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Child labour in Asia: Wages of innocence

A majority of the 122 million children employed in child labour live in Asia.


Written by

Updated: July 5, 2018


Though the Asia-Pacific region enjoys a reputation of being a vibrant economic zone it is home to more working children than any other region in the world. An estimated 122 million children aged between 5 and 14 years are compelled to work for their survival, according to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report.

Other surveys estimate that there are 168 million child labourers in the world. The data is not quite comprehensive given the variations in the definition of child labour across countries – variations in age of employability and nature of employment. There are also invisible workers who are never counted.

Yet the numbers are enough to cause alarm – especially for those children employed in hazardous work across Asia and more specifically South Asia. 73 million children are involved in hazardous work – 45 million boys and 28 million girls. Of these, 19 million are in the age group of 5 to 11.

Millions are not enrolled in schools – shutting doors on a better future. These children are employed in a number of economic sectors, including domestic labour, seafood processing, garment and footwear factories, mining and quarrying, pyrotechnics, rag-picking and scavenging, rubber and sugar-cane plantations, entertainment and other services.

The obvious vulnerability of working children also means that some face a further layer of exploitation – becoming victims of trafficking and sexual abuse, a position often highlighted by Ruchira Gupta, a leading Indian campaigner against child trafficking.

The ILO launched World Day Against Child Labour in 2002 to draw global attention to the horrifying conditions most children are forced to work in. The campaign aims to “accelerate action to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target 8.8 of safe and secure working environments for all workers by 2030 and SDG target 8.7 of ending all forms of child labour by 2025”.

Here’s a look at the steps Asian countries are taking to ameliorate the condition of child labourers.

Bangladesh

According to the The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s Labour Act, 2006, lays down the minimum age for employment of children as 14. Yet, as many as two million children still work in perilous conditions.

Children from less affluent backgrounds are forced to work in severe circumstances as bus conductors, domestic help, tanners, casters, etc., leaving them exposed to physical, economic and even sexual exploitation. There’s little scope for these children to acquire necessary education or skills to escape the vicious cycle of poverty. In the process, they are being robbed of their childhood and a decent shot at future.

Another report points towards encouraging signs in Asia which has seen the largest decline in child labour since 2012.

Bangladesh has the second highest number of child labourers in South Asia – 5 million, of which 75 per cent children in the age group of 15-17 years are employed in hazardous industries. A whopping 4.5 million children are out of school.

Pakistan

According to Dawn, 12.5 million children in Pakistan are involved in labour.

To fulfill the the ILO’s Sustainable Development Goals, Pakistan has committed to take steps to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking and end child labour in all its forms by 2025.

Though Pakistan’s Constitution gives each child a right to education, the employment of children remains unaddressed, particularly in sectors like agriculture, factories, small car workshops, shops, hotels, cinemas, vending on the streets, the fishing industry, mining, brick kilns, weaving, bracelet making, packing and construction.

Pakistan has 3.4 million child labourers, of which 41 per cent are employed in hazardous industries. Over 7.3 million children in the age group of  7-14 are out of school.

India

According to a report in The Statesman, the number of child workers in India has fallen but incidents of sexual violence against children has shot up.

The newspaper quoted Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi saying the number of child workers in India had fallen from 12.5 million in 2001 to 10 million in 2011 and further to 4.2 million.

According to Satyarthi, there are 160 million child workers in the world. “Almost half of them are victims of the worst form of child labour. They are in a very dangerous situation. About five million of them are slaves who do not have any kind of freedom. They are traded.”

According to ILO, there are 5.8 million child labourers in the age group of 5-17 in India, of which 20 per cent perform work of hazardous nature. A whopping 12.3 million children are out of school.

Nepal

The Kathmandu Post says 1.6 million children between 5 and 17 years are deprived a childhood.

