Yesterday the world observed International Day Against Child Labour with the focus on keeping children out of domestic work. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), research has revealed that a staggering 10.5 million children worldwide are engaged in domestic work; 6.5 million of these children are between the ages of 5 and 14 years old and 71 per cent of them are girls. The word ‘domestic’ here does not by any means refer to them working in their own homes, but as maids and servants in other persons’ homes. Their tasks include cleaning, ironing, cooking, gardening, fetching water, looking after other children and caring for the elderly. They are grossly underpaid, when they are paid, and abused (often sexually as well).
In many of these cases, children are farmed out by their parents, who collect whatever measly wages are paid – the children never actually see a cent. In some cases too, the children are orphans, who may have been taken in by relatives who exploit them.
The practice, particularly in rural areas, of sending children to work and sometimes live with affluent people, where the parents are paid for the work the children do has long been a feature of this society. Back in the day, it was mainly done among relatives or people the parents knew, but the demand for cheap labour saw it mushroom to the point where ‘agents’ were sought after to recruit children of a specified racial background. Perhaps this still obtains; it’s hard to tell because it has been an under-the-radar activity and because successive governments have chosen to ignore child labour.
What there has been though is an increasing number of children or an increase in the number of reports of children ‘employed’ in very dangerous jobs – as sex workers and labourers in mining districts. The shedding of light on the majority of such cases is owed to the independence and resilience of the Guyana Women Miners Organisation (GWMO). At just over a year in existence, the GWMO has done more to assist children trapped in exploitative situations in Guyana’s interior than the funded government agencies which are mandated to deal with this and other similar issues. While the indomitable women of the organisation have focused a lot on trafficking in persons involving young girls being tricked into commercial sex work by unscrupulous characters, it has also highlighted instances of young boys being found working in the ‘backdam’.
Three years ago, in 2010, figures published by the Bureau of Statistics and UNICEF revealed that 16 per cent of children between the ages of 5 and 14 years old, most of them based in the interior, could be found working in the fishing, logging, farming and construction sectors. According to the statistics, some children could also be found working as domestic servants, shop assistants, street vendors, brick-makers and welders; foregoing their education to earn so that they and their families could eat.
Significant effort has been put into remedying this issue, such as Guyana’s inclusion in the IPEC project—tackling child labour through education (TACKLE)—jointly launched by the European Commission and the ILO to fight child labour in 12 countries across Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific group of states in March 2008. However, the problem has been one of sustainability. Child labour is triggered mainly by poverty and unless a way is found to address this it will continue. The government’s minimalist school-feeding and uniform programmes, while creditable, only attend to the surface issue – they will get children in school but are not enough to keep them there.
More needs to be done including prosecuting those who employ/enslave young children and penalising them severely. It does take a village to raise a child and businesses/community leaders could reach out more by offering partial or full scholarships to children in need, or even book awards, rather than exploiting them for cheap labour. It does not have to cost a lot and would redound eventually to the benefit of the community and indeed the nation as a whole.