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FEATURE-Millions pushed into child

labour in Pakistan
Tue Feb 7, 2012 3:54am EST


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* Rising poverty forces more children to work

* Long-term psychological impact on youngsters
* Government needs to spend more on education
By Serena Chaudhry
ISLAMABAD, Feb 7 (Reuters) - Tears tracing lines of dirt on his face, six-year-old Pakistani
boy Nabeel Mukhtar cries while crouching on a pavement to scrub motorbikes, his job for
nine hours a day, six days a week.
He is one of millions of children driven into labour by poverty in a country where the
unpopular government is seen as too corrupt and ineffective to care for its citizens, even the
young and helpless.

"I want to study and become a doctor but we don't have any money," said Mukhtar, who
helps his family make ends meet.
Rising food and fuel prices and a struggling economy have forced many families to send
their children to search for work instead of to the classroom.
Frequent political crises in U.S. ally Pakistan means the South Asian nation's leaders are
unlikely to end child labour, or a host of other problems from a Taliban insurgency to power
cuts, any time soon.
"From the bottom of my heart, I want to send my son to school but we have so many
expenses ... We struggle to put food on our table", said Mukhtar's mother, Shazia, who also
has a four-year-old son and a two-year-old daughter.
Her husband, Mohammed, a street barber, earns only 7,500 rupees ($83) a month, not
enough to support the family.
"He's learning to work and he also earns around 300-400 rupees. So what's wrong in that.
We are poor," Mohammed said of the boy.
Pakistan needs to take immediate measures to stabilise growing budget pressures and to
raise interest rates to contain rising inflation, the International Monetary Fund warned on
Economic pressures are forcing young Pakistanis, like teenager Noor Shah and his three
brothers, to leave home in search of work.
They now live in a tiny room above a grimy tea shop where they toil all day in Pakistan's
biggest city and commercial hub of Karachi.
"I have so many dishes to wash. When I get tired the men serving tea become very angry
with me. They swear and shout," said Shah, who is from the underdeveloped Baluchistan
Others, like 11-year-old labourer Kashif, are subjected to harsher treatment.
"If he makes a mistake I'll hit him," said his 19-year-old supervisor, Tanveer Shehzad, who
said he had endured the same hardship as a child labourer.


Up to 10 million children are estimated to be working in Pakistan, says Mannan Rana, child
and adolescent protection specialist at the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The latest government figures, showing three million child labourers, date back to 1996,
underscoring how scant attention has been paid to documenting the problem, which is likely
to get worse given the makeup of the fast-growing population.
The plight of child labourers in Pakistan came under international scrutiny when it was
discovered that children were hand-stitching soccer balls in the town of Sialkot.
Foreign sports equipment companies are wary of any hint of association with child
exploitation. One stopped orders in 2006 from a Pakistan-based supplier of hand-stitched
soccer balls, saying the factory had failed to correct labour compliance violations.
But the outcry hasn't helped much.
"The problem is that the whole industry has moved into private homes, which has made it a
bit difficult to monitor if child labour is being used," said Hussain Naqi, the national coordinator of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
"This is not just an issue in Sialkot, child labour is occurring all across Pakistan in very
dangerous sectors like glass bangle manufacturing, cleaning of oil tankers, poultry farms,
motor workshops, brick kilns and small hotels."
On Monday, the collapse of a three-storey factory in the city of Lahore after a gas explosion
highlighted dangers faced by child labourers.
"I was inside the building when the blast happened. Two other boys were with me and they
started running," said eight-year-old Asad, a labourer in the veterinary product facility.
"I don't know where they went or if they are alive."
His sobbing mother said crushing poverty had left her no choice but to send her son to work
in such conditions.

Pakistan spends less than 2 percent of its gross domestic product on education, which
translates into a lack of skills amongst the younger population, pushing them onto the street
in search of work.
By comparison , just over 17 percent of 2011-12 state spending went to defence, though some
experts put the figure at 26 percent.
"The problem is there and we are not in a state of denial," said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, social
sector special assistant to the prime minister, adding that about 45 percent of Pakistan's
population of almost 180 million is below the age of 22.
But Pakistan's leaders are often too consumed by infighting, or tension with the military, to
address child welfare.
In recent months, Pakistan has been gripped by rumours of a possible military coup and the
ongoing tussle between the Supreme Court and the government is preoccupying the
With little government protection, children keep falling into the same vicious circle of
"It is all very damaging for a child's psychology," said Salma Jafar, executive director at
Social Innovations, a human rights advocacy group.
"Once you are abused, you grow up with that abuse."
Twelve-year-old Mohammed Naeem, the eldest of three orphans, ran away from his first
boss. He could not take the verbal and physical abuse.
But his new work, scraping rust all day for 25 rupees at a mechanics shop to feed his sisters,
is still gruelling.
"I don't see any other life for myself. What can I do. I'm helpless. The government is doing
nothing for us," said the boy, wearing soiled clothing and open, oversized sandals.
"All I ask of them is to assist me in my helpless state. To take it away." (Additional reporting
by Mubasher Bukhari and Naeem Abbas in LAHORE and Imtiaz Shah in KARACHI; Editing
by Michael Georgy and Robert Birsel)


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