It quoted the Nepal Child Labour Report of 2010. “Children are most susceptible to child labour in times of disasters and conflicts. Nepal knows this all too well, with bitter experiences from the civil war and the earthquake. The problem of child labour remains as entrenched as ever even years after both events,” the report added.

Around 25.2 percent of the Nepali population lives below the national poverty line and the sentiment that children’s income can supplement household income is common among people here.

Since child labour seems socially acceptable in Nepal (and South Asia) children’s education is never prioritised till their families can afford decent meals every day.

According to ILO, there are 2 million child labourers in Nepal. Children here face the highest risk of being employed in the hazardous sector.

Sri Lanka

The Island reported that a joint survey of ILO and the Sri Lankan governmental body showed that the number of children in work is falling.

“This percentage is very low relative to other countries at similar levels of income. A comparison of the results of Child Activity Surveys conducted in 2008/09 and 2016 shows an almost eleven percentage point fall in the proportion of children working in the period between the two survey rounds,” The Island reported.

Among the small minority of children who are engaged in economic activities, nearly 81% are in the oldest age category of 15-17 years. The majority of working children (59.3%) have contributed to the family income by working as unpaid workers in family enterprises.

However, as per data compiled by ILO, 72 per cent children work in hazardous industries in Sri Lanka.

Bhutan

According to Kuensel, Bhutan is well on its way to accomplishing the ambitious goal to eradicate child labour by 2025.

There has been no ground survey on child labour or child trafficking. However, the country prohibits employment of children aged between 13 and 17 years in mining sites and quarries. They are also not allowed to work in industries involving heavy lifting and manufacturing of goods with toxic materials, or in bars, discotheques and slaughterhouses.

Labour official Kinley Dorji told Kuensel that if a child aged between 13 and 17 years is employed, the employer needs to seek approval from the ministry.

According to ILO, at least 6 per cent children in the country are employed in hazardous industries.

In Bhutan, children between 7 and 17 years are more than twice as likely to be employed.

Vietnam

According to Viet Nam News, more than 1.75 million Vietnamese children are child labourers.

Vietnam’s National Programme on Preventing and Reducing Child Labour for the years 2016-2020 aims to end child labour exploitation. All child workers will be assisted to integrate into the community and get a chance to grow, VN News reported.

Around 67 per cent children work in the agriculture sector, 16.6 per cent work in the services sector and 15.8 per cent  in the construction sector.

Much like South Asia, most Vietnamese parents think that child labour is fine and a way to enhance family incomes. Children are forced to work 11-12 hours a day, going up to even 16 hours, often without wages.

Indonesia

A few years ago, ILO urged Indonesia to strengthen law enforcement and intensify monitoring to reach its goal to be free of child labor by 2022.

ILO has urged the government to implement a monitoring system in a “scientific and professional way” in its efforts to eradicate child labor, a report in The Jakarta Post said.

There are approximately 1.5 million children in Indonesia who are victims of child labor, 1.3 million of whom are categorized as being under the “worst labor conditions”.

Laos

Laos is one of the many countries in the world where large numbers of children are engaged in some form of labour, according to ILO.

“Many children in Laos are employed, because more than 50 per cent of the population is under the age of 20,” the Vientianne Times reported.

Many children do not go to school, and Lao government is trying to protect the rights of children.  

China

According to Chinese law, companies cannot employ people younger than 16.

Eight child labourers found working in Jiangsu province in a crackdown were returned a couple of years ago, according to China Daily.  

Though the children were promised a monthly wage of US$435 they were paid less than half. The children were beaten up if they didn’t work fast enough or disobeyed their employers.

A 15-year-old from Yunnan’s Wenshan Zhuang and Miao autonomous prefecture, who was identified only as Xiaoxiong, said the boss kept his ID card and took away his computer.

Xiaoxiong said he could work on 350 pieces of clothing in one shift. But his boss insisted he work on 500.



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Lamat R Hasan
About the Author: Lamat is an Associate Editor at Asia News Network.

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