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Children In Hazardous Industries: Policy Imperatives
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: 27th June 2002

Waking Up to a Nightmare

The images of children at work under the scorching sun on building sites or in dark sweat shops lit up by welding sparks, have persisted for at least two generations. There is a danger of relegating the problem to the deadly realm of 'normalcy'. Yet behind these apparently unchanging images there has been a rapid increase in the number of child workers employed in dangerous occupations in the informal sector. At the same time, a whole range of new hazards have emerged for child workers: Toxic chemicals which they handle, carcinogenic fumes which they breathe, leading to disease and deformity of body and mind. Behind the facade of normalcy both the scale and intensity of the problem of child labour is acquiring a nightmarish dimension. Policy makers as well as the community must understand and act to arrest this mutilation of a new generation.

In this article we will present some of the conclusions of my earlier research for the ILO on children in hazardous industries in Pakistan. The study focuses on construction and related industries, which are by far the most hazardous industries and where there is a high concentration of children in the work force.

Hazards, Disease and Death

In the absence of protective devices and adequate ventilation, working children handle and/or breathe toxic substances resulting in a range of health dangers. For example, in paint industries handling of chemicals, mixing and dilution of paints, filling, sealing, labeling and storage is done with bare hands and exposed face. Consequently, the children come into frequent skin contact with toxic chemicals like pigments, dyes, and thinners. Moreover, poor ventilation results in children inhaling toxic fumes from solvents. The disease symptoms resulting from these exposures are coughing, skin dehydration and ophthalmic disorders. Prolonged exposure creates danger of respiratory diseases, serious ophthalmic disorders, liver, kidney and stomach cancer. In the glass industry which may be regarded as a construction related industry (since it also manufactures window panes) the child workers are exposed to fine silica sand and high heat from the glass melting furnaces, as well as carbon monoxide. Long exposure to these substances can result in tuberculosis and pneumoconiosis.

In the furniture manufacturing industry the children are exposed to toxic solvents contained in polishing materials. They breathe solvent vapours in poorly ventilated workshops. Prolonged exposure to such chemicals can cause respiratory and ophthalmic diseases as well as persistent brain and body sluggishness.

The data indicates that child workers in the construction and related industries are facing at least 16 different hazards to their health and safety with approximately 12 casualties per work place during the last year. Steel Windows manufacture, Tiles and Construction industries are the most dangerous in terms of risk to health and safety of the child workers. Insufficient light at workplace, badly insulated wires, lack of protective devices for workers using dangerous equipment and materials and poor ventilation are amongst the most lethal hazards in the industries we have surveyed.

Policy Imperatives

Clearly, the task can be none other than withdrawing these working children from occupations which are causing repeated injuries, chronic diseases, physical and mental deformities and in some cases even death. However, the experience of Pakistan and other South Asian countries is that mere legislation is not enough to protect these children. (After all there has been a law against employment of children in precisely such occupations since 1938 and a much more rigorous law since 1991). Action is simultaneously needed on two fronts:

1. An administrative mechanism targeted towards the ending of child labour in hazardous occupations over the next five years needs to be urgently put in place. This mechanism can consist of specifying the number of children, location of hazardous work units, the details of the hazards in each work unit and the names of the employers in the area under the jurisdiction of each District Nazim in the country. This data should be available to the District Co-ordination Officer (DCO) of each district whose task should be to achieve specific targets (in terms of which their salaries, promotion and benefits should be decided). The achievement targets would consist of the following: (a) Closing down by a target date work units whose location, equipment and production processes are so hazardous as to be beyond redemption. In this case, alternative source of livelihood for the adult family members of employees would have to be organized with a credit facility to enable establishing alternative enterprises by the employers. (b) Replacing child workers with adults in cases where the workplace can be rendered safe without drastic intervention. Alternative livelihood for the adult family members of the children in non-hazardous occupations should be arranged together with provision of education for the children taken out of work. (c) To design proposals for reducing or eliminating hazards at the workplace through introduction of protective devices for workers, safety and automatic shutdown devices on machines, improving the ventilation of the workplace, improved lighting of the workplace, and insulation of the wiring system of buildings and strengthening the building structure. The technical support and credit required for achieving this objective should also be organized by the DCOs with support from relevant government agencies.

2. Perhaps the most efficacious way of alleviating the condition of child workers in hazardous industries and ultimately withdrawing them from these dangerous occupations, is intervention at the local mohalla level through community organization. Save the Children Organizations (SCO's) involving the participation of the local community need to be established by means of trained catalyzers developed by district level support organizations called District Child Support Centres (DCSC's). The community organizations would have the task of negotiating with the employers to improve workplace safety; to replace children working in hazardous occupations with adults; to provide the children withdrawn from such work with education and alternative skills to enable them to find employment when they are adults. The task of the DCSC's would be to provide trained cadres for mobilizing and organizing local communities, provide technical support regarding improvement of workplace safety, organize credit to enable the workplace owners to install new equipment, acquire protective devices, use safer chemicals where substitutes are available and improve the electrical wiring and building structure. Finally, the DCSC's need to be coordinated by an apex organization such as the Trust for Voluntary Organizations or the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund.

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