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FOCUS September 2001 Volume 25

Child Labor in Asia: A Review

Edelweiss F. Silan

ILO estimates that there are about 250 million economically active children (individuals below 18 years old) worldwide. Sixty one percent or roughly 153 million of these workers are in Asia. Around half of the economically active children are working full time and 20-30%, or about 30 to 46 million are in exploitative conditions or worst forms of child labor.

In Asia, many of these child laborers, some as young as seven years old, are hidden. They work as household help, workers in farming and fishing industries, providers of sex services, workers in quarries, mines, brick kilns, construction sites, and increasingly in drug trade. A lot more in many Asian societies live in full public view as scavengers, street beggars, vendors, and workers in small scale or home-based industries. Since these types of work are considered "informal," regulation of the industries does not exist and monitoring the presence of children in the workplace is not commonly done.

The Worst Forms of Child Labor in Asia

Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

Exploitation of children in commercial sex trade remains the worst form of child labor in our region. UNICEF estimates that about one million children are lured or forced into the sex trade in Asia every year. More alarming is the fact that many of these children were introduced into the work by people known to them. For example, the 1995 Situation Analysis on Trafficking and Prostitution in Cambodia reveals that half of the surveyed sex workers eighteen years old and below reported that they were forced into the trade. Half of them were sold or deceived by someone they knew, forty percent were sold by parents, and fifteen percent were sold by relatives.

Trafficking of Children

The exploitation of children in the commercial sex trade is supported by increased trafficking activity in the region by organized syndicates. Trafficking for other jobs has also increased.

Trafficking of both children and adults feeds largely on the desire of poor families and many young people for economic and personal advancement through migration for work. Trafficking routes are found within countries, from rural to urban centers or to areas with large demand for unskilled labor, and across borders, usually from less developed to developing countries.

In Southeast Asia, Thailand is believed to be the receiver of a large number of children trafficked from Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and China, with the majority coming from Burma. The children are made to work as prostitutes, household help, workers in factories, farms, and fishing vessels, or couriers of drug traffickers. It is estimated that the number of children working as prostitutes in Thailand is somewhere between 27,400 and 44,900, including foreign and ethnic Thai children.

Chinese and Vietnamese children are trafficked to Cambodia mostly for prostitution. In the Philippines, there are reports of girls as young as 14 years old encouraged by parents to go to Japan to work as entertainers. They are brought to Japan with tampered passports, changing their date of birth to meet the age criterion. There are reports of Indonesian children being brought to Singapore, Malaysia, and Taiwan for domestic and farm work, or even for work in small factories.

In-country trafficking is rampant in Vietnam and the Philippines for domestic and factory work, and again for prostitution.

In South Asia, Bangladeshi children are trafficked for prostitution, forced and bonded labor, camel jockeying, marriage, and even sale of organs. Bangladeshi children can be found in the main cities of India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Middle East countries. Maiti Nepal, an NGO based in Kathmandu, estimates that between 5,000 to 7,000 girls are trafficked to India annually for prostitution. Boys are trafficked too, for work in the construction industry, brick kilns, tea plantations, and manufacturing industry. Pakistan is seen as a receiving country for Indian and Nepali children to work in farming, fishing, and sex industries.

"Trafficking refers to the recruitment, transportation, purchase, sale, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons: by threat, use of violence, abduction, use of force, fraud, deception, or coercion (including abuse of authority), or debt bondage, for the purpose of placing or holding such person, whether for pay or not, in forced labour or slavery-like practices, in a community other than the one in which such person lived at the time of the original act described. " UNCHR, February 2000

Bonded Child Labor

Also referred to as child servitude and child debt bondage, bonded child labor exists in Asia. It is closely linked to trafficking of children, and more extensively rooted in socio-cultural and political structures in parts of South Asia. In many cases, bonded children are delivered in repayment of a loan or other favors given in advance, real or imaginary, usually to the parents or the guardians of the child. Children work like slaves in the process, never knowing when their debt will finally be considered paid. Where the caste system still prevails (India, Nepal, and Pakistan), there are still families and children of the dalits, or kamaiyas, or peshgis from the lowest castes in debt bondage to landowners and upper class caste in spite of existing laws that prohibit slavery. Bonded child labor in South Asia is found in domestic work and in agricultural, brick making, glass, leather tanning, gem polishing, and many other manufacturing and marketing industries.

