 18 can be legally engaged in ‘light work’ or part-time work that does not negatively impact their health, security or education. Similarly, the Islamabad Capital Territory Domestic Workers Act, 2022 prohibits the employment of children under the age of 16 years from working in a household in any capacity. In Balochistan, under the Balochistan Employment of Children (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 2021, a child or an adolescent may not be employed in or given permission to work in any of the processes listed as hazardous work. This law includes domestic work in the list of hazardous occupations. Children in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces are not expressly shielded from domestic work.

There is a need to view child domestic labour through the prism of child protection.

According to Article 11 of the constitution, “no child under the age of fourteen years shall be engaged in any factory, mine or other hazardous nature employment.” Article 25-A, mandates that the state provide free and compulsory education to all children between the ages of five and sixteen, reflecting the realisation of the critical role that education plays in ending child labour. One of the most effective ways to prevent and stop child labour is education. There is a dire need to harmonise the age of the child in various laws. The constitution allows the engagement of children after 14 years in child labour but at the same time puts the responsibility on the state to provide free and compulsory education to children till the age of 16. This doesn’t make sense. For laws to be implemented properly, the minimum age for employment should be in line with the provision for the compulsory age bracket for education. In its concluding observations on the Fifth Periodic Report on Pakistan in 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of Child adopted the following concluding observation: “the state party ensure the full harmonisation of its legislation as regards the definition of the child.” For the benefit of children, these loopholes must be filled. These rights must be applied consistently.

The government, civil society organisations, businesses and communities must work together to end child labour. Partnerships should be established to raise awareness, offer assistance to families of child labourers and develop sustainable means of subsistence. Everyone must ensure that there is no child labour, slavery or trafficking and that child protection systems are put in place to protect the fundamental rights of every child.

The writer practices law in Lahore. He tweets as @miqdadnaqvi

Hopscotching through the law