News Features


That shameful practice of child labour…

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Voices against child labour have been raised by many, from time to time. On June 12 every year, which is World Day Against Child Labour, forums and seminars are held by institutions working against this social disease. Yet, the world has over 218 million girls and boys, aged between 5 and 14-years, work from sunup to sundown, on farms and the plantations industry, tending livestock, sowing, spraying pesticides and harvesting crops. Yet, these expressions, made at different points of time and in various situations, convey the all-important message “Seeking justice for underprivileged children”.

“The Child Activity Survey of 1999, still the latest data we have, recorded that, in Sri Lanka, 551,238 girls and boys are employed as agricultural workers, while another 37,741 are employed as industrial crops related workers,” the Director of International Labour Organisation (ILO) - Sri Lanka, Tine Staermose said at the World Day Against Child Labour – 2007 commemoration forum held at JAIC Hilton, last Friday.

It was revealed that the survey of 1999, by the Department of Census and Statistics, with technical and financial support from the ILO, has not been updated to date. However, the ILO, on the request of the Ministry of Labour, is presently looking into the possibility of supporting a new child labour survey that will provide updated information pertaining to child labour. This would facilitate a comprehensive time-bound programme to eliminate select worst forms of child labour in Sri Lanka.
This year, the focus is on occupational hazards for children working in the agricultural sector of the country, under the theme “Agriculture without Child Labour”.

Ms Staermose said, “The phenomenon of child labour in agriculture is not something peculiar to Sri Lanka or, South Asia or, even confined only to the Asian region. In fact, it is a phenomenon found in regions worldwide. At last year’s World Against Child Labour, an ILO Global Report revealed that of 218 million child labourers in the world, 70% worked in the agricultural sector. The report also revealed that 9 out of 10 children in the rural sector are working in agriculture”. She further added that in Ampara, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Moneragala, the seasonal nature of the work undertaken by children, tends to translate into irregular school attendance among children who help with either family farming or commercial farming – a contradiction of the principles and standards entrenched in both ILO Convention 138 and 182 and also the UNCRC.

After having undertaken a thorough occupational analysis, through an intensive and representative participatory process, Sri Lanka has determined seven forms of agricultural occupations as hazardous from among a list of 49 such hazardous forms of child labour: They are –

*Any work entailing the use of pesticides
*Any work connected with the act of fishing (fishing is considered part of the agricultural sector here)
*Any work directly involving bio hazardous substances including infective agents
*Any work related to felling of trees
*Any work in the forest (as in the case of children going into the deep forests of Manampitiya in Polonnaruwa to cut cane)
*Tree climbing for commercial purposes
*Agricultural and plantation work necessitating contact with agro-chemicals

Secretary, Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment, Indrani Sugathadasa who also addressed the forum said, “As we have focused on elimination of child labour in agriculture, there are children participating in family farm activities, which, according to ILO convention, jeopardizes and harms children’s wellbeing and development which is a violation of their rights. Hence, it is necessary we place them in safer and non-exploitative alternatives or, we run the risk of them moving into worse forms of child labour”.

Prof. Siri Hettige Sagara Chandrasekara of The Social Policy Analysis and Research Center, University of Colombo, explained the overall issue in child labour as: High cost of adult labour, non enrolment in school, dropping out, high cost of schooling, poor performance in school and lack of access to good schools. He also outlined one of the 2007 objectives as, to eliminate the number of migrant families (displaced population).
ILO’s International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) gave a slide show briefing their programmes conducted for underprivileged youth under 18.

The finale to the commemorative function saw two lovely skits by the children of “Daru Setha Centres” of the Koggala and Beruwela branches of the National Workers Congress. The skits highlighted the plight of children unable to attend school, engaged in harvesting and fishing in their villages.
Other distinguished guests from ILO, Ceylon Workers Congress, Ministry of Labour Relations and Manpower and the National Child Protection Authority also addressed the audience.

We may not reflect upon those behind making cane chairs, match sticks and boxes, cinnamon peeling or, even getting us our daily rice….but, the undeniable fact is children’s hands being behind one of these produces, which, pathetically, we are not mindful of.
An American social worker, Grace Abbott, who worked specifically, in advancing child welfare, said, “Child labour and poverty are inevitably bound together and, if you continue to use child labour to resolve poverty, you will have both poverty and child labour till the end of time”. So, could we act soon?