FOR years we were convinced that our region was not an area that promoted child labour. How wrong we have been!
A review of the labour practices in some of the more remote areas in our neighbouring countries indicates that children are being exploited for labour. Some of the parents are reluctant to send their children to school as the workers are expected to achieve excessively high targets, failing which they will have their wages cut.
Many of the large companies also engage in the practice of paying workers in a piece rate system, which means that the workers are only remunerated when they achieve the minimum quota of their target.
Children are subsequently “forced to drop out of school to help their parents achieve their targets. These children are also expected to work very long hours and carry heavy loads in unsafe environments. These activities can be hazardous to their health and can result in psychological complications.”
Some of the nations in our region have been cited in the US Labour Department’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labour or Forced Labour since 2014.
The remoteness of many of these work sites is one of the key reasons that the authorities are unable to enforce the law on these companies. Although not all children in these areas are “child labourers”, they are at higher risk of being deprived of education compared to other children, as they have to help their parents.
Some of these parents, likely deprived of education in their own childhood, believe that it is more beneficial for their child to be working with them than attending school.
Unsurprisingly, many governments claim that they do not engage in child labour practices. Their defence is that it is the workers’ culture to take their children with them to work and naturally, the children will end up assisting the parents in some way.
But children should not be working. They should not be participating in any hazardous activity that deprives them of their fundamental right to education, is vital in ensuring that they have the opportunity to develop and grow. Education is also the single most important determinant that will get them out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure that children are protected from exploitative labour? The business sector cannot sweep this problem under the carpet or deny culpability.
One of the areas where the investment community can ensure the protection of children is to assert pressure on all producers to ensure that their businesses operate in a sustainable and ethical manner. We all know that the bottom line matters. When investors make it a matter of principle not to support companies that use child labour, this will drive home the message that the exploitation of children has a direct impact on their bottom line.
Companies should not hide behind the excuse that they cannot stop their employees from bringing children to work. One sustainable solution is for more companies and state councils to establish privately-funded schools. This would allow all children to attend school and gain an education, instead of being alienated.
Besides “setting up privately-funded schools, a conditional cash transfer (CCT) programme whereby cash is provided to parents for sending children to school, might be effective in encouraging parents to prioritise education as well as improving school attendance”.
Nearly 50 countries around the world have started the CCT programme and it has been proven to be successful in reducing poverty and discouraging child labour in the short term. Over the longer term, the poverty cycle will be broken due to the increased long term opportunities that normally come with education.
In many countries, child labour is a hidden scourge. It is a highly sensitive issue that most companies would rather pretend ignorance towards.
The basic reality is that families living below the poverty line simply don’t have the luxury of choice. If the system does not support them, then generations of children will continue to fall through the cracks.
© CORSTON-SMITH ASSET MANAGEMENT SDN BHD 2014