Awareness of the child labor issue in the carpet and sports goods industries generated largely by activists since late 1980s helped cause marked decrease in the incidence of child labor in these industries. But it is still probable that child labor exists in new places where subcontractors have moved in.

Bonded child labourers are children working against debt taken by themselves or their family members, or working against any social obligation (e. g. , caste factor, ethnic or religious practices, etc. ) without the children's consent, under conditions that restrain their freedom, making them vulnerable to physical and other forms of abuse, and depriving them of their basic rights. - CWA Task Force on Bonded Child Labour, May 2000

Child Domestic Work

Having a household help is an historically embedded practice of middle and upper class families in almost all Asian countries. Many children from poor families are engaged in this work, some as young as eight years old. While there are cases of domestic child laborers who are actually poorer relatives of the employers and provided opportunities to go to school while working, majority of them are in exploited conditions. Many are victims of trafficking, and are bonded by debt to their employers. They have long working hours, with very little opportunity for rest. They are exposed to hazards while doing heavy household work. And most of them are victims of verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Domestic child laborers are among the most difficult to see and reach as they are of course hidden in the privacy of our homes.

Use of children as soldiers

Internal armed conflicts in several Asian countries expose more children to armed groups and increase the probability of their forced recruitment as combatants. Children are not only sent to the front lines, they are also used as spies, porters, helpers in camps, and are often subjected to abusive treatment. Direct involvement of children in the armed forces are documented in Burma, Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Philippines, and Nepal.

Scavenger children

Children and their families work and even live in the dumpsites in many of our countries - the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, India, and Vietnam.

Gains and Challenges in Actions on Child Labor in the Region

Harnessing political will for social policy and social attitudinal change

There are some remarkable successes in certain countries in the region in creating changes in policies and in influencing people's attitude towards child laborers in general or towards groups of child laborers, such as domestic child laborers, in particular.

In the Philippines, a law entitled "Magna Carta for Household Helpers" was passed to "institutionalize and uplift the minimum working parameters and standards of the household helper industry. " The law limits the minimum age of employment to 15 years of age, increases minimum wage, provides for social security coverage, days off from work, and other protective measures for both children and adult domestic workers. The campaign to enact this law was coupled with active national education campaigns to gain respect for household help. While there is still a lot to do to attain significant attitudinal change, several initiatives from people influenced by the campaign are already felt. For example, some schools begun to allow members of the organized domestic child labor groups (such as SUMAPI) to orient students on child and workers' rights, and set-up exhibits to conscientize parents and students.

In India, the government issued an order restraining government officers from employing children as domestic workers. NGOs and civil society members are now actively monitoring the implementation of this order.

As a result of NGO and social welfare sector advocacy in Thailand, the government recognized its responsibility to provide protection not only for Thai children but also for trafficked child laborers from other countries. A Memorandum of Understanding among various government ministries requires coordination of their actions. Thus, trafficked migrant children are no longer brought by the police to the immigration detention center. They are instead housed in a social welfare center where they learn various skills while the Thai government, their own government, and international NGOs work on their return to their families.

These successes however do not mitigate the fact that many countries in our region do not put children as a priority concern. A number of these countries do not recognize child labor as a problem. For those who do, what could critically make the difference for the children are not the ratification of international agreements and the subsequent enactment of legislative measures alone but the development and implementation of effective national action programs that address the real needs of the children. There must be corresponding budgetary allocations, social reforms including changes in educational systems and practices in schools, poverty alleviation programs, and trade and employment policies. There is also a need for serious changes in our attitudes and cultural practices if we truly aim for the eradication of child labor especially the worst forms.

Child labor and regional development policies

National legislations and regional policies must be reviewed in order to protect children from adverse effects of globalization. The contractualization of labor that many companies now use as a policy makes it difficult for working class parents to ensure continuing education for their children, nor regularly afford basic needs in the family. Children out of school, belonging to families hardly able to make ends meet, are more prone to enter the job market especially the informal sector. Children of displaced small farmers and fisherfolk are in the same situation. Moreover, small industries that need to remain afloat with very small capital and almost no support from governments tend to utilize child labor in order to reduce labor costs.

The best interest of the child as the basis of actions against child labor

Increased awareness among the corporate and industrial sectors on child labor standards along with vigilant campaigns against child labor in workplaces have their downside. They may push children into worse conditions after losing their jobs. A few months back, a Hongkong newspaper reported about child labor in a toy factory in mainland China supplying promotional toys to a well-known multinational fast food corporation. Over three thousand families and children lost their jobs when the corporation immediately severed the contracts with the factory on the premise that the factory violated the code of ethics of the corporation. Where did the children go? No one knows at present but surely they are now among the easy prey for traffickers and other unscrupulous employers. Whose interest was served by the action of the media and by the response of the corporation?

Participation of the children and their families in defining the problem and their solutions

After quitting school, I started to help my parents financially. I collect garbage that can be sold from early morning till afternoon. I give the money I earn to my parents to buy food so we can survive and send my brother to school.
When I see my friends go to school, I feel I want to cry. Sometimes, I daydream, imagining myself in school. I used to go to school, now, no more. I work among the garbage.
One day, I collected trash till the sun went down. When I finally came home, my parents told me that my younger brother does not want to go to school anymore. I was confused. I could't do anything but pray that hopefully my little brother would again go back to school like he used to.
-- a scavenger girl from Pancur Batu, Medan, Indonesia

Child labor interventions are not often designed with clear child rights and people's development perspectives. Children participation as a key element in development programs is not clearly defined and practiced. Many programs being implemented in the region at the moment seldom consider listening to the child laborers themselves. Thus, the children are often not participating in defining what actions will serve their interest best. The report on the toy factory above is one illustration.

A second case is about the large donor-driven programs existing in our region. They are designed by technocrats with hardly any input from the families and the children who live with the problem of child labor. Participation of children and communities demands process, resources, and time. Consequently, adopting such idea can mean that program target outputs are not always immediately met. Thus, donor programs that seek impact in two to three years could hardly afford participatory processes.

A participatory approach demands that we look at child laborers from a perspective of strength. Child laborers are not unthinking, passive victims of fate. They are individuals, young as they are, responding to what life offers them, according to their understanding of life. The scavenger child from Indonesia represents typical child laborers. They are persons with a strong sense of responsibility and fine human qualities. Given the opportunity, they could teach us a lot on how to better plan, implement, and monitor our programs that aim to help them.

A number of children's organizations have become effective change agents in their communities and countries across the region. In India, the Bhima Sangha (an organization of young workers) has been actively promoting child rights, defining types of work that are appropriate for children according to their level of development, and identifying key issues and proposed solutions in the communities (through participatory research). It has child leaders now sitting in village councils making policies and programs for their communities together with the adults. In Donkoi Village in Laos, a small group of former child laborers, including former migrant child laborers in Bangkok, is implementing simple child rights campaigns in their village and has succeeded in generating support for their small multi-purpose center from their families and village leaders. In North Sumatra, Indonesia, a group of streetchildren are actively promoting information about themselves through a publication. They have had dialogues with the police, bus drivers, NGO staff, government officials, and other people significantly affecting their lives in the streets.

In May 2000, former sexually exploited children and their peer advocates from twenty-nine countries all over the world gathered in Manila to express the youth's voice in the fight against commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). They said:

We do not believe that this problem can be eradicated without our full involvement.

We implore that all measures be taken to guarantee the rights of children and youth everywhere to participate on local, national, and international levels to end CSEC.

We demand that young people be empowered to take an active role in decision-making, development, and implementation of strategies against CSEC.

If we begin our understanding of the situation of child labor in our region from what these young people are saying and doing, we would be in a better position to define what we adults have to do to completely address the situation. The solution lies in a genuine partnership between the young and the adults.

Edelweiss F. Silan is the Coordinator of the Child Workers in Asia (CWA).

For more information contact: Child Workers in Asia (CWA), PO Box 29, Chandrakasem Post Office, Bangkok 10904 Thailand, ph (662) 9300855, fax (662) 9300856

e-mail: "Edelweiss F. Silan" coord@cwa. tnet. co. th, website: http://www. cwa. tnet. co. th


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