Tuesday, April 27, 2010

development: Children as domestic workers -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 

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

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