The Nation, Lahore

5 Rajab, 1418 - Thursday, November 6, 1997, Lahore

[child labor]

No work, no food-Child labor

Dr Rana Jawad Asghar

The New York Times published a splashing news story on its first page in the beginning of October. The screaming headline of the report said: 'Measures to ban import items made by children in bondage'. It was about a proposed bill in the US Congress to impose a ban on the import of goods made by forced or indentured child labourers by their parents and who must often work a decade or more to buy their freedom, the paper claims. It, moreover, says that it will greatly affect the importing of rugs and carpets from Pakistan and India, where some children as young as 4 years old are sold into bondage. Representative Mr Bernard Sanders, who introduced the legislation in the House, said, "Consumers in the United States of America shouldn't be purchasing goods made by children who are indentured servants and virtual slaves. We should not do business this way, and we shouldn't be perpetuating this system".

According to the New York Times, children rights group estimates that the US imports more than $ 100 million worth of goods each year, for the most part, rugs and carpets-produced by bonded or indentured children. It admits that child labour is also prevalent in brick and matchstick factories, which export little of their products. (So they have no effect from the US legislation). According to the New York Times, on the House floor recently, Representative Sanders got rapid approval, without any debate, to insert the provision into the Treasury-Postal-appropriation bill. His strategy, was to introduce the provision as amendment when the House was trying to rap through a bill, which contained a cost of living raise for Congress that many House members were embarrassed about and wanted to dispose quickly.

This lengthy news story just mentions in few lines the opinion of the other side by saying that some experts on child labour say the bill fails to address the underlying cause of child labour - poverty in developing countries.

Last year, a famous TV programme here in the US, showed people playing soccer (football) and a video of children sewing these balls and asking them how they feel. Naturally, no one likes to see little kids working, so they were not unjust when they said they are not going to use these footballs again. Though I don't totally believe that all these persons or organisations that are raising the issue of child labour are sincerely committed to the cause of these children. I also don't dispute sincerity of many, that really want to make the lives of these children better. I have many American students with me in the International Health Program at the University of Washington who are really sincere for the welfare of these children. It is really hard for me to convince these sincere, active people that child labour may be a sin but the very efforts, which they are doing to safeguard these children rights, may seriously undermine the very little economic freedom they have.

I was born in the city of Sialkot (Pakistan), which is famous for exporting sports goods and surgical instruments. My childhood in Sialkot was spend playing with many of these child labourers. Since my father was a banker and he was posted in many different cities of Pakistan, so I was able to see and meet and also play with children of many different cities of Pakistan and was able to observe the difference among the children of different regions of Pakistan (Especially areas with strong industrial base versus rural and undeveloped areas). I am not, in any way, a supporter of child labour. In my utopia, every child should get loving and caring parents, good nutritional food, good medical care and comprehensive education. I also don't like to see any child working in factories or anywhere else. But my problem is that, I live on this earth where there is no utopia. There are harsh realities and there is nothing in black and white. There are many gray zones in which we have to live and make our decisions.

It is not a very difficult question to ask, that why children in the developing countries work? They don't work because there are no laws against child labour in these countries. They don't work because there is no democracy in these countries. They don't work because there is social acceptability of child labour in their respective cultures. They only work because they are 'POOR'.

No parents are going to send their children to a factory, seven in the morning, if they could afford not to do so. Every parent wherever he may be living, North or South, East or West, wants for his kids the best of education and health care. But unfortunately, not everyone in this world could afford it. Children who are working in these factories are sometime sponsoring school fees for their younger siblings. They may be the only source, which is paying for the anti-tuberculosis drugs for their mother. Or simply, they are saving this money to start their own business some day. It is not uncommon in Eastern cultures that when faced with economic difficulties, sometimes the whole family pools its earnings to support one of their kids for higher education, who in turn, takes care of the whole family when he or she is able to do so.

Contrary to the popular belief, bondage labour is not a very big problem in the export-oriented industry. On the contrast, a child labourer working in an export-oriented industry is earning much more than a child labourer working for domestic industry. As they are skilled labour and are in a very short supply, they are much better off, not only in salary but have much better working conditions than others. Bondage was and is still to some extent, a big problem in the domestic market especially brick-making. The Pakistan Supreme Court some years back took very stern measures to stop this practice. The other form of bondage labour is in our rural areas. Where feudal landlords still are sometimes living in the eighteenth century and consider the whole population of these areas as their subjects. This is a big problem where whole families are living as prisoners of these very powerful landlords. Not only the children in these areas are abused, but also women and even men are not safe. In the cities, the kids work in garages, in small restaurants and as domestic servants. They have to work longer hours and they get the fraction of pay as compared to their counterparts in the export industry.

By just focussing on 'One Issue of Child Labour' and not dealing with the root cause of the problem, we are going to do more harm than good. The people who are doing this for the welfare of these children, should understand the simple fact that by just closing the factories, who use child labour, it is going to force these children to come to the street. Their families are not going to receive welfare money from their governments or from these Children Rights NGOs. These children will be forced to work for domestic industry with more chances of abuse, and with fraction of their prior earnings. Don't make these already crumbling economies weaker by imposing one sanction after another in the name of some 'Noble Cause'. Let the countries stand on their own feet, using their own resources and their own laws. Nearly every industrialised country has used child labour in their phases of transition, in one form or another. As long as poverty is there, there will be many kids looking for the jobs on the streets.

If you really want to improve the condition of these child labourers, it may be more beneficial for them, if you pressure these multinational companies to give some school time to these children. They could easily afford to build small schools with these huge factories. (Remember in Pakistan, the literacy rate is less than 25 %). They should provide good health care to their workers. The working environment should be safe for these children. These workers including these children should allowed to organise their labour unions. This, eventually, will address the problems of low wage and exploitation of workers. I know some will think, it as an endorsement to child labour. But, if we are really worried about these children, then we should think for them first and should not be afraid to do what really is going to benefit these poor kids. It might not be very glamorous for you, if you just want some headlines in the print media.

ŠThe Nation Publications (pvt) Limited, 1997


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