Usman is just 11 years old. Dressed in ragged, greasy clothes, he holds heavy engine parts as he awaits orders from his employer, who is busy fitting a head gasket to an ancient Toyota taxi. For a 10-hour day he earns about US a month at a car repair workshop in the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), Peshawar.
"What else can I do? I do want to study but being the lone earner in my family I am forced to work. If I do not work, who will feed those who depend on me?" he wondered.
Working children are a very common sight in NWFP, where according to official figures gathered in 1996, 1.1 million children, out of a total of 3.6 million countrywide, are engaged in various forms of hazardous labour despite the extensive legislation that is supposed to regulate the practice.
The Employment of Children Act 1991 clearly states that no child below the age of 14 shall be permitted to work or be employed in any establishment in the country. Similarly, articles 11, 35 and 37 of the Pakistani constitution also prohibit child labour.
But a recent survey conducted by the UN children's agency UNICEF indicated that at least eight million children are at work in Pakistan out of its total population of 140 million.
According to figures provided by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the NWFP has a literacy rate of 37.3 percent, much lower than the country's overall figure of 49 percent. The provincial drop-out rate at primary school level is almost 50 percent, which suggests that a disproportionately high number of children are working.
Khalid Hassan, project manager with the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), told IRIN that child labour was embedded in the culture of NWFP and that poverty and a lack of education were responsible.
"We don't ask the children to work. Instead their elders bring them here. You tell me what these children would do, even if they got an education?" Shakoor Khan, the owner of a car repair shop employing 12 children, told IRIN. "The government and NGOs should be grateful to us because we are imparting free-of-cost skills to these children," the man shouted above the din of a diesel truck.
In Peshawar alone there are more than 5,500 auto workshops, furniture factories, shoe factories, brick kilns, carpet weaving centres and tyre repair centres where more then 37,000 children labour, the ILO report revealed.
In addition, there are hundreds of small hotels and tea stalls and thousands of shops in the city where thousands of children are engaged in various kinds of labour, while a sizeable number of children are associated with the business of selling small goods in city streets and bazaars.
Another reason for an increase in child labour in the province is the uninterrupted flow of drugs from neighbouring Afghanistan to Peshawar and other population centres in NWFP. Research evidence suggests that heroin-addicted parents often force their children into work to help pay for their habit.
There is also evidence of the sexual abuse of working children, many of whom are vulnerable to being molested by their employers, older children or by paying customers.
A Peshawar-based social worker, Khalid Khan, said that most local NGOs working to combat child labour were paid by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) through the ILO. He said that NGOs could only do so much to combat child labour. "Until the government takes practical steps and implements the laws pertaining to child labour the practice will continue. The NGOs alone cannot do it," she remarked.
Provincial Law Minister Zafar Azam Khan told IRIN that the government had set up a commission to review the child labour issue. But a top provincial government official, on condition of anonymity, said child labour would be around for a lot longer in NWFP. "We have no intention of tackling this issue on the basis of existing legislation. The existing laws may suit the West but the needs of our society are totally different," he remarked. [IRIN]
Posted on 2004-11-10