Rolling out the Red Carpet

I welcome you to my blog and hope that you will like the tour. Please leave your footmarks with comments and feedback. This will through and through enhance my knowledge and profundity of thought. Enjoy! Asif J. Mir

Monday, July 7, 2008

Little Angels and the Child Labor

We often hear about goals of education relate to ‘meeting our children’s needs,’ ‘responsible citizenship’ and ‘equipping students for the future.’ Yet, what do such goals mean when millions of our children are forced to work? How much actual attention is given to the circumstances of this segment of our future? How much consideration is given to the needs not only of this generation but future generations? How seriously do we care about human values when we see around innocent child laborers selling newspapers at traffic lights, serving tea at kiosks, or weaving a carpet? Is this the future we are talking about? How might we enhance the quality of our responses to unmet poor children’s needs? How might we begin to contribute more effectively to building cultures of peace and sustainable futures? No easy answers.

That the shameful practice of child labor should have played an important role in the Industrial Revolution from its outset is not to be wondered at. The displaced working classes, from the seventeenth century on, took it for granted that a family would not be able to support itself if the children were not employed. The children of the poor were forced by economic conditions to work, as Charles Dickens, with his family in debtor's prison, worked at age 12 in the Blacking Factory. In 1840 perhaps only twenty percent of the children of London had any schooling, a number which had risen by 1860, when perhaps half of the children between 5 and 15 were in some sort of school, if only a day school (of the sort in which Dickens's Pip finds himself in Great Expectations) or a Sunday school; the others were working.

Child labor is a pervasive problem. Children work for a variety of reasons, the most important being poverty and the induced pressure upon them to escape from this plight. Though children are not well paid, they still serve as major contributors to family income in Pakistan. Schooling problems also contribute to child labor, whether it is the inaccessibility of schools or the lack of quality education which spurs parents to enter their children in more profitable pursuits. Traditional factors such as rigid cultural and social roles in Pakistan further limit educational attainment and increase child labor.

There are 19 million working children in Pakistan, 7 million below the age of 10 and 12 million between the ages of 10-14. Everyday sun sets by shoving over 100 children into the labor market. The number of child workers under 15 years is estimated to be not less than 8 million. Punjab accounts for 60% of the total child labor. More than two-thirds of child laborers are working in the agricultural sector. Of 20 million bonded laborers 7.5 million are children and 1.2 million children are bonded in the carpet factories. Nearly 250,000 children working in brick kilns are bonded laborers, driven into a miserable state by the fact that their entire families have been 'pawned' to the owners by virtue of their having pledged their labor in return for some money taken. Children are sometimes kidnapped to be used as forced labor.

The newly emerged affluent class in urban cities employs some 6.7% of female child workers in domestic help. These domestic workers generally have to work for 15 hours a day, seven days a week.

Bonded labor, a contemporary form of slavery according to the UN definition, unfortunately holds strong in certain sectors in Pakistan, such as brick manufacture, construction, sports goods manufacture and carpet-weaving.

Demand for child labor is so high that children are often sold by desperate parents. They are then forced to work long hours, day and night, unable to attend school, and often subject to abuse and malnourishment. This perpetuates a cycle of poverty since most of these children never get the education and training needed to obtain a livable wage.

As a peace educator, human rights activist and a father of eleven year old son, I am the first to admit that we have done nothing to halt child labor and just about 19 million child laborers continue to work in Pakistan. What inconsequential the government has done is measly cosmetics. This is just to show to the West that child labor is not involved in the production of export oriented goods. We have done nothing to remove the horrific and reckless conditions that push children to child labor. Rather than working together to help build a better world, in which poor children have the possibility to live, to laugh, to play, to share, to care and to transform into responsible citizens, we may fatalistically accept a foreclosed future. Rather than building intergenerational partnerships, the well being of children today and of successive generations may be stolen or colonized through our lack of quality responses.

We can, we must, and we should stop the exploitation of children. In 1999, when the member states of the ILO unanimously voted to adopt Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, the world community made a commitment to stop the suffering of millions of children. It was recognized that ending the commercial exploitation of children must be one of humankind's top priorities. It was accepted as a cause that demands immediate attention and a high priority action. Caught in a nightmare that never seems to end, a significant part of Pakistan’s future endures the worst forms of child labor. More than just words and passing resolutions, child labor is a part of the reality of our world today. No one will say that children should suffer. No one will support that children should work 14 hours a day. But who will step forward to stop this? (