South Asia: Haven of Child Labor

The sight of children carrying sacks, polishing shoes, selling newspapers or washing dishes in the roadside inn is one of the most common sights in Nepal. Children and their families still work and even live in or near the unhygienic dump sites. Worsening economic and political conditions in the region are the main culprits.

The numbers of children exploited as laborers has increased even with the increased number and quality of interventions responding to the children’s conditions. This is the gloomy paradox haunting less developed nations.

Throughout the developing world, and especially in South Asia, millions of little boys and girls are working just for mere survival. They are busy from morning till late at night, often seven days a week, making clothes, socks, dolls, toys, soccer balls, and countless other products for the whole world.

Child labor is a common phenomenon, confined mostly to less developed countries. The majority of working children in developing countries work in agriculture, since most of these nations are agrarian. They also work in many manufacturing industries such as brick making, textiles, carpets, match production and just about any industry that uses unskilled cheap labor.

Historically, Africa and Asia were not the only havens for child labor. In 1851, which was around the time of industrial revolution, in England and Wales, 37 percent of boys ages 10-14 worked, as did 20 percent of the girls in the same age group. It should be noted that these high participation rates persist despite the main Factories Acts of 1833 and 1844, which placed curbs on child labor. And it has been argued that by this time, child labor was already on the decline. So this is not only a contemporary problem, but one that has been addressed throughout history.

In the present international economy, both businesses and consumers are seeking cheaper and cheaper sources of goods, no matter who makes them or under what surroundings. The dynamics of this trend are sweeping much of South Asia, and the logic that underpins it could thrust millions more of children elsewhere into the global labor force, doing work now performed by their elders. Today’s system of forced labor by the young has articulate defenders of the indefensible.

They need the work. It is a rationale repeated in many circles, even by some renowned economists. They claim that there is no alternative for millions of children because they are poor, malnourished and illiterate. And even after years on the job, they usually remain poor, malnourished and illiterate, and their work leads to the unemployment of adults, including their older sisters and brothers. Still, the argument that poor children “need the work” has powerful appeal. But it also has highly dangerous implications.

The voracious rise in the incidences of internal armed conflicts in several Asian countries results in more exposure of children to armed groups and a heightening of conditions that reinforce forced recruitment of children as well as voluntary entry of children into armed groups, both state related, and non-state.

Recent documentation and consultations suggest that children not only participate in front lines. They are also used as spies, porters, helpers in camps, and are often subjected to abusive treatment. Situations of children’s direct involvement in the armed forces are documented in Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Nepal.

Exploitation of children in the commercial sex trade remains the worst form of child labor in our region. UNICEF estimates that about 1 million children are lured or forced into the sex trade in Asia every year. More alarming fact is that people known to them introduce many of these children into the work.

Traffickers of both children and adults feed largely on the desire of poor families and many young people for economic and personal advancement through migration for work. Trafficking routes are found within countries, from rural to urban centers or to areas with a large demand for unskilled labor, and across borders, usually from less developed to developing countries.

With the banning of the kamaiya system in Nepal in June 2000, employment of people in agricultural work through bonded labor is now a crime in the country. However, similar to India and to Pakistan, this kind of policy does not by itself guarantee the elimination of conditions of bondage among the people. Law exists prohibiting bondage but people can still be found living in conditions of bondage.

Child labor and poverty are cause and effect. The children’s entry into the labor force is triggered by poverty but also perpetuates their families’ poverty. Thus, helping the children break away from child labor is breaking the cycle of poverty, and breaking the cycle of poverty helps children break away from child labor.

If one is really serious in addressing the child labor problem, our initiatives must contribute to addressing core issues related to poverty alleviation such as good governance, globalization, environment, agricultural development and land reform, social equity, and development of basic social service systems.

Our societies have evolved through time into the present modern-day world. Our present world no longer officially approves the tyranny of slavery. But vestiges of the practice of enslaving people remain, and vestiges of the low regard for people doing household work for others are still with us.

For these reasons, there is a need for an analytical understanding of this issue, while not denying the psychological and sociological dimensions to this problem. The global economy should offer children an escape from lives of forced labor. Instead, it is drawing more and more of them into various types of servitude. Isn’t this the parody of all the parodies?

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