Child Labor: The Ugly Reality That We Often Overlook

By Faisal Rasheed

Smog covered the horizon over thousands of tall structures unevenly built next to each other and across with just enough space for my small car to pass through the streets. This is Lyari, one of Karachi’s oldest settlements, also referred to as ‘Karachi ki Maan’ by the locals. It is one of most densely populated areas. This place was referred to as an incubator for boxers and football players of Karachi but now it is synonymous with gang war, and drugs.

Upon my visit, I witnessed children playing in the streets late at night. My curiosity got the better of me and I asked one of the locals who had been living in Lyari for the past 36 years and was shocked at his answer. He told me that these kids work at the factories in the morning and only get time to play at night. Not only that many kids work as informers for different gangs in the area. These kids between the ages of 8 to 14 years were the cheapest source of labor.

Due to poverty, inefficiencies of our government and obvious discrimination against the people of Lyari, people had to find other ways of earning and they found the solution to their problem by promoting gang war all over the city and by supplying drugs. For parents it was a choice between sending their child to work in a factory and earn money or to be whisked away by a gang leader to do his bidding.

The place has been affected by gang war for so long that the only thing people associate with it is gang war, criminals, and drugs. One would be surprised to know that these gangs were lead by battalions of children under the age of fourteen as foot soldiers. These children were equipped with heavy guns and most of them were users of some sort of drug. The reason why gang leaders like Baba Laadla and Uzair Baloch chose children to be at the frontline was because they were easy to control and manipulate. Plus they wouldn’t listen to reason, and would react on impulse if they wouldn’t get what they demanded from the victims. To me it was like a scene from the Brazilian movie ‘City of God’, which follows the journey of two young boys from a violent & poor neighborhood.

Lyari has not always been the epicenter of war and drugs. This place used to be the industrial hub of Karachi with factories of leather goods, plastic, wood, and safety wear. Due to safety issue most of the factory owners moved from Lyari to Korangi, though some factories are still operating especially the leather gloves and garment industry. The factory owner’s justification for hiring the young workers is simple. “If I didn’t employ them they would end up in a gang gathering batha instead”, when in reality they are merely taking advantage of the cheap labor cost of production and no fear of any retribution.

Pakistan’s population between the ages of 0-14 takes up 35% of the entire country’s population. Being the sixth largest populous country in the world, it is not surprising that the total number of child laborers is almost 12 million which is thrice as much as the total population of children in Australia. Child labor has been growing in Pakistan while numbers drop internationally. This suggests that the government has failed to take strict actions against such practices and local industries have been taking advantage of this lackluster behavior of the governmental agencies.

Pakistan, facing many internal and external issues has failed to rectify and decrease the number of child laborers due to corruption and loopholes in the system. If we look at the root cause of this forced child labor we can see that the overall economic condition of the country is to be blamed. Most of these children are forced to work because they are the only bread earners for their families.

Different non-profit organizations have been working tirelessly to tackle this ever growing issue and have setup schools which operate in the evening and night. Also some of the organizations pay these children to attend classes and take care of their financial obligations.

Pakistan has great potential to become one of the leading economies in the world and has ample resources to make its name globally. Unfortunately the country is marred by socio-economic issues and has lagged in the global race. The silver lining to our ever increasing child labor is that we are building up a strong youth workforce.

By supporting child labor one deprives the child of his basic rights education, development & freedom, but if you talk to the locals and factory owners and even the parents of the children, they have a different view of child labor. They claim if they don’t teach their children a skill at young age and get them employed they would end up being a part of a gang war or some other criminal activity. If you tell them to get their child into school, they would laugh and ask you “which school?” This tells us that parent outreach programs are just as important as government interventions. They need to realize that it’s important that children are meant to learn not earn.

Maybe we need to think out of the box and find a solution to this problem like our neighbor, India. India has dealt with such situations by announcing the minimum age to work for any organization to 14 years. The government should also impose strict penalties and should hire private organizations to monitor and control such illegal practices. The government should also run campaigns all around the country and create awareness among people in order to eliminate this prevailing social issue.

By their joint efforts, I hope that a day arrives when these children have smiles on their faces instead of the stress of work which no child should be accustomed to. By breaking the cycle of ineducation, poverty and hunger we can ensure a bright future for the future generations of our country.

Author is an MBA student at IoBM. He works in a family-owned business in the leather industry.

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