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Children as domestic workers — by Syed Mohammad Ali

Our parliamentarians need to show the will to act and bring domestic child labour within the ambit of the law. However, the fact that many of them also continue to employ children in their rural and urban homes is not very encouraging

The phenomenon of children working in the homes of others remains widespread in several of the poorer countries around the world. It is especially common in countries where there is a deep-rooted social hierarchy, few employment opportunities, and inadequate education facilities.

Child domestic labour is commonly practised in rural and urban areas across South Asia. Even educated and well-to-do families often employ young children to work in their homes as cleaners, kitchen helpers or baby-sitters. Often it is the parents of children from destitute backgrounds who request affluent families to hire their children to enable them to get free food and lodging, and also generate the needed resources for the rest of their family. In worse forms, child domestic labour takes place through very exploitative mechanisms, including child trafficking and bonded labour.

Domestic work, by its nature, or due to the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the well-being of a child. The scant research conducted on this topic indicates that domestic child labourers are very often at risk of a variety of hazards ranging from neglect to abuse. However, the fact remains that this practice is widely accepted and considered a reasonable and practical option for poor families who have little opportunity to invest in the upbringing or future of their children.

One basic reason why child domestic labour is considered so hazardous is because vulnerable children are placed in a workplace — someone else’s home — that remains hidden from public view or any form of labour inspections. Without any oversight, including the glare of public scrutiny, such children remain vulnerable to the risks of physical and mental abuse and exploitation.

A multitude of households around our own country do not think twice about employing young children to work in their homes. The employment of children in the age group of 14 to 18 years is allowed under international labour conventions with a few exceptions, such as that the schooling of these children is not adversely affected, or that they are not placed in hazardous work environments. One wonders how many households employing children bear in mind such preconditions, including the regulation stating that under no circumstances should children under the age of 14 be hired as workers. While individual household discretion may be exercised in effect concerning what younger domestic workers should do, there is no legal bar on the kind of work they should not be allowed to do. Therefore, a child may be assigned a range of tasks, be given a meagre salary and asked to work totally unregulated hours with no scheduled holidays.

A survey conducted in 2005 estimated that over 250,000 children were working in the homes of the more affluent. But one would not be surprised if the numbers were much higher. A significant wage difference between the child labourer and another skilled labourer is largely responsible for child labour, and the same incentive seems to hold true for domestic child labour. As a result, we have young children confined to live in the servant quarters of more affluent people’s residences, away from their own homes. Often, these children do menial chores all day long, and they cannot go to school or get adequate leisure time.

It is important to realise that 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 all his life and will consequently remain poor. However, there is sufficient reason to believe that the phenomenon of domestic child labour will not end on its own accord any time soon.

Several factors provide sufficient impetus to this phenomenon. Pakistan is experiencing a demographic bulge whereby a significant majority of the population is young. Moreover, the goal of universal literacy remains elusive and school dropout rates remain significant. Accompanying factors such as poverty, inflation, unemployment and rural to urban migration further fuel the compulsion of parents to put their children to work, including in the homes of the more affluent. While the compounding factors for this problem are versatile and require often unavailable resources, at the very least it is possible to put in place laws that offer some basic protection to child domestic workers.

Ideally, Pakistan should have a law governing not only domestic child labour, but domestic labour in general. But this remains a neglected area since domestic workers are secluded and unorganised as a group, and are also difficult to reach or even be counted accurately.

The death of 12-year-old Shazia Masih in Lahore and 15-year-old Yasmin in Okara recently sent shockwaves across the country. These may well be just two amongst recurrent incidents, which remain untold. But the publicity surrounding these incidents brought to the fore the gravity of the issue of domestic child labour, including the dangers of this activity remaining completely unregulated.

Pakistan has signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 that calls for protection, survival, development and participation of children. It is unfortunate that the Employment of Children Act 1991 does not cover domestic child labour. The subject can be inducted in the list of processes mentioned under this Act, or else under the proposed Child Protection Bill. The government can do this easily as the political will is present. Our parliamentarians need to show this will to act and bring domestic child labour within the ambit of the law. However, the fact that many of them also continue to employ children in their rural and urban homes is not very encouraging. It is thus perhaps time for other stakeholders — including civil society groups, the media, and parents and children directly involved in this sector — to take up this issue to lessen the extent of exploitation taking place when children are compelled to work as domestic labourers and servants.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

http://dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2010\04\27\story_27-4-2010_pg3_3

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