Child Labor: South Asia’s Normalized Shame

Child Labor: South Asia’s Normalized Shame
Day in, day out, after 12-hour work shifts of domestic drudgery, innocent young children in Sri Lanka and Pakistan leave their employer’s million-dollar mansions or apartments in Colombo, Karachi or Lahore’s glitzy neighborhoods, and return to their servant lodgings. There they sleep on dirty mattresses and appear malnourished in most cases from their steady diet of leftovers and being chastised. In the most horrific cases, they dream of a life where they will no longer be exploited or worse, abused.

Behind the glistening glass doors of South Asia’s most opulent neighborhoods, thousands of children work as maids and servants. Police operations are under way in Sri Lanka’s western province to find children under the age of 16 who have been employed as domestic workers. Police media spokesman Senior Deputy Inspector General (SDIG) Ajith Rohana said the operation will be launched as a pilot project with community police officers and officers of the Children and Women Bureau. This operation comes in the wake of the death of a 16-year-old domestic worker at the residence of former minister Rishad Bathuideen on the July 15 which sparked a wider debate on how we treat our underprivileged young people within society.
Behind the glistening glass doors of South Asia’s most opulent neighborhoods, thousands of children work as maids and servants

The teenage girl had been subjected to sexual exploitation which led her to self-immolation. She succumbed to burn injuries sustained at the Bathuideen residence. “The aim of the operation is to identify and take legal action against owners and residents of homes in which children under 16 are employed as domestic aides,” said Rohana. Legal action will also be taken against any agents who organised the recruitment as well as people who allowed the child to go for such employment, he added. Former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) Ambika Satkunanathan tweeted on Tuesday morning that more policing was not the solution to the problem. Satkunanathan called for reform of labor laws and increased access to education and employment. Commissioner General of Labour Prabath Chandrakeerthi said that with “recent events related to child labour”, the list of hazardous occupations has been increased from 51 to 71.

Despite this horrific and tragic recent incident, Sri Lanka is still doing comparatively well in terms of a relatively low prevalence of child labour in its agricultural sector. Decades ago, however, school attendance of children of plantation workers was low and children were working in the tea and rubber sector. The government worked with local and international partners to tackle the issue responsibly, and today child labor incidences are rarer than in the past. Sri Lanka is as such unique. Children elsewhere around the globe continue to be vulnerable to hazardous forms of labour, from hazelnut farms to tobacco cultivations or heavy-machinery use on family farms.

As the Minister of Labour and Trade Union Relations Ravindra Samaraweera has said, “The serious issue of child labor is not widespread in Sri Lanka. We are doing far better than some of our neighbors are. The Ministry of Labour has been working with dedicated partners such as the ILO to achieve a future of zero child labour. As a self-declared pathfinder country, Sri Lanka is committed to attain this goal by 2022 – ahead of the year 2025 global target set in the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Pakistan on the other hand, paints a very different picture with regards this prevailing issue. Across Pakistan, an estimated 264,000 children are employed in such work, and claims of abuse by employers are commonplace. In January, 16-year-old maid Uzma Bibi was allegedly tortured and murdered by her employer in Lahore for helping herself to a small piece of meat. After tweets about her case went viral under the hashtag Justice for Uzma, three people, including her employer, were arrested and are now in custody awaiting trial. There was similar social media outcry in 2018 over pictures of 10-year-old Tayyaba’s bruised face and hands. She had been working as a maid for a judge and his wife. The couple were cleared of assault allegations but convicted of neglecting an injured child and sentenced to one year in jail.

Yet despite this rising tide of public outrage, it appears as though the problem is only intensifying. A major obstacle is that child work is unfortunately very normalised and common-place in Pakistan. Many people prefer young workers, because they are easier to control, and exploit. And poor parents are ever ready to offer their children for employment because it at least promises two meals and a roof. Nothing else matters. In this fact alone lies the tragedy of the situation.

The Punjab Domestic Workers Act, passed this year, includes an emphasis on discouraging child labor. Yet there are no similar laws in other provinces, and campaigners say that unless laws enhance accountability among employers, children will continue to be exploited. Despite the well-documented risks, extreme poverty means parents are still tempted to send children away. Agents entice them with talk of the financial benefits, often offering false reassurances about how they will look out for the children while they are away from home. The alternative for poverty stricken and desperate households would be to leave their children on the streets to beg for daily wages, at risk of succumbing to drug addiction and being lured in by criminal gangs.

This begs the question: is it the desperation of the poorest in societies that is to blame for these children’s lives being ruined? Or is it instead, the arrogance and callousness of the rich and privileged that allows this modern-day child slavery to be normalised? Whichever conclusion you reach, the end result remains unchanged. Our youngest suffers, and yet, the world goes on.