Child labour in Pakistan: a threat to the future

By Mashal Sahir

If poverty justifies child labour, then it should also justify burglary, prostitution, kidnapping, smuggling and all other crimes. Child labour is a much more serious crime compared to others, because unlike other crimes that affect individuals, child labour affects an entire generation.

Child labour is work that is unacceptable because the children involved are either too young or because, even though they have attained the minimum age to take up employment, the work that they do is unsuitable for a person below the age of 18. Child labour is a violation of fundamental human rights and has been shown to hinder children’s development. According to the last available statistics, Pakistan has a total population of 158 million, which includes a total of 40 million children, out of which 3.8 million are the victims of child labour. Many children are victims of the worst forms of child labour, such as bonded labour and slavery, and are easily exploited and abused on account of their vulnerability. It was found that of the total population of child labourers, seven percent suffered from illness or injuries frequently and 28 percent occasionally.

Child labour is not an isolated phenomenon. It is the outcome of a multitude of socio-economic factors and poverty is among its most prominent aspects. In Pakistan, around 30 percent of the people are living below the poverty line. Due to the unfair distribution of income, unemployment and inflation, poor parents are forced to send their children to work for economic reasons. In many cases, poverty has also led to the bonded labour of children. There are specific cases of children being pledged or bonded in return for loans to their parent(s) or guardian, notably in the carpet industry and in agriculture. The way children are absorbed and obliged to work varies but, as a matter of routine, the children of bonded families start working as soon as they reach school age, if not before. According to these parents, their actions are completely justified on account of their poverty. However, if poverty justifies child labour, then it should also justify burglary, prostitution, kidnapping, smuggling and all other crimes. Child labour is a much more serious crime compared to others, because unlike other crimes that affect individuals, child labour affects an entire generation.

Another factor that leads to child labour is the over-population in Pakistan. It is very common here for a couple that cannot even afford to raise one child, to have six or seven children. Pakistan now has one of the highest figures for unmet need for family planning in the world. The problem is that people in Pakistan believe that the use of contraceptives will go against their religious beliefs, according to which children are a blessing of God and, therefore, preventing their birth would be a sin. However, while following their ‘religious obligations’ they often forget that a parent’s duty does not end at bringing a child into this world, feeding the child, educating him/her and providing a decent lifestyle is part of their responsibility. Naturally, with seven hungry children crying in the house and not enough money to feed even one of them, their parents consider sending them to work as the best option.

The quality of education in Pakistan is another factor that contributes to increasing child labour. The truth is that many parents feel that it is useless to send their children to school as there is no guarantee of a job at the end of it, not only because there is a dearth of jobs, but because the quality of education provided in municipal schools is abysmal. Among the factors that affect the quality and accessibility of education are qualified teachers, adequate facilities, proper funding, comprehensive curriculums, affordable tuition fees and the availability of scholarships.

Natural calamities and crises also play a huge role in giving rise to child labour. The recent floods that hit Pakistan can be seen as a major threat to the future of thousands of children. Once the families that have been displaced by the floods return to their homes, they will encourage their children to go to work and help restore the family. Media reports have indicated that children from the flood-hit regions are being promised lucrative jobs, taken away from their families and then being used for sex work. An increase in child labour was noted after the previous natural calamity — the 2005 earthquake. There are fears that this pattern could be repeated.

The gap between the law and its implementation is a serious problem in Pakistan. According to the Child Labour Law in Pakistan, a child cannot be employed before the age of 15, under any circumstances. Moreover, bonded labour, or ‘debt bondage’ is a practice condemned by the UN as being similar to slavery and consequently a violation of Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is considered by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to constitute forced labour and to be a violation of the ILO’s Convention no 29 on forced labour. However, the government has not put its laws into practice to stop child labour and these laws are universally ignored in Pakistan where children aged four to fourteen keep the country’s factories operating, often working in brutal and squalid conditions.

The government must ensure that all children have access to quality education until at least the minimum age of employment. It should also enhance social protection policies that can help poor families keep their children in school, e.g. through cash transfer programmes and school meals. A recent ILO study has shown that eliminating child labour in transitioning and developing economies could generate economic benefits, mostly associated with investment in better schooling and social services. Furthermore, the media should use its power to spread awareness among the masses regarding family planning. The future of Pakistan depends on whether the government chooses to use this recent crisis as a further excuse for spending cuts in key social areas, or whether it seizes the opportunity and mobilises the necessary political will to prioritise the elimination of child labour as a wise investment in future development.

The writer is a poet and Lahore based journalist. She can be reached at

(The Daily Times)

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