May 30, 2010

Bound to carpet-weaving

By Beenish Kulsoom

The factors that make children work at a young age of five mark the poverty of household, primacy of social exclusion, absence of safety nets, and rural to urban labour market shift; etc. In Pakistan, child labour is recurrent in every form of labour, ranging from domestic, agriculture, and industrial employment. The content and characteristics of child labour are distinct in the urban and rural settlements; however, the fact of the matter remains that household poverty, along with the absence of safety nets force poorest households to have their children engaged in every form of child labour, be it hazardous or non-hazardous.

Where poverty is defined as one of the causes of child labour, there are other factors that accentuate this social hazard, one such overriding factor is the prevalence of debt bondage. In a study conducted in 2000, International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that in most of South Asian countries (India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Pakistan) debt bondage has entrapped millions of the poorest and most vulnerable workers bonded to their employers. And, these poorest people give their labour, and strive often in vain to repay debt to their employers. Research has also shown that (poorest households) the victims of this social evil tend to be the poorest and least educated segments of the population — from low castes and religious minorities.

Their employers are the local money lenders, landlords, or tradesmen, who give loans to poorest households, while being fully aware that their clients have no resources to pay back them the principal and the interest, yet they take the leap knowingly fully well that in exchange they would be able to extract labour from their clients for a much longer time. Both the employer (and/or money lender), and the client (poorest household) are aware of their respective positions in the equation that stands to be highly unfavourable to the poorest household. Debt bondage is one of the causes of household poverty in poor households, amongst the minority (Hindu scheduled castes) in the district of Tharparkar. A state-sponsored skill — carpet-weaving — has resulted in the confluence of child labour in this region.

While widespread child labour is closely associated with poverty; poverty certainly is not the only explanation for child labour, the reasons are complex, multidimensional, and does indicate to the fragile existence of safety nets; researchers believe that the a poor family may be unable to afford school fees, uniforms or other costs; family may depend on the contribution a working child makes to the household income, and place more importance on that income than on education.

According to the ILO, over 200 million children between age five and 14 are working worldwide. This figure represents one-fifth of the total population of girls and boys in this age-group. Many of these children work long hours, in dangerous conditions. About 111 million children are in what has been termed as hazardous work which refers to forms of labour which are likely to have adverse effects on the child’s safety, health, and moral development. Nearly 10 million of these children are engaged in some form of slave labour, armed conflict, prostitution, or pornography. Reports from ILO suggest that around the world, some 246 million children between five and 17 years are working instead of attending school.

In Pakistan, the state of child labour is dismal. In the year 1996 the government of Pakistan conducted Child Labour Survey with the support of International Labour Organisation (ILO) to ascertain the exact number of child workers in Pakistan. The survey calculated 3.3 million child labourers in the country. The survey also showed that two-thirds of total child workers are boys while one-third is girls. Following the survey in 2001, Pakistan ratified ILO’s Convention 182, which is binding for the signatory nation to commit itself to not allow children under the age of 18 to work in the hazardous working conditions or in worst form of child labour.

The country statistics, however, show contradiction in what is to be considered the working age for a child. Under Pakistan’s law, 14 years is generally considered as an age under which children should not work. Whereas the Economic Survey 2007-8 includes aged 10 children as economic active; and under the Employment of Children Act 1991, employment of children under 15 in dangerous and hazardous activities is prohibited.

Following the adoption of Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in 1998, under which all member States have an obligation to respect, promote and realise the elimination of all forms of forced labour, the International Labour Organization (ILO) conducted studies in various South Asian Countries, and found that the menace of ‘debt bondage’ is a recurrent theme in the countries such as Pakistan, India, and Nepal. A study by ILO found that "Debt bondage is most common in the agriculture sector, although it can also be found in other industrial sectors such as mining and gem polishing, brick-kilns, carpets and textiles, as well as domestic service. The victims of bonded labour tend to be the poorest and least educated segments of the population, from low castes and religious minorities.

