Nine-year-old Ahmad Akram sat patiently in the shade provided by a car with its bonnet open, watching his brother, two years his elder, bend over the engine. The hot September sun beat down on the little workshop, a single room complete with a roughly-constructed inspection pit. Ahmad wiped perspiration from his face with a dirty, slick-laden sleeve, leaving black marks running down his face.
"I live with my brother and two sisters not far from here," he told IRIN, as his brother removed his head from the engine and shouted hoarsely for another pair of pliers. "My father is a labourer and can barely earn enough to sustain our family, so my brother, Ali, and I have to work also, so that we can feed ourselves."
The brothers live in a ramshackle home on the outskirts of the southern port city of Karachi, changing buses twice to get to the workshop, located in an upmarket suburb. Their reward, at the end of a day's toil, barely suffices to cover their daily bus-fares.
Accurate assessments of the level of child labour in Pakistan are hard to come by. International NGOs campaigning to reduce child labour put the figure at up to 20 million. A survey conducted in 1996 by the national government in Islamabad found that two-thirds of those people younger than 15 years old were economically active. In real terms, this could mean that out of 60 million children in Pakistan, 40 million work for a living.
"The Employment of Children Act, 1991, prohibits the use of child labour in industries where there is a possible hazard to the health of children under the age of 14 years," a case study by the Pakistan Institute of Labour, Education and Research (PILER) said, acknowledging the fact that the Act is violated across the board.
"It's hard to establish what the number of working children is in Karachi, or, for that matter, in the rest of the country, given the lack of a proper census that could tell us what the exact figure is. But it's well over what it should be," Karamat Ali, PILER's director, told IRIN at the institute's campus, about an hour's drive away from the city centre.
In another workshop, a few miles away, just off the congested main arterial road link between the busy Karachi business centre and the airport, Mohammad Safdar, 10, ran back and forth between the garage's owner and a "senior" mechanic, carrying tools and wire from the engine's complicated circuitry.
"This is what I do," he told IRIN, smiling the naughty smile that only children oblivious to their real plight can. "It's fun. I earn some money so I can eat the food I want to eat. And I get to stay away from school."
Safdar's parents both work as domestic helps in different neighbourhoods, but being part of a large family - he has three brothers and four sisters, of whom he is the youngest - means he has to do his bit to help them get by.
"All of my siblings work," he said. "My brothers all work as mechanics, which is why I got into this line. My brother works there." He turned and pointed in the general direction of another row of tiny car workshops. "And the others work in Gizri."
Safdar's exultation at missing school is genuine. He said he went to a local government school in the beginning, but didn't like it. "I wanted to come to the auto-workshop," he said. "School has nothing for me. This place is my home, my future."
Rights activists have been concerned by the growing trend of children being thrust into work situations, often before they attain puberty. "We are currently conducting a survey in interior Sindh to find out the number of children working in auto-workshops," Nadia Haroon, the Sindh programme coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told IRIN in the organisation's provincial headquarters in Karachi.
Working children were basically sent out to labour to supplement whatever their family's income was, Haroon said. "The main thing they look for is economic relief, because they spend their lives under so much pressure, and sending their children to school is an additional burden they feel they can do without," she added.
The situation was improving somewhat with more and more organisations concentrating on working to better the lot of such children, Haroon said. One such organisation is the semi-government Sindh Education Foundation (SEF), which, apart from coordinating educational endeavours with the federal government and other provinces, also runs an education centre for underprivileged children in one of Karachi's most heavily congested areas
"We have community mobilisation programmes where our people go and try to convince parents with working children that it'll be worth their while to send their children to school, or at least to this centre," Zahra Rizvi, the SEF's programmes, operations and research manager, told IRIN.
"The child labour programme mainly focuses on the boys, but this isn't due to any gender disparity - it's just that there are more boys than girls in the centre, mostly because of social reasons," she added.
The entire programme at the facility has been developed around the children's time and requirements, because this is essentially informal education. Then, later, the SEF facilitated the children's enrolment in government schools, Rizvi said. "Currently, we are putting in more into the programme, in terms of skills development, so that we can have a more integrated approach. Previously, it was more concentrated on the literacy angle," she added.
But SEF mobilisation teams did not just focus on the children or their families, but also they actively lobbied workshop owners to provide the children with a better working environment, Rizvi noted. "We tell the employers to make the environment less hostile and more pleasant for the children that work for them, as well as giving them time enough to go to school," she said, acknowledging the fact that the "convincing" process usually took its time.
But community mobilisation programmes did achieve benefits, she said. "I wouldn't say that it is usually 100 percent. But they have shown their efficacy. Sometimes, the convincing process takes a little longer than we expect; sometimes, we feel that enough community mobilisation has been achieved, although there's never really any way to tell," Rizvi said.
"For now, the SEF is extensively involved in an early childhood development programme, which is called Releasing Confidence and Creativity," she said, adding that the project was funded by USAID and the Aga Khan Foundation. "We are providing technical support mainly and are currently involved in preparing research and monitoring tools, as well as the complete provincial strategy," she added.
Still, others like the HRCP's Nadia Haroon feel the government still needs to do more. "There are lots of plans, lots of good people who are willing to do so much. But, somehow, it just never happens," Haroon said. "For one, the educational budget is just not enough. That needs to be improved if the situation is ever going to change," she stressed.
As a semi-government organisation, SEF works very closely with the federal government, Rizvi said. "We do a lot of work on education and development and now, we are seeing our role emerge as an organisation that is trying to make an impact at the policy level. So we would like to take up that role more," she said.