Friday, May 20, 2022

The child labour quandary

He strolls around the Game City mall car park, approaching every car door that opens. His mission is to try and sell one of the door mats he has got clipped under his armpit.

He approaches us just as we hop out of the car. With a wary smile and avoiding eye contact he tries to come up with the best sales pitch he can muster.

I ask for his name, to which he reluctantly responds, “Tshepo.”

But it is my next set of questions that seem to unsettle him the most. ‘How old are you? Why aren’t you in school?’

He tells me he has knocked off from school in Moshupa. But my watch tells me something does not tally. It is just a few minutes after noon, and Moshupa happens to be roughly 40 kilometres from Gaborone. That is hardly time for him to have made it to town after school and be ready for ‘work’.

He is decked out in a school sweater and pair of scuffed shoes that have definitely seen better days. His unkempt hair suggests he did not come straight out of a classroom.

As soon as he realises there might be more questions to come he darts off, ignoring my calls and entreaties to return. Soon, he goes about his daily business.

Tshepo is just 13 years old. While most of his peers wake up every morning, go to school and come back home to play with others afterwards, his day is spent out in the streets selling household stuff.

He is not the only child roaming the streets, selling merchandise during or after school hours. There are many like him.

Although Tshepo’s may be one of the most common forms of child labor in towns, considerable differences exist between the many kinds of work children do. While some are difficult, harsh and demanding, others are more hazardous and even morally unacceptable.

But has child labour become such a socially acceptable norm that it is does not raise any eyebrows?

If Childline Botswana figures are anything to by then the answer is unfortunately a definite YES.

“We have recorded only a single case of child labour in the past few years,” says Childline Botswana Coordinator, Onkemetse Montsheki.

She says the NGO had not recorded any cases of children being denied school. To say the Childline figure is far from official statistics of child labour in Botswana would be a huge understatement.

According to the Botswana Labour Force Survey conducted in 2005/2006 approximately 38,375 children were reported to be involved in some form of child labour.

The survey showed that a sizeable number of children work in commercial farms in remote areas, shebeens, retail stores, hawking (as in the case of Tshepo), street vending, and in the process getting subjected to hazardous labour practices.

But what is child labour?

“It is work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to their physical and mental development,” says the Head of Child Protection (Department of Social Services), Ookame Mokabathebe.

“Specifically,” she says, “it refers to work that is mentally, physically, socially, morally dangerous and interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to ; attend school ; obliging them to leave school prematurely; or requiring them to attempt to combine school attendance with excessively long and heavy work.”

Mokabathebe says in its most extreme form child labour involves children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves on the streets.

The Children’s Act provides that any employment of a child shall be for the purposes of apprenticeship, with the written consent of the child’s parent/guardian. It further stipulates that the employer has the duty to provide a safe and healthy environment for the child. The Employment Act establishes the minimum age of employment at 14.

It says family members may employ their own children if these children do not attend school. They must be of at least age 14, work for 30 hours a week or less, and perform light work that is not harmful to their health or development. The law however does not define hazardous or light work more specifically, nor does it establish a list of hazardous occupations prohibited to children save to say “children may not be employed; underground; at night; more than three consecutive hours in an industrial undertaking without a period of rest which shall not be less than 30 minutes; more than 6 hours a day or thirty hours a week.”

The Department of Social Services’ Motsaathebe says an Action Plan on the Elimination of Child Labour, defining the mandate and roles of various stakeholders has been developed.

“A child labour manual has also