World Day Against Child Labor: A Focus on Pakistan Brick Kilns

The persistence of child labor—more than 215 million children toil worldwide, some half of whom are exposed to hazardous environments and suffer forced labor and prostitution—is a global shame, one highlighted each June 12 on World Day Against Child Labor.

Further, an estimated 10.5 million children worldwide labor as domestic workers in people’s homes, in hazardous and sometimes slavery-like conditions, according to a study released this morning. The International Labor Organization (ILO) report says the majority—some 6.5 million child domestic laborers—are between 5 and 14 years old. More than 71 percent are girls.

Child labor persists on a massive scale even though many nations, including Pakistan, have ratified the ILO standard on the worst forms of child labor. In fact, the U.S. Labor Department’s “2011 Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor” show Pakistan as one of the 27 countries (out of 144 countries assessed) that did not advance efforts to remove the worst forms of child labor.

Pakistan has no minimum age for employment, and the number of working children is estimated to range between 2 million and 19 million. In addition, Pakistan’s minimum age for hazardous work is 14, four years below the international standard age of 18. In 2011, Pakistan had the world’s second highest number of out-of-school children between ages 5 and 9.

Many children in Pakistan work as bonded laborers in dangerous brick kilns, shaping bricks from wet clay, facing the searing heat from a kiln’s open fire and carrying stacks of finished bricks on their heads. In Pakistan and in other South Asian nations, entire families sometimes become bonded after borrowing money from someone like a brick kiln owner. They then work to repay the loan but often are unable to pay off their debt, even over many years, because their wages are so low. The children and adult workers often cannot leave the kiln because they are indebted to the owners, and sometimes are even re-sold.

Pakistan passed laws covering bonded labor and now requires brick kilns to register with the government as formal employers, which would allow workers to access retirement and other benefits. But neither law is enforced.

To address the dire conditions of Pakistan’s brick kiln industry, the Solidarity Center is partnering with two established and respected Pakistani organizations to develop and implement a pilot program to promote decent work. The Solidarity Center and its long-time partner, the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child, along with the Center for Labour Advocacy and Dialogue, believe an effective solution must consider the needs of all stakeholders, including workers and their families, brick kiln owners and international donors.

Ultimately, says Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director, “The goal is to eliminate the brick kiln industry’s reliance on child labor and debt bondage, end hazardous working conditions and open up educational opportunities for children.” The Solidarity Center will report on this long-term project in coming months.