Child labour and social protection

There is little evidence that public welfare plans help reduce child labour

Gruesome treatment meted out to child workers by their employers has become a routine story in Pakistan. When a child is reported maltreated, harassed, abused, or killed, it gets enormous attention on social media. After a few days, the victim’s family and the culprits reach an agreement under legal cover, and everything returns to ‘normal’.

Unfortunately, the campaigns which last for weeks merely strengthen the bargaining position of the victims’ families in the individual cases without bringing about the desired changes in child protection in Pakistan.

Why are children pushed into work which affects their development? Is it poverty of the child’s family, unemployment of adult family members, intergenerational child labour, lack of access to schooling, or demand for child labour in the market, or something beyond these causes?

Some experts argue that abolishing child labour may not be the right policy. They say it may harm the interests of children because they might end up starving as a result of diminishing family income and increased neglect. Social scientists address the issue from one or multiple angles and try to link the evidence.

In Pakistan, it is socially acceptable to regard children working in a restaurant or providing assistance at tea stalls in schools, motor mechanic shops, or to street vendors as labourers, not child labour. In some backward areas of the Punjab and Sindh, it is ‘normal’ to find women and children working in sizzling hot afternoons or on a chilly morning while men play cards or watch a bizarre cockfight.

The civil society or rights activists concerned with the prevalence of the worst forms of child labour, i.e. slavery, child trafficking, debt-bondage, serfdom, and child servitude, seem to be less bothered about children employed at a family enterprise or as domestic help.

According to a report in Global Slavery Index 2018, Pakistan ranks eighth in the list of countries characterised by the highest prevalence of modern slavery in the world. Further, the report shows that a good number of modern slaves may be found in brick-making, carpet industry, agriculture, and coalmining.

United Nations Human Rights Committee reported in 2017 that it was concerned by the high number of children engaged in labour under perilous and slavery-like conditions in Pakistan’s brick kilns. Pakistan has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). However, very little progress has been made in strengthening public coordination regarding child protection case management and referral system, in compliance with international standards.

The United Nations Convention on the rights of child (CRC) emphasises the need for creating a favourable environment for the family to play its role in the growth and well-being of all its members, particularly children. Unfortunately, deep-seated patriarchal norms are a big hurdle in providing social protection to children at the family and community levels in Pakistan.

Women have a lesser role in family planning, marriage, educating children, and utilising family’s resources, and taking major household decisions. According to Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey 2017-18, only 42 percent of all births are registered, and 36 percent have a birth certificate.

The gap in childbirth registration ranges between 34-60 percent in rural and urban areas, and 9-76 percent between the poorest and the richest. Birth registration is a fundamental right of all children as legal proof of a child’s existence and identity. According to the UNICEF, “an accurate record of age can help prevent child labour and child marriage and protect children from being treated as adults by the justice system”.

In societies like Pakistan, where income and consumption inequalities exist, more than two-thirds of the population lives in multidimensional poverty, and patriarchy defines a family’s functioning. The onus of protecting the children falls more on the government than the respective families.

Pakistan’s social protection system comprises social safety nets, social security, employment promotion, and protection programmes. Under the aegis of Bait-ul-Maal, theproject of Pakistan Bait-ul-Mal School for Rehabilitation of Child Labour has weaned away 17,871 children aged 5-14 from hazardous labour and enrolled them in different centers countrywide.

Children enrolled in these centres are provided free education up to the primary level and given clothing and footwear; and a subsistence allowance is paid to their parents. However, strict enrolment criteria see to it that only children exposed to hazardous work in brick-kilns, carpet industry, mining, tannery, construction, glass bangle, domestic work, begging and agriculture are eligible. Further, the exposure period of five years limits the beneficiaries to a small number.

Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund is currently supporting many projects which aim to provide diverse livelihood strategies, universal primary schooling, and women empowerment to the ultra-poor and poor. These include National Poverty Graduation Programmes, Programme for Poverty Reduction in selected districts of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and ex-FATA, The Livelihood Support and Promotion of Small Community Infrastructure (LACIP) in KP, and the Interest Free Loan programme.

However, these programmes are more focused on reducing poverty and creating employment opportunities for the poor, which may indirectly limit the exposure of children to work in Pakistan. Current programmes under the PPAF do not provide any evidence of direct transfer of resources aimed at reducing child labour in Pakistan.

Benazir Income Support Programme, recently renamed as Ehsas programme, provides direct cash assistance to the poorest women to eradicate extreme poverty and to empower women. The programme is focused on targeting the poorest of the poor households and, hence provides an opportunity to lessen the burden of child labour in the long term.

A component of the BISP programme, Waseela-e-Taleem, provides conditional cash transfer to support primary education of children aged 4-12 of BISP beneficiary families. The programme is currently being implemented in 50 districts. It aims to increase primary school enrolment and reduce drop out. However, it does not shed light on the children who never attended school for various reasons, including child labour.

The public welfare programmes have been a popular policy tool in fighting poverty in the developing countries. However, there exists little evidence on how they help reduce child labour.

The social protection system, suitably designed to cover working children in Pakistan, calls for the latest information on birth registration, poverty, child schooling, and child labour. There are many surveys, like Household Integrated Expenditure Survey, Annual Status of Education Report, and Demographic and Health Survey, which provide comprehensive information on birth-registration, child schooling and poverty.

The only child labour survey so far was held in 1996. Recently, the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics has initiated a child labour survey. Future family surveys should focus on domestic help, especially in urban areas. Without the needed information on child labour, government may not form effective policies to tackle with the likely increase in child labour in the post-Covid period.


The writer is an assistant professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Karachi. She can be reached at [email protected]

Child labour and social protection in Pakistan