Poverty forcing families to put children to work

“My only wish in life is to have a decent meal with my family at least once a day. Everything else, even my personal dignity, is now a secondary issue,” said Muhammad Rafiq, 35, at a brick-kiln in Lahore, capital of Punjab Province.

Until February this year, Rafiq ran a cycle repair workshop. But he said rising inflation left him unable to pay the rent. “I fell into debt, couldn’t pay back the Rs 80,000 (about US$1,066) I owed, and finally everything I owned was taken away by the person I rented my tiny shop from,” Rafiq told IRIN.

Left with no choice, he has taken up work at a brick-kiln, moulding bricks from clay and helping to bake them in the kiln. Unable to afford school fees any longer, he has also put his three children, all under 10, to work.

His wife helps lay out the bricks in the sun to dry. “All together, we earn about 7,000 rupees (about US$92) a month. I am sad my children will be illiterate, like myself. I tried my best to send them to school. But now we must make food our priority,” said Rafiq.

There is as yet little data on the social impact of rising food price inflation. But the evidence suggests families are feeling the pinch. The government’s Federal Bureau of Statistics Consumer Price Index (CPI) put annual inflation in November 2008 at nearly 25 percent.

An Oxfam briefing paper entitled Double-Edged Prices published in October, said the price of wheat flour in Pakistan had increased 100 percent between January 2007 and April 2008.

Wheat flour or ‘atta’ is the staple for most of the country’s 160 million people.

Photo: Kamila Hyat/IRIN
Child labour is on the rise in Pakistan, say activists

Child labour on the rise

Irfan Raza, an assistant manager at the Society for the Protection and Rights of Children (SPARC), told IRIN: “Child labour is on the rise. This is quite evident everywhere we look. There is no choice for families, given inflation. ‘Atta’ prices have doubled. Everything else has, too, so people have been forced to put children to work.”

He also estimated - based on official enrolment figures - that nearly half of Pakistan’s 80 million children were at work. “We can assume most children under 18 who are not at school are working in one place or the other,” he said.

This contrasts with the official figure of 3.3 million child labourers - a statistic that dates back to a survey carried out in 1996 by the Federal Bureau of Statistics with International Labour Organization (ILO) support.

Raza said: “The ILO has offered funding for a new survey on child labour but the fact that this has not been undertaken even after so many years indicates the government does not want the real facts regarding child labour to come out.”

Pakistan’s federal minister for labour, Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah, has said the government is “determined to eliminate child labour” and is pursuing a National Plan of Action to combat child labour with the support of international donors.

“People now on the poverty line will face still harder times over the coming year and a half,” Raza said.

The secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), I. A. Rehman, has also warned that people are facing a real crisis and are struggling to survive.

The stories of children being abandoned at orphanages that have emerged over the past month are a reflection of the worsening situation.

“I used to go to school but now I don’t. My parents cannot afford to send me or my brother,” said Khurram Ashraf, aged nine, who for the past six months has worked at an vehicle repair workshop.

Khurram earns Rs 1,500 (about $20) a month. For this he often works a 10-hour day. “The money I bring home each month is essential to my family because my father is sick with asthma and cannot work every day.”