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Child labour ‘not linked to poverty’ say experts

A surprising study has shown that Pakistani children of landless farm labourers are more likely to attend school than their neighbours from large, landowning families.

Policy makers and anti-child labour activists who believe that it is always the most desperate children who work may have to think again. A new study on rural Pakistan claims that rich kids are more likely to work than children from poor landless families.

British economists Dr Sonia Bhalotra of Cambridge University and Prof Christopher Heady of Bath University challenge the popular view that poverty is the driving force behind child labour in their paper Child Farm Labour: The Wealth Paradox.

By analysing country-wide data for rural Pakistan they found that children of landowners are less likely to be in school than the children of poor landless households. This "paradox" arises, they say, because workers find it hard to move from farm to farm with limited transport, and because farm owners are reluctant to oversee hired labour.

"If there is a big farm that needs labour, it can be [more] productive for the household to employ its own children," says Bhalotra.

Bhalotra and Heady compared the landless with three different categories of farmers: marginal (with less than 0.4 hectares), small (0.4 to 1.2 hectares) and large (above 1.2 hectares). They found that as land size increases so does the likelihood of children working.

A tale of two farmers shows why large farmers may be more reluctant to send their children to school than their poor neighbours.

Ghulam Ahmed is a wealthy farmer with 2.8 hectares in Karimo Habib Haji village in the Charsadda district, some 60 kilometres from Peshawar in North West Frontier Province (NWFP). He grows tobacco, wheat, maize and sugarcane. Tobacco harvesting, though, is hard work and his children are vital in helping out. Ahmed experiences what Bhalotra and Heady term "labour market failure".

"Only two of my sons go to school," Ahmed explains. "The elder children stay at home and help me. It's always good to have family members work on the land – you don't have the hassle of hiring workers each season, spending extra money and supervising them."

In contrast, Ajab Khan from nearby Mandani village, is a landless farm labourer and a father of four. Being landless, he can forgo his children's labour in favour of school. "I don't have wealth or land which my children will inherit. Education is the only thing that I can give to them for their better future," he says.

Khan's case is classic, says Bhalotra. "Landowners employ their children so they can gain experience on a farm they will inherit, but those without land have to rely on whatever schools can offer."

The Geneva-based International Labour Organisation estimates that 70 per cent of working children in developing countries between five and 14 years are involved in agriculture – the vast majority on their own family farms.

Bhalotra says that since most children work on their family farms, the government should improve rural labour markets country-wide. "You need good public policy – build roads, improve telecommunications and invest in education," she says.

While the study looks at an average picture for the whole of Pakistan, some believe that NWFP may be an exception because of its rural history. Leader of the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP) in NWFP, Kamil Bangash, says the problem of labour markets is no longer an issue in NWFP. "The deductions of Bhalotra and Heady are a statistical average that do not hold strictly true for the province. The paradox that they identify is reflected in a typical feudal society, found in other parts of Pakistan."

NWPF was home to a major militant peasant movement launched by the MKP in the 1970s. Bangash believes that the movement compelled the government to build schools and a good road network, resulting in a vibrant labour market.

Providing farmers in NWFP with credit to hire labour may stop children working on farms, Bangash suggests. "However, the real solution," he says, "lies in reducing the demand for their labour through mechanisation – providing tractors, threshers and small harvesters and ensuring a stable market so a farmer can sell his produce."

Whether farm work itself is good for the child is unclear, says Bhalotra. "It depends a lot on the quality of schools and the kind of work available on leaving school. These have to be weighed up against the rewards of working on the farm."

The Pakistan government distinguishes between hazardous child labour – banned under the constitution – which can kill or injure children and requires immediate removal, and child work which requires "progressive elimination" because it is poverty-driven.

Pakistan's Federal Bureau of Statistics (1996) estimates that 3.6 million children between the ages of five and 14 years work – approximately seven per cent of all children. But unofficial figures collected by non-governmental organisations suggest the figure could be as high as 40 per cent.

"There are lots of grey areas," says Dr Shaheen Sardar, NWFP minister for health and former law professor at the University of Peshawar. "Agriculture workers are probably falling through the safety net of any law. This is one area where perhaps legislation needs to be extended."

Bhalotra responds: "How do you monitor whether children are working on land owned by their parents? There is little legal infrastructure in rural areas, even the tax man can't get there."

What everyone does agree on is that all working children should have an education. The government has been trying to improve Pakistan's education record under its 'Education for all' policy, which it says will help 80 per cent of children in Pakistan to complete primary education by 2002-2003.

But NWFP's labour and industries minister Owais Ahmed Ghani is concerned. "The education quality in rural areas is so low, so it is not attractive for parents or kids. We have to work on the education system rather than child labour."

Sardar agrees that the education system in rural areas is not relevant to the needs of farming communities. "It's unrealistic because education doesn't make you employable." Practical changes such as flexible school timings could help boost attendance for children in farming communities.

Ultimately, says Bhalotra, child labour is a matter of parental choice: "Child labour may even be the best choice given the constraints people face." 

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Panos London

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09/15/2001

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