In Pakistan, our rural settlements are accustomed to debt bondage, and it emerges as the major reason for poorest households to push their children to be engaged in strenuous labour, ranging from domestic, home-based enterprise. The causes of debt bondage emanate from the poverty of household, and since these poor households have no access to safety nets (as they should have been provided by the State) find themselves caught in compromising situation at the hands of local money lenders.

Tharparkar is a key district within the Sindh Arid Zone, and the only district in Pakistan with a majority of Hindu population, according to the 1998 census Tharparkar had 369,998 residents. Due to the Hindu caste system, there are certain communities that face continuous discrimination. They belong to the scheduled castes Dalits, and belong to sub-groups Kohli and Bheel. These people do not own agricultural land, and even if they do the land-ownership is less and its fertility is contingent upon good rainfall.

The desert receives rainfall from July to September, and normally it is not regular, thus having repercussions on family’s annual asset accumulation in the form of grains such as bajra (Pearl Millet) that is the staple diet in the desert, since wheat is not grown in the area, and people have substituted wheat for bajra. In such a scenario, when rainfall is irregular and intermittent, these people are then forced to take loan/credit from local money lenders called vaniyo (another of the Hindu caste that lends money on higher interest rates).

This money is then used for purchase of edibles, agricultural input, medical bills, wedding arrangement, or funeral/burial rites. Since, payment of loan is contingent upon steady source of income generation (resulting from the livelihood practice adopted at the household) people become victims of loan. These creditors in most cases work through their agents or contractors in remote villages who give loans to the poorest households in exchange of their uninterrupted labour on khaddis. Therefore, to recoup the loan, the creditor (vaniyo) uses extractive and exploitative methods to recoup the principal and interest on it. One of the methods through which extortion and exploitation is unleashed is the installation of carpet loom or khaddi.

The irony is that this area is not traditionally known for carpet-weaving, this skill and occupation was imported intentionally in the region in the late 1960s with an objective of utilising the surplus labour in these areas, so as to make use of their energies on a commercially lucrative and viable trade. The Sindh Small Industries Corporation (SSIC) had initially formed units in the Town Mithi, Taluka Mithi, District Tharparkar. With the passage of time, however, the ‘loan sharks’ found this to be highly favourable to their business interests. To get the loan recovered the creditor thus installs a carpet loom (khaddi) at the defaulter’s home, and hence the household enters the vicious spiral of weaving carpets for the creditor; in some cases defaulters themselves suggest such a settlement to their creditor.

In 2008, a study was published by the Pakistan Institute of Labour Education and Research (PILER) titled Bonded Child Labour in the carpet industry of Thar, the study revealed that in 2005 the workforce in carpet industry generated US$200 million through exports; workforce comprise most vulnerable, marginalised and dispersed population which also included children; 40 percent of workforce in carpet weaving are children.

Forty percent is a huge figure and it is a shame that the country is deriving its exports from child labour. This figure does not give reference to ‘debt bondage’, however, the situation on the ground suggest that most of these carpet are the result of ‘debt bondage’.

The case of child labour is stark in this digressed domestic industry; the reality is that child labour is accentuated in carpet weaving because of the fact that in most cases ‘debt bondage’ causes the vicious spiral not to end ever. Absence of ‘safety nets’ and ‘social exclusion’ as in the case of carpet weaving in remote areas of Sindh is forcing people to trade labour for their survival; the most ironic is the fact that in this ‘trade exchange’ the returns are low, and this has negative effect on the entire household, especially the children.

Child labour in other forms of labour is also highly prevalent in these areas, however, when it comes to ‘carpet weaving’ there is always a greater likelihood that when a child reaches adulthood he engages in carpet weaving, even when his family has paid-off the debt.

The local structures and social pressures always have a bearing on rural economy, and we have seen that how these structures have come to regenerate itself in the contemporary period. The case of ‘carpet weaving’ is one example, the cause and effect relationship between debt bondage forces poor households to learn the skill and take up this as the livelihood. There is no denying of the fact that khaddi does give an income earning opportunity (subsistence it may be) but when it comes at the expense of children’s future, and as a result of ‘debt bondage’, the consequences are dire and not favourable to the child’s future.

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