Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Some thoughts on unionizing child labour in Pakistan

One of the ideas that I have been debating with myself over the past few months (I'm not exaggerating) is morality, feasibility and (potential) success of child labour unions as a way of dealing with the mass child labour crisis in Pakistan. Before I outline the reasoning behind my support for child labour unions (albeit very reluctantly), I would like distinguish between what I consider to be three types of child labour:

1)Vocational/apprenticeship: Children employed within a small business involving merchant, skilled labour or artisanal work (e.g. mechanic, shop keeper, carpenter, truck artist etc). Within this labour environment, children obtain skills and experience that can lead to further employment.

2)Domestic: Child employed in positions within the household, often as servants.

3)Mass Production: Children employed within industries involved in mass production such a factories, workshops and brick bhattis (mass production of bricks). Most people associate these industries with child labour.

From the above list, it is clear that: a) child labour is a broad term encompassing many different labour settings, b)child labour within Pakistan is prevalent across all levels of society and c) there can be no one solution when dealing with the child labour crisis in Pakistan and that a child labour ban in of itself is inadequate in dealing with this.

I first came across the idea of unionized child labour through this FP article describing child labour unions in Bolivia. The case for child labour unions can be summed up in this quote:

Unionized child workers and their advocates argue that because child labor is a necessity born of poverty, it can't and shouldn't be eradicated. But they want the government and NGOs to differentiate between child labor -- which they see as an economic necessity -- and exploitation, which is how they characterize children working in dangerous jobs, like mining, and harvesting Brazil nuts and sugar cane. "We need to focus on eradicating abusive work," says Jorge Domic, a child psychologist and director of social education at FundaciĆ³n La Paz, a Bolivian NGO. "If we propose to end all forms of child labor, we're not going to do it. We'll just have more clandestine labor in an even worse form than it currently exists." 
Within the Pakistani labour context, much of this is true. There are two major causes of the prevalence of child labour: poverty and lack of affordable access to education. Instituting a complete ban on child labour without tackling these issues is disingenuous to those suffering from it. Additionally, it is important to recognize the difference between exploitation and labour. Vocational/apprenticeship labour should not be dealt in the same way as domestic or mass production. Unionization is very important for this purpose. First of all, it will allow child labourers to bargain for fair wages and ensure safer working environments. Unions can also administer an institutional framework for education initiatives by providing members with access to schooling and literacy classes on a part time basis. Secondly, unions have the potential to reduce and even eliminate child exploitation in mass production labour settings by providing proper documentation for abuses and giving child labourers bargaining rights.   

There is a dark side to all of this as well. If child labour unions are officially recognized, then basically we are legalizing child labour in Pakistan. I'm will not deny that I am very uncomfortable with this idea on an ethical level. However, without  massive investment in job creation initiatives or affordable education, I don't see how this crisis is going away anytime soon. At least unionization, if implemented properly (this is key) has the potential to provide child labourers with protection within their workplaces. In the long run, unionization implemented with a child labour ban in certain exploitative industries (mining, carpet factories, brick bhattis) and government investments in job creation initiatives and affordable education can (hopefully) reduce the prevalence of child labour in Pakistan.