Child labour: Nip it in the bud nip it in the bud | Daily News

Child labour: Nip it in the bud nip it in the bud


A boy of around 14 years sits on the road starring into the distance. He is shirtless, wearing a sarong and below him lay rows of unauthorised shanties which make up the rail road slum in Kelaniya.

“These boys loiter around the roads. They don’t go to school. They are either selling something or they are addicted to something,” explained Dilhani Fernando, the Principal of Antonio Bianchi’s House, an Educational Centre in Kelaniya.

The centre established six years ago, functions as a pre-school in the morning and helps older children in the evening to prepare for school.

“The students are from the rail road slum and are from very poor families. Many children used to work in the or soap factories in the area before we opened the centre. They did not go to school and child labour was quite common a few years ago,” said Fernando.

The centre provides children up to five years, two meals a day and a sanctuary from the nefarious activities of the slum. They have also managed to keep the local school; KelanitissaVidyalaya from closing by helping more students stay in the school.

“We have built a close relationship with the community and keep track of these students. Most of the parents have not gone to school and have worked as children. The fathers are either on drugs or alcohol, the mothers are into prostitution. It is very difficult for the children. At times, they only eat at the centre,” Fernando said.

“There is no one to stop and ask them about what they want and to guide them. They are treated as outcasts in society,” she added.

Child Labour Free zones

Ratnapura has chosen to be more proactive in dealing with child labour and has since sought to establish the world’s first ‘Child Labour Free Zone’ (CLFZ) in the World, according to VisakhaTillekeratne, the ILO consultant for the CLFZ.

“We are not saying that we are getting rid of child labour once and for all; that is not realistic. We are instead setting up systems that can capture any child that falls into child labour and then rehabilitate them.”

In 2013, the ILO chose Ratnapura to establish the CLFZ and set a number of standards to achieve it.

Ratnapura is a good place to have early interventions as it has many physical features that make it fertile ground for child labour- plantations, gem mining and a thriving informal sector.. It also borders the largest number of districts in the country. The Ratnapura District Secretariat (DS) and Planning unit is also quite efficient, said Tillekeratne.

She also observed that it was not the big plantation companies but mostly tea small holders who were known to employ child labourers.

“This makes it hard to detect, Ratnapura alone has 100,000 small plots,” said Tillekeratne.

To improve detection, the CLFZ has trained scores of public officials including Grama Niladhari officers to detect instances of child labour.

“Awareness is a huge part of the system. We also had a pledge book campaign with 100,000 signatures, sign posting, bill boards and stickers of responsibility in places saying they will not employ children. In addition we trained around 100 plantation communication officers in Ratnapura,” she said.

The system also involves the setting up of a database of vulnerable children in the district (not limited to child labour) along with interventions taken to help them. A highly trained core team consisting of Planning Officers, Child Probation Officers (CPO), Police and Labour Officers would monitor the system.

“The application of the law alone is going to be ineffective unless you address the root cause of why children are pushed in to labour,” said Tillekeratne.

To address the root causes, the key officers involved in social protection in the DS every month would identify 20-30 vulnerable families and use a multi service clinic approach to solve their problems.

Ratnapura in the meantime, has set up a trust fund to send children back to school, rehabilitate them and to provide resources for CPOs.

The ILO has also worked at the Grama Niladhari, District and Provincial level to prepare a document highlighting the responsibilities at each level to reduce child labour.

“This would mean that the province or district is duty bound to add or increase higher grade schools closer, have better teachers and strengthen education system so that children will attend school,” explained Tillekeratne.

While Ratnapura has come far in terms of tackling child labour, Tillekeratne observed that implementation was not going to be easy.

“The attitude of officials matter and not all are receptive of the training. There is a variation in quality. We also have a challenge to get resources down to the grassroots. Under the CLFZ, labour officers have to be proactive and reactive but to conduct extra raids, they need resources to act,” she said.

The President’s signature on the convention however means that the district will also have to look at reducing the push factors for children between 14-18 years. It is then that all forms of child labour would be eliminated.

“We can start the process by developing comprehensive, district specific child development plans which addresses all aspects of child labour. These plans would tackle the areas of; child protection, skilful and knowledgeable children, children who are healthy and well nourished, children with leadership qualities and children with morals and ethics. When you have all these areas covered, you naturally reduce the circumstances in which children will fall into labour,” said Tillekeratne.

Drop in centres

The Kelaniya Education Centre is part of a wider NGO called Child Action Lanka which works to keep children off the streets. They operate drop in centres in Kilinochchi, Batticaloa, Kandy and Nuwara-Eliya.

“We work with 1,500 children in 14 drop in centres and they range from two-day old babies to 21-year-old youths,” said Debbie Edirisinghe, one of the founders of the NGO.

“We try to take the children in as early as possible because the mothers prefer to keep the children with them on their streets to use them for begging. We discourage that, we say, you go beg but keep the children here,” explained Edirisinghe who runs various programmes for children of all ages to ensure that they receive an education even as they continue to live on the streets.

She however admitted that it would be impossible to put a stop child labour completely.

