THE complex issue of child labour has emerged once again.
The notion that children are being exploited and forced into labour while not receiving an education crucial to development, concerns many people.
Children do extremely hazardous work in harmful conditions, putting their health, education, personal and social development, and even their lives at risk.
Some of the circumstances they face are:
Full-time work at a very early age.
Excessive work hours.
Subjected to psychological, verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
Work and life on the streets in bad conditions.
Inability to escape from the poverty cycle no access to education.
Most children work because their families are poor and their labour is necessary for their survival. Children are often employed and exploited, compared to adults they are more vulnerable, cheaper to hire and are less likely to demand higher wages or better working conditions.
The lack of education
For many children, school is not an option.
Education can be expensive and some parents feel that what their children will learn is irrelevant to the realities of their everyday lives and futures.
In many cases, school is also physically inaccessible. As well as being a result of poverty, child labour also perpetuates poverty.
Many working children do not have the opportunity to go to school and often grow up to be unskilled adults trapped in poorly paid jobs, and in turn look to their own children to supplement the family's income.
What are the causes of child labour in Fiji? How do governmental policies affect it? What role does education play in regard to child labour in Fiji?
A critical analysis of the answers to these questions may lead in the direction of a possible solution.
These questions can be answered through an analysis of the current problem of child labour how prevalent it is and what types of child labour exist, and, the number of working children in Fiji.
It is difficult to cite a current figure for the number of children engaged in child labour. This difficulty is attributed to the fact that there is no mechanism in place to collect and analyse current and relevant data regarding the incidence of child labour.
Census data in Fiji does not provide information on the extent of the problem.
However, observations indicate that children are engaged in agricultural labour, livestock, fishing, backyard garages, home-based manufacturing, servicing and repairs, construction works, begging and prostitution.
How necessary is child labour to poor families?
Child labour is a source of income for poor families. Observations indicate that children contribute towards maintaining the economic level of households, either in the form of work for wages or help in household enterprises.
Parents are often compelled to support their decision to send children to work, by saying that it is essential. They feel, they are probably right for many poor families, alternative sources of income are close to non-existent.
What is apparent is the fact that child labourers are vulnerable to being exploited.
The role of poverty
The percentage of the population living in poverty is gradually increasing.
Families need money to survive, and children are a source of additional income. The combination of poverty and the lack of a social security network form the basis of increasing numbers of children engaged in economic activity. For the poor, there are few sources of bank loans or other credit sources and even if there are sources available, few families living in poverty qualify.
Even though poverty is cited as the major cause of child labour, it is not the only determinant.
Access to schools or even the expense of schooling leaves some children with little else to do but work.
The attitudes of parents also contribute to child labour; some parents feel that children should work in order to develop skills useful in the job market, instead of taking advantage of formal education.
These are trends that need to be investigated in Fiji an awareness and instituting policies to combat these situations.
Despite the policies the Ministry of Labour has in place, the problem of child labour still remains.
Enforcement is a key aspect that is lacking in the government's efforts.
No enforcement data for child labour laws are available. Although the lack of data does not mean enforcement is nonexistent, the number of child labourers and their work participation indicate that enforcement, if existent, is ineffective. For children on the street each school day, there is no mechanism in place to monitor them or attempts made to put them into mainstream education. The pressing need for the child's earnings as well as low perceived advantages of school cause parents to withdraw children from school and draw them into the labour force.
In this case, poverty and the inadequacy of the school system play significant roles in causing child labour, but also affect each other. Poverty forces high dropout rates, and thus no matter how good schools are, school survival rates and literacy rates will still remain low.
The concept of compulsory education, where all school-aged children are required to attend school, combats the force of poverty that pulls children out of school. Policies relating to compulsory education not only force children to attend school, but also contribute appropriate funds into the education system.
Sri Lanka's example
An example of a country where compulsory education has worked to reduce child labour is Sri Lanka where child labour rates currently stands at 5.3 per cent for males and 4.6 per cent for females (International Labour Organisation).
Sri Lanka has achieved a remarkably high enrollment rate, high retention rate, and a corresponding decline in child labour.
The state of education also needs to be improved.
High dropout rates are reflective of the inadequacy of the educational system. The attitudes of people also contribute to the dropout rates parents feel that work develops skills that can be used to earn an income, while education does not help in this matter. Compulsory education may help in regard to these attitudes.
If child labour is to be eradicated, the Government and those responsible need to start enforcing policies because without enforcement, policies are all useless.
Child labour cannot be eliminated by focusing on one determinant, for example education, or by brute enforcement of child labour laws. The Government must ensure that the needs of the poor are filled before attacking child labour. If poverty is addressed, the need for child labour will gradually diminish. No matter how hard we try, child labour will exist until the need for it is removed. The development of our nation is being hampered by child labour. Children are growing up illiterate because they have been working and not attending school. A cycle of poverty is formed and the need for child labour is reborn after every generation.
The situation worsens after natural disasters affect the country.
Children are withdrawn to help fend for their families.
Fiji needs to address the situation by tackling the underlying causes of child labour through governmental policies and the enforcement of these policies. Only then will Fiji succeed in the fight against child labour.
As a nation we must:
Provide opportunities for education and training which allow children to move on from work to skills development;
Assist children in seeking redress from abusive and/or exploitative employers;
Not alienate employers, but to make them part of the solution to their problems;
Create more awareness raising about their situation, and ensure that this awareness raising goes hand-in-hand with concrete services for child workers;
Assist communities in accessing government and state infrastructure that can help improve situations for children and disadvantaged families.
International agencies must work with agencies at local level to build their capacity to take action rather than running programs themselves.
This has been a major failure of aid agencies and international institutions based in the region, who attempt to address an issue merely through awareness and workshops themselves rather than finding community-based solutions.
Irshad Ali is the chief executive officer of Save the Children Fiji