June 12, 2020
By Asra Haque from Lahore
Child labour is a social ill still rampant in Pakistan despite several laws outlawing the practice. Pakistan’s first set of laws prohibiting child labour were not passed until early 1990 after push from activists – the most important of which, the Employment of Children Act 1991, helped to legally define childhood and adolescence per the standards of the UN Charter of human rights.
The 1991 Act was borne out of legislation on bonded labour. In 1989, the Supreme Court had declared the system of peshgi (advance payment) trapping brick kiln labourers in a cycle of debt to their thekedar unconstitutional. Brick kiln labourers with massive debts weighing down on them must work without pay – often the debt keeps inflating and is passed down to the labourer’s family, binding entire generations to a modern form of slavery.
The landmark judgement paved the way to the drafting of a law to abolish bonded labour, which prominent rights lawyer Asma Jahangir spearheaded and lobbied for. Although the Bill would not become an Act for another three years, it led to political and legal debate over the issue of child labour due to the rampant labour exploitation of children at kilns. As such, the aforementioned Employment of Children Act of 1991 was drafted, presented and legislated, outlawing hard and hazardous labour for children of 14 years of age and below. The Act also banned the recruitment of adolescents (persons aged between 14 and 18) for military service.
This would later be followed by the Punjab Compulsory Education Act of 1994, which outlawed withholding a child under 16 years of age from acquiring a primary education. However, despite the existence of these laws, millions of children are still illegally made to toil in Pakistan’s manufacturing and services industries, as well as the informal sector where most of Pakistan’s child labour is concentrated, and therefore able to escape the purview of rarely implemented protection laws.