Published in Dawn on February 7 2018
ONCE upon a time, in one of the neighbourhoods in Karachi’s PECHS area where I grew up, there stood two or three houses in each row of the demarcated land; the remaining plots lay vacant. Children would roam around, play in open spaces, climb the trees and go back home.
Fifty years have gone by and practically no plot has remained without a structure. I do find children on the streets, only boys though, between nine and 17 years, playing cricket in the afternoon for an hour or less. All are domestic help; the kids get some respite from their chores while their masters take a siesta. They live in this neighbourhood but belong to the fringes of society. Compelled to leave their homes up in the north, they supplement the household income through child labour in the city.
Though visible, child labour remains undocumented. One census taker told me that children engaged in domestic service were not counted in the 2017 census as they were not members of the households they lived in and that there was no category to document their existence.
We do not know exactly how many children toil in domestic service, or in other occupations. National statistics show a high number of out-of-school children and a three per cent decline in gross enrolment rates, while small-scale surveys and observations on the ground suggest that child labour is increasing. Children are found working in agriculture, brick kilns, transport, food industry, light manufacturing, carpet weaving, auto repair, domestic service, packaging and recycling.
The last national child labour survey was conducted in 1996. Provincial autonomy achieved in 2010 led to hopes that the provinces would take the issue of child labour seriously, conduct surveys, draw up coherent policies, and remove lacunae in the law and ensure its implementation. But this has not happened.
In a 2016 report, released by the US Department of Labour and based on Unesco data, the prevalence of child labour in the age group five to 14 years in Punjab was estimated at 12.4pc and in Sindh 31.5pc. Child labour is more pronounced in Sindh as the number of out-of-school children is higher there. The Labour Force Survey does not capture the magnitude though it gives some indication of child employment. The last survey conducted in 2014-2015, showed the labour force participation rate for the age group 10 to 14 years as 9.6pc and for persons of 15-19 years at 33pc. Meanwhile, the latest ILO global estimates indicate child labour in the Asia-Pacific region has declined from 9.3pc in 2012 to 7.4pc in 2016.
In the last few years, several projects have been undertaken, notably by the government of Punjab, to tackle the issue. However, as child labour is so widespread and the issue intertwined with poverty and lack of schooling, the outcomes of interventions are not visible on the ground. A positive step towards assessing the magnitude of child labour has been the launching of the provincial child labour surveys with the support of Unicef and the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) in 2016-2017.
The Punjab child labour survey was initiated in mid-2016 with the support of Unicef and the PBS. According to a source, the pilot study in two districts, Bahawalnagar and Chakwal, completed in 2017, indicated a high prevalence of child labour. The survey was halted. The SIMPOC methodology, which includes qualitative assessment, became contentious among the implementing partners who had ready excuses to delay the survey: Unicef got busy in the multiple indicators cluster survey, Punjab, for 2017 and the PBS was caught up with the population census 2017.
The plan for the Sindh child labour survey was approved in March 2017. According to a representative of the Sindh labour department, there were pre-test activities, enumerators were appointed and software developers hired. The pilot study was done in Karachi District East and Thatta District. But the field work could not begin in 2017 as the Sindh government did not release the funds. Once the funds are released, field work would be completed in May 2018, an official told me in a recent meeting in his office.
Apart from lack of documentation, coherent policy and implementation of child labour laws, a big constraint is lack of uniformity in the definition of ‘child’ in laws which do not comply with the international definition of ‘child’ ie a person between five and 17 years. A consultation held in September 2017 by the National Commission for Human Rights on how to eliminate economic exploitation of children raised hopes as tangible recommendations had emerged, including a proposal to establish an advisory committee and a technical working group to reform legislation and expedite advocacy with legislators and policymakers. Sadly, nothing concrete has come out of the deliberations as yet.