The menace of child labour
The government of Punjab’s promulgation of the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labour at Brick Kilns Ordinance 2016 is a commendable step. It is recognition of the long struggle of civil society against child labour in Pakistan and acceptance of the fact the child labour is a reality and not a myth created by non- governmental organisations and the international community. Steps for the implementation of the ordinance and the interest of Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif in ensuring the eradication of child labour from the brick kilns of Punjab proves that where there is a will, there is a way. Once the political leadership is determined, it cannot be stopped.
I would, however, like to get the attention of the chief minister of Punjab and the entire political leadership of Pakistan towards a few socio-economic and cultural aspects which must be considered when embarking on a road map for the eradication of child labour. There is no second opinion that child labour must be eradicated and all children of the school-going age must get an education. This is the fundamental right of all children of Pakistan, under Article 25-A of the Constitution.
The federal and respective provincial governments should not limit the eradication of child labour solely to brick kilns. They must also touch upon child domestic labour, child labour in fisheries (Sindh), child labour in mines (Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) and all forms of child labour mentioned under various schedules of banned occupations in the Employment of Children Act of 1991. Article 11(3) of the Constitution of Pakistan also prohibits the employment of children below the age of 14 in any factory or mine or any other hazardous employment.
Child domestic labour is one of the worst forms of child labour. Approximately 50 cases of torture and violence against child domestic workers were reported in the media since Shazia Masih’s murder, in January, 2010 in Lahore. Irum (Lahore), Fizza Batool (Lahore), Jamil (Multan), Yasmin (Okara), Shehzad (Gujranwala), Tehmina (Islamabad) were all tortured to death within the four walls of their masters’ homes. These cases show that child domestic labour is one of the deadliest forms of child labour in Pakistan. However, the federal and provincial governments in Pakistan have failed to respond to the situation.
The federal government is required to put an immediate ban on child domestic labour by adding child domestic labour in the schedule of banned occupations under the Employment of Children Act (ECA) 1991, through a notification in the official Gazette. Similarly, like child labour in brick kilns, the chief minister of Punjab should also take action and immediately ban child domestic labour under the schedule of banned occupations of the Punjab Employment of Children (Amendment) Act 2011 and begin with banning child domestic labour in the houses of government servants and parliamentarians.
For resolving the issue of child labour on sustainable basis in Pakistan, the federal and provincial governments should make serious efforts to implement Article 25-A of the Constitution of Pakistan, about right to free and compulsory education for children aged five to 16. The government of Punjab should immediately notify the rules of the Punjab Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2014 and make a sufficient budgetary allocation for the implementation of the law. An education commission should be established to monitor the implementation of the Punjab Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2014, so that the law is not limited to law books only.
The government of Punjab should also ensure implementation of the Bonded Labour System Abolition Act 1992 to ensure elimination of the peshgi system, whereby families of brick kilns workers are mortgaged through payment of peshgi or an advance and are thus compelled to make their entire family work in order to pay back the advance — which they are never able to do. Similarly, all brick kilns should be registered as factories and brick kilns owners made responsible for getting their workers registered with the Employees Old Age Benefits Institution (EOBI) and Employees Social Security Institutions (ESSI). To register with the EOBI, an employer has to contribute about Rs700 per registered employee, per month. In the case of SESSI, the employer has to pay six per cent of the salary of each registered worker per month and that’s why most of the brick kilns workers are deprived of these important social security benefits.
All the federal and provincial governments, including the government of Punjab, should take active measures to ensure effective implementation of the minimum wage laws. Poor implementation of the Minimum Wage Ordinance 1961 is one of the key reasons for parents’ poverty and the subsequent engagement of their children in child labour. In Punjab, the minimum wage for unskilled labour is Rs12,000 per month. I don’t think any unskilled worker is getting this amount and the Minimum Wage Board is not effective, if it does in fact exist. The government of Punjab should ensure implementation of a minimum wage of Rs 962 per 1,000 bricks for brick kiln workers. Even this meagre amount is not paid in full to the poor kiln workers.
For improving the overall labour situation, there is a need to strengthen the labour inspection machinery. This is also important for sustaining our Generalised System of Preference (GSP) Plus status accorded by the EU. Pakistan has ratified all eight of the International Labour Organisation’s core conventions. However, implementation of these conventions has been poor thus far. For the effective implementation of labour laws, the labour inspection system is of critical importance and the government of Punjab must focus on putting in place such a system, as it will be very helpful in ensuring implementation of all labour laws, including those related to child labour, forced and bonded labour, minimum wage and social security. Once all the labour laws are implemented in letter and in spirit, child labour will be eliminated automatically and children will go to schools and vocational training institutes. Gradually, we will have a mechanised and technical labour force in place, which will have a positive impact on the country’s exports and reduction in the exploitation of the poor labour force.