Children at work
26 October 2009
For some children, working brings money and dignity. For others, it brings deprivation and shame. Kuenzang C Choden finds out why the concept of child labour is country-specific.
Sonam, a 15-year-old girl from Mongar, has been babysitting for three years. She earns a monthly wage of Nu 1000. She prefers babysitting to working in her village. So she chose the former. “I am happy doing what I do,” she says.
Kavita, 13, from Doban in Sarpang earns Nu 1,500 a month looking after her relative’s child. Her wage is directly sent to her single mother in the village. Her father died when she was eight. So she took up babysitting to support her mother. “I am not happy because I cannot go back home,” she says. Two children at work for different reasons.
What is child labour? The Labour and Employment Act of Bhutan 2007 defines child labour according to the nature of work a child below 18 is subjected to. However, children between the ages of 13 and 17 can be employed under certain defined areas, working terms and conditions, and payment. But there is a thin line between child labour and child employment.
According to the Labour Force Survey 2009, 3,414 children between the ages of 13 and 17 worked for more than a week. Out of them, 1,328 were paid and 2,086, unpaid. Child Labour: The issue in Bhutan The issue of child rights and working age limit cannot be relevant in Bhutanese traditional context, at least for sometime, because working children are considered as additional family asset rather than violation of their rights to develop both physically and emotionally, argues Lham Dorji, a senior researcher with the Centre for Buddhist Studies, in his study Youth of Bhutan: Education, Employment, Development.
An anonymous writer on Opposition Leader Tshering Tobgay’s blog says the western world’s idea that child labour is evil is not relevant to the Asian societies simply because our value systems are different.
S/he argues that the western societies have moved away from the traditional way of thinking while we still value and take pride in family participation. According to him, children in the western societies do not have the safety, freedom, opportunities or environment in which they can safely work and earn. Their environment has become so dangerous that children can no longer work. “It works in the environment in which we work and live so we follow what is ideal for us and should not be cowed down by the western concept. When we arrive at the point where they are now, we may need to re-adjust our thinking,” he says.
According to Lham Dorji, the emerging trend of school-going children doing manual works during the vacation cannot be considered child exploitation. Rather, it can have pedagogical advantages. “We must remember that these children who work are not completely forced. It is their economic condition that drives them to take up such employment,” said a BO source.
Another reason for working children, according to Lham Dorji, is due to outcome of increasing development activities, deterioration of traditional system of labour mobilization, increased mammalian pests and rural-urban migration, and shortage of farm labourers. This has made the farmers turn to their children as an extra hand.
The issue in Asia and the west
The term child labour emerged from the Laissez-faire (refers to various economic philosophies which seek to minimize or eliminate aspects of government intervention) capitalist society. It gained impetus during the industrial revolution where factory managers wanted to produce more at a low cost which became the backbone of mass production. Until the late 18th century, children were termed as non-productive consumers.
It was before philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s theories of childhood came forth. Austrian economist Ludwig Von Mises in his Human Action says that in Asia, children are destitute and starving of low wages compared to America or western European standards. “If the parents are too poor to feed their children adequately, prohibition of child labour condemns the children to starvation,” he says. “The best way to starve people in a Third World nation is to have their government ratify laws forbidding child labour,” says a blogger on the Paleo Blog.