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Child labour—heinous crime continues!

Huzaima Bukhari

“We still have a soft approach on the perpetrators of crimes like worst forms of child labour”—Satyarthi Kailash

If laws and rules of a country are meant to be broken, especially by those who are their authors, champions, the educated, the civilized and the influential, then why have them in the first place? Just leave all to themselves and let there be chaos so that when everyone has thoroughly enjoyed this ‘freedom’, realized its devastation, borne the adverse consequences, they may begin to appreciate what obedience to law truly means.

One such law that is blatantly violated by all and sundry is the Employment of Children Act, 1991 (the Act). The preamble of Act V of 1991 says: “An Act to prohibit the employment of children in certain occupations and to regulate the conditions of work of children.”

Hats off to the ingenuity of the legislators who, instead of completely forbidding employment of children introduced section 3 read with the schedule to the Act that mentions occupations and workshops conducting certain processes in which children cannot be employed, clearly indicating those fields where they can be employed. This includes work in the capacity of a domestic servant. ‘Child’ according to section 2(iii) “means a person who has not completed his fourteenth year of age.” So, it should not come as a surprise that girls and boys between the ages of 6 and 14 are commonly being hired as help in homes, shops and even offices in addition to becoming apprentices with car and motorcycle mechanics.

Interestingly, Pakistan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on 12 November 1990 making a reservation on interpreting its provisions following the principles of Islamic laws and values. The Convention defines child as “a human being below the age of 18 years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.”

Apparently there is a conflict between the Act and the Majority Act of 1875 which says: “Every person domiciled in Pakistan is deemed to have attained his majority when he shall complete his age of 18 years and not before.” This implies that for employment purposes, obviously for earning income, a person is a child until he is 14 years but for something like casting vote or filing a lawsuit or entering into a contract he has to be a major. Throughout the Majority Act, person below 18 years of age is referred to as child.

The objective of this discussion is to point out the non-serious attitude of legislators and judiciary towards children. Whereas in countries like the United Kingdom, minors are protected under the Children Rights Act 1989 which entails that persons up to the age of 16 years ought to be in school and cannot be employed in any capacity, After 16 they are allowed to seek a job but for only 40 working hours per week. On the one hand, Pakistani law has no qualms with little children striving to earn a few rupees and on the other, a civilized country provides for a total ban on child employment. One can argue that compared to UK, poverty level in our country is much higher because of which parents are compelled to make their young children work, particularly in rich people’s homes. Considering their constraint for money this kind of perversion could be justified as long as the children remain secure but matters become questionable when a child is subjected to torture and abuse.

Recently, Zohra Shah, an 8 years old girl from South Punjab employed by a couple in Rawalpindi, was killed after being ferociously beaten for accidentally freeing ‘expensive’ parrots (proving that birds are more precious than humans), This gruesome incident was splashed all over the press and electronic media and no sooner the culprits got arrested a complete hush befell over the issue. The parliamentarians are mostly busy in hurling accusations on each other and justifying their existence on the political front. Perhaps that is why they were voted in power. Instead of reviewing defective statutes, debating bills and redressing their electorates’ problems, all they do is raise a cacophonic noise in the assemblies muffling any sane voice.

In 2019, 16 years old Uzma was murdered by her employers in Lahore just because she ate some of their food. In 2017, Tayyaba’s case came to the forefront wherein a civil judge and his wife were found guilty of torturing the girl The neighbours reported the abuse and the girl was found with severe injuries, which the Pakistan Institute of Medical Science said included swollen eyes, burns to her hands and feet. The High Court, ardently condemning this crime sentenced the couple to three years imprisonment which, on the couple’s appeal has been reduced to 12 months by the Supreme Court. This just goes to show the apathy of judiciary towards crime against children especially when the perpetrators are people of influence and power.

Punjab Assembly did pass the Punjab Domestic Workers Act in 2019 which, according to activists, just like other half-hearted enacted statutes has many flaws that need to be addressed immediately. They claim that a large number of domestic workers, mostly children, are not registered, have not received social security cards, are doing unpaid labour and being subjected to abuse. During the passage of the 18th Constitution Amendment in 2010, article 25A was created which makes it incumbent upon the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children of the age of five to sixteen years in such manner as may be determined by law but apparently this is not a priority. Therefore, where culprits are accused of child labour and abuse, the government should also be penalized for shutting its eyes towards its constitutional duties.

Observers watching proceedings in the national and provincial assemblies wonder at the quality of persons they have elected in the name of democracy. Other than causing disturbance in ongoing proceedings, venting out their defeat in elections or hurling allegations by those in power, crucial issues are conveniently left unattended to be resolved on their own.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are at least 8.5 million domestic workers in Pakistan, many of whom are women or children. Although they claim that the condition of tens of thousands of child workers in the country is alarming yet this area remains a deserted territory. Ignoring welfare and raising the standard of life of the younger generation has had adverse consequences for the entire nation. Despite uninterrupted tenure of democratic governments for the last twelve years the graph of child labour and abuse is going up. Osama Malik, a labour and child rights lawyer based in Islamabad opines that even in the presence of local laws regarding child labour, the 2019 US State Department Human Rights Report released in March 2020 says: “..child labour remains pervasive, with many children working in agriculture and domestic work.”


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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