Children And Labour At The Bachat Bazaar

Children And Labour At The Bachat Bazaar
Six years old. Possibly eight and maybe even nine years old, if the combined effect of malnourishment and “mazdoori” was a consideration. A quick question and answer session with other sellers revealed that he was Ali and that he and his family had very recently started selling fabric at this particular market.

Ali and other male members of his family work at the Weekly Bachat Bazaar (loosely translated as a Flea Market) located at Clifton Block 2 – opposite Summit Tower. Such bachat bazaars have taken multiple forms, e.g., the “Car” Bazaar in Sector 11-D North Karachi and other “daily” bazaars across the city (including DHA Phase 8 and Aladdin Bazaar on Rashid Minhas Road in Gulshan-e-Iqbal) on designated days of the week. While the nature, operation modus, location and form of these bazaars can be very divergent, the basic premise upon which they function is the same: to provide sellers (farmers, manufacturers, etc.) a platform to directly sell their products to consumers at a fair price. This would eliminate the role of middlemen and / or wholesalers in the said equation. Middlemen, however, do often sell their wares at these bazaars, although at fares much lower than those prevailing at even your regular neighborhood stores.

The purpose of these bachat bazaars is common knowledge and it is what pulls regular visitors. Then there are occasional frequenters like me who act like tourists and come back with pictures and stories from their adventures. But if there is one thing everyone would talk about, it’s the “use” of children of all sizes in the overall functioning of these bachat bazaars - and what caught my eye was Ali, sleeping on what was otherwise for sale.

To be entirely honest, I did a double take to understand that this was a child sleeping on the loose fabric and not some random fixture lying around. And when I realised what I was looking at, my first thoughts were:

“if innocence lost had a face, this was it.”

For reference purposes, children in these settings are used for multiple purposes:

  • they man different stalls,

  • they sell bags (wherein to load what people buy at these bazaars) and

  • they offer services as “mazdoors” to carry around what people buy. People can choose to “engage” these little mazdoors and keep them till they eventually leave and then have them load their wares on their cars.

This is completely normal, and nobody bats an eye at how this works. Through a Western lens, some might view this child labour; to these children in question, they were learning life skills.

In August of this year, Pakistan will turn 76 years old and a sizeable number of Pakistanis either hail from or still live in rural areas. People from interiors move to larger, urbanised cities to try their hands at building better lifestyles – for reasons that everyone knows. According to the Labour Force Survey 2020/21 Annual Report, 7.37% of urban population less than 20 years of age are employed. It’s a little higher in rural setups: 12.97%. Common “jobs” include domestic tasks, agricultural activities, bonded labour in carpet weaving and brick industries – amongst other jobs, like our case in point. And it is done entirely for their livelihoods, in one way or another.

Multinational companies make billions of dollars a year, selling branded items in the western world. Recall the 1996 Nike boycott after a US magazine featured a photograph of a young Pakistani boy sewing together a Nike football. Then there was the IKEA scandal in the spring of 1994, where a Swedish documentary revealed that child labour was a common practice in Pakistan’s rug industry – where IKEA had production. Many of these children were debt slaves, sometimes along with their whole family. Given the gravity of the situation, Marianne Barner (the recently recruited business area manager for rugs at the time), acted swiftly. Contracts with Pakistani rug manufacturers were terminated, and other supplier agreements had a clause added that prohibited child labour. These scandals were very real and completely legitimate.

Admittedly & agreeably, these practices can be considered exploitative and both physically and mentally harmful – making it detrimental to children’s futures by keeping them out of school. On the flip side though, where do you draw the line between something that is criminal by international standards but locally a natural process of transferring skills? This argument bases itself on the point that child labour perpetuates poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and population explosion amongst other social issues. Is international concern on child rights relevant to our domestic setup? Momentarily disregarding those large organisations that put children to work, local context is everything.

Question: does it have anything to do with self-reliance? Allow me to explain. What can possibly explain why a daily wage labourers’ school-going child is continually considered useless? The child can go on to become a big blue-collar something or can even opt to go into a white-collar setup – like the young mazdoor that our little Ali is.

There is then a thing or two to be learnt in resilience and productivity from this same child. No? Children, as our ambassadors of tomorrow, play a crucial role in all parts of economy. They learn skills by observation of and participating in whatever activities they deem fit in developing self-reliance; these skills are transferred from elder family members to children.  And skills can include manual labour, building houses, fishing, preparing food – all very basic and essential life skills needed for their own survival in whatever circumstances they live. But from an outsider’s perspective, all of this can be viewed negatively.

The International Labour Organisation defines child labour as “work that deprives children (any person under 18) of their childhood, their potential, and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development”. At the most extreme, it involves child slavery, separation from families or exposure to life-threatening hazards.

And that is where specifics and specifications come into play. Local context is the hallmark of effective development work – meaning that what works in one community may have absolutely no place in another, and an appreciation of particular diversity and cultural norms is key.

Maybe this is why we’re now seeing a lot of “internalisation”. Brilliant examples include the TCF volunteer programs (rahbar, Career Counselling, baghban), Engro’s outreach (Thar Foundation, I Am The Change, EnVision) and Aman Foundation – local entities engaging with communities and executing programmes that define and address/tackle everyday challenges being faced.

But that may or may not be enough.

Maybe Ali cannot or does not have access to these facilities. Perhaps it is necessary to involve his parents, enabling them to make the “right” decisions? Who knows? I’ll always advocate all children having the chance to go to school and to play and to act their age. But, given what circumstances people come from and what influences their own and their family’s life decisions is not something we can judge or even comment on.

So, here’s the thing: understand specifics before everything else. Familiarise yourself with the distinction between exploitation and how communities transfer life skills that are critical for their inhabitants – because to be honest, we need to embrace the blurred lines and complexities of cultural norms.

The world should not and cannot be painted with one brush.