“The children have trade in their blood. Even if we give them gifts, they try to barter or sell them amongst themselves. During the Kandy Pererehara, they sell goods. We can’t really stop it as they would do it on the sly. We teach them how to manage their finances in a proper way. A lot of them earn quite a sum on the streets but don’t know how to manage it and spend it all. Some even earn up to Rs. 8,000 in 10 days but then spend it on a cheap phone or drink alcohol,” said Edirisinghe who has taken introduced financial planning as a more practical life skills to the children.

In the end however, it is still very much up to the parents to ensure that their children do well.

“First, we need to help parents see the importance of sending their children to school instead of sending them to work. At times the children like money, but mostly it is the parents who are pushing them. We need to make it a punishable offence to not send a child to school,” she said.

She also advocated for greater awareness on the part of schools and teachers when it comes to keeping a tab on children who could fall through the cracks.

Child labour at present is completely illegal up to 14 years. Thereafter, a child can choose to work but not in hazardous labour.

Edirisinghe however advocated for the age limit to be increased to 15.

“If it is 15, they can at least complete their basic O/L qualifications and leave. When they turn 20-21 they regret not having got an education and the lack of O/Ls means it is harder for them to get into other courses,” she said.

The majority of children involved in child labour live only with their mother and according to Edirisinghe, these women have very few marketable skills to provide for their families.

“They are very dependent on the men in their lives and as soon as they leave, they are left helpless. If we can train them and provide them with a means to an income, child labour would be significantly reduced,” she added.

Eliminating child labour

Sri Lankan labour laws at present dictate that the employment of children below the age of 14 is illegal. On June 22, President Maithripala Sirisena signed the Convention on eliminating Child Labour as a follow up from the Global Child Labour Conference held in Hague in 2010.

In 2010, an agreement was made to end the worst forms of child labour by 2016 and according to the Labour and Trade Union Relations Ministry, Sri Lanka has until the end of 2016 to meet this target.

The Child Activity Survey in 2008-2009 revealed that there were 107,259 or 2.5 percent of children in the country engaged in child labour.

Of this number; 12.9 percent were engaged in ‘work of economic value’, 10.4 percent engaged in work but non child labour, one percent in child labour but non hazardous and 1.5 percent on hazardous forms of child labour. The numbers also showed 49.3 percent girls and 50.7 percent boys were in child labour.

The majority of these children (66.3 percent) are engaged in elementary occupations- as street and mobile vendors, street services, domestic helpers, agricultural and related labour workers, labourers engaged in mining, construction, manufacturing and transport. Most work in the agricultural industry and close to 80 percent of them work for the gain of their families without payment.

The average work time by children five to 17 years is 13.3 hours per week and their average monthly income for a child worker was calculated to be Rs. 3,820. The survey also showed that only 53 percent of the total number of child labour and 29 percent of those in hazardous forms of child labour attended school.

It was also noted that while 92 percent of the children lived with their mother, and 76 percent with both parents, close to 31 percent of children in hazardous labour lived without the care of either the mother or father.

The highest number of child labourers at 13, 560 resided in the capital city of Colombo. Government surveillance The latest Child Activity Survey however is due this year. National Children Protection Authority (NCPA) Chairman Natasha Balendran said she expected the numbers to have decreased since 2009. “We are doing well compared to other regions and the 2016 report will show a decrease in the number of children who are engaged in child labour,” she said.

“The Police, Labour Ministry, Child Affairs ministry and the NCPA initiated many programmes and projects to control the situation in the last six to seven years,” she added. The NCPA also aims at focusing more on the commercial and sexual exploitation of children and child sex workers in the coastal areas in future.

“The NCPA and the Labour Ministry requested the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Sri Lanka to conduct a study on these children to get further information about how they are being used and the reasons for it,” said Balendran.

Apart from that, NCPA is also looking into domestic child workers. “At present, the minimum age to employ a domestic worker is 16 years but we are also taking measures to increase this to 18 years,” said Balendran. She urged the community to be more vigilant on child labour activities and report them to the authorities.

Despite community vigilance, Labour Ministry Women and Children Division, Commissioner, Padmanathan Mahadevan said though the Labour Department received around 150 complaints regarding child labour every year, only five to six cases make it to courts.

“Officials from the Labour Ministry, the Police and probation officers raid a place together when a complaint is received. But by the time we go there, the children are removed from those places and we are left without any evidence to prosecute,” said Padmanathan.

Most complaints have been received from the Southern, Uva and Central provinces and is more prevalent in the estate sector compared to other areas.

“According to parents in those areas, the young girls who were dropped out from school cannot stay alone at home when parents go for work. Therefore, it is the parents who send them for work. Meanwhile, the boys stop going to schools and choose work, to earn money for their family,” the commissioner said.

He said the Home Affairs Ministry was in the process of sending circulars to all District Secretariats and Divisional Secretariats to take measures to apprehend those who employ children in their workplaces.

The Labour Ministry initiated pilot projects in Ratnapura, Ampara and Kegalle districts to eradicate child labour. The projects conducted in Ratnapura were highly successful but there are few issues that needed to be addressed in Ampara and Kegalle districts.






Add new comment