Stopping child labour

Friday, 24 June 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Maithripala Sirisena taking a symbolic oath to end child labour received much publicity recently, but a huge mobilisation of resources is needed to deal with an estimated 100,000 child workers in Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lanka has high levels of child abuse and child labour makes up a significant part of the problem. The National Child Protection Authority (NCPA) has gone on record saying about 100,000 children are in servitude in Sri Lanka but actual numbers are hard to come by. A huge part of the problem is children in poor areas, especially in the plantation sector, being used for informal work or shifted to urban areas as house servants. 

Under Sri Lanka’s law, children under 14 years of age cannot be used for work and encouragingly primary school attendance is about 96%, which means the bulk of children do receive a basic level of education. However, poverty remains at the core of the problem with many students, not having access to education, proper nutrition and a protected environment to grow up in. Many children of plantation areas, to take an example, are not supported to continue their education and are often expected to earn to meet family needs. School dropout rates are high in many parts of the country, including in an outside the affluent Western Province, with youngsters above 14 years engaging in informal work.   

Dealing with this situation requires a multi-pronged approach. Officials at provincial and Grama Niladari levels have to be given the resources to visit and document vulnerable children and track their process in a systematic way. These children then need to be connected to a national welfare system, either sponsored by individuals or corporate donors, or the State. The data provided by the officials would give a comprehensive understanding of where the most vulnerable children live and how they can be looked after. But right now there is no system or resources in place to do any of this. 

The second solution to the problem is clear: companies must deploy deep supply chain investigation and remediation. But there is a distinction between ensuring an absence of child labour from production sites, and stopping child labour altogether. To eradicate the problem, Sri Lankans must change the social norms and other conditions that foment exploitation. 

A third step is critical but is perhaps the hardest of all. Ensuring legal and judicial protection for victims of child labour and trafficking. The Department of Labour reportedly receives an average of 200 complaints each month reporting of instances of child labour but resources to investigate the calls are so limited that only a fraction of them, sometimes as few as nine cases for the whole year, reach the courts. Once there they predictably get bogged down in legal red tape and justice is denied. This same bottleneck is experienced time and again in other forms of child abuse as well. 

An oath to end child labour is meaningless if it is not backed by long-term plans and sustainable funding mechanisms. But it can be a start.