Sri Lanka’s progress in eradicating child labour hailed by ILO | Sunday Observer

Sri Lanka’s progress in eradicating child labour hailed by ILO

‘Generation Safe and Healthy’ was the slogan ringing around as the world marked the “Day Against Child Labour,” last week. The International Labour Organization (ILO) hailed Sri Lanka as a ‘beacon of hope’ in the South Asian Region, recognising the country’s progress is eliminating child labour since 1999. While Sri Lanka has made progress in bringing labour prevalence numbers down to 1% of the child population, the concern is that over 90% of child workers in Sri Lanka engaging in ‘hazardous’ forms of labour.

“Sri Lanka has undertaken many positive steps towards the eradication of child labour,” says Country Director, ILO Office for Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Simrin Singh, “The country has not only ratified both ILO core conventions on the elimination of child labour but also enacted and strengthened policies and legal frameworks to protect and prohibit children from being exploited. Furthermore, the Child Activity Survey conducted in 2016 established a baseline to monitor progress while the country developed a roadmap on how to achieve zero child labour by 2022.”

In February 2000, Sri Lanka ratified ILO’s Minimum Age Convention (No. 138) which stipulates the minimum age for admission to regular work as 14-15 years; and for hazardous occupations as 18 years of age. It was followed by ratifying the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No.182) in March 2001 which prohibits permitting any child under 18 years of age to engage in the ‘worst forms’ of child labour.

Sri Lanka’s legislation takes a favourable stance towards the country’s children and youth with the Constitution (Article 27 (13)) spelling out the state’s responsibility to “ensure their full development, physical, mental, moral, religious and social, and to protect them from exploitation and discrimination.” Furthermore, a considerable amount of legal provisions directly or indirectly impact on the elimination of child labour. In 2016, Sri Lanka raised the compulsory school attendance age to 16 years, from that of 14. In 2016, with a total population of 4,571,442 children in Sri Lanka, the island-wide Child Activity Survey carried out by the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS) revealed that 2.3 % or a little over 100,000 children engaged in economic activities for one or more hours during the survey period qualifying them to be called working children.

Child activity survey

According to ILO Country Director, another good practice carried out towards eliminating child labour is the adoption of a “cross-sectoral collaborative strategy in pilot activities at the grassroots level.” One example of such collaboration is the pilot ‘child labour free zone’ in Ratnapura. It was a collaboration between ILO and the Ministry of Labour, Trade Union Relations and Sabaragamuwa Development. “Additionally, much effort has gone into public awareness from national to community level; advocacy and prevention mechanism established through Government networks and involving private and other social partners in supporting to reduce child labour,” Singh points out.

However the ILO supported Child Activity (National Household) Survey 2016 also raises the concern of children engaged in hazardous forms of work.

The survey records “43,714 children in child labour out of which 39,007 children are engaged in hazardous forms of work. This represents about 1 % of the child population aged 5-17 years,” Singh cites. “Hazardous forms of child labour, is measured on the basis of the nature of industry engaged, particular occupations, the duration of work, some working conditions and exposure conditions,” explains Singh.

According to ILO Convention 182 and accompanying Recommendation 190, hazardous work refers to work: a) which exposes children to physical, psychological or sexual abuse b) underground, under water, at dangerous heights or in confined spaces c) involving dangerous machinery, equipment and tools, or which involves the manual handling or transport of heavy loads d) in an unhealthy environment which may, for example, expose children to hazardous substances, agents or processes, or to temperatures, noise levels, or vibrations damaging to their health e) under particularly difficult conditions such as working for long hours or during the night or where the child is unreasonably confined to the premises of the employer.

“The five most hazardous forms of child labour in the country can be found in mining and construction, manufacturing, agriculture including fisheries and forestry, street and market sales and textile and garment related trades. Most often, these children are between the ages of 12-18 years,” Singh stresses. The Child Activity Survey (2016) reported 5,506; 3,966; 3,465; 3,387 and 2,344 children engaged in hazardous work in the above five areas of work respectively.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s Roadmap 2016, states that “some of the worst forms of child labour prevalent in Sri Lanka are the use of children in commercial sexual exploitation and pornography and in illicit activities.” The Road Map further notes that the children are trafficked from conflict affected zones, the estate regions (mainly lowland estates) and from poor rural areas into exploitive labour including domestic service and prostitution. Concurring, the ‘National Policy on Elimination of Child Labour in Sri Lanka 2017’ (NPECL-SL) mooted by the Labour Ministry notes that as “the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances; the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs;” happens in the present context “Sri Lanka needs to have a fresh approach to the issues.”

“Sri Lanka has significant potential to achieve zero tolerance of worst forms of child labour and thus placing it in the forefront in the region,” notes the NPECL-SL. So, what prevents the elimination of the hazardous forms of child labour in Sri Lanka?

Lack of awareness is the key factor, followed by lack of education and poor occupational safety and health management, opines the ILO Country Director. “While lack of awareness and misconceptions of the employers and authorities, of what types of hazards exist for children make detection and prevention efforts more difficult; lack of parental awareness on child development and the multiplied effects of hazards on children keep them engaged in hazardous forms of child labour,” she explains. “Structural barriers in the educational system and lack of support in catch up education facilities; vocational education forcing children to work rather than stay in school in their teenage years; improper safety and health environment in workplaces and poor on the job safety and health training tailored to young workers, make their work hazardous,” stresses Singh.

Legal mechanism

Sri Lanka’s legal mechanism has sufficient legislation for the eradication of child engagement in ‘hazardous’ as well as other forms of labour. The Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act No. 47 of 1956, (EWYPCA) directly addresses and regulates the issue of child labour by stipulating the work, working hours and conditions of children and youth. Penal Code sections 286A, 288, 288A, 288B, 358A, 360A, 360B and 360C, deals with a range of activities associated with forced labour, child trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation of children and the use and involvement of children in illicit activities. The Mines and Minerals Act, the Explosives Act, and the Trade Unions Ordinance are but a few, in a list of laws and regulations thwarting hazardous forms of child labour.

Furthermore, the country has a network of Government institutions vested with the responsibility of the protection of its future generations. While the National Child Protection Authority, Children and Women’s Bureau of the Sri Lankan Police, Department of Probation and Child Care Services have the mandate to protect children and prevent them from abuse; the Department of Labour, Ministry of Labour and Trade Union Relations has the specific responsibility of child labour law enforcement.

The Judiciary and Police need to be involved in both. However, unless and until these institutions implement the laws and regulations properly, effectively and efficiently without bias in the interest of children; Sri Lanka’s target to ‘Zero Hazardous Child Labour by 2022’ would not become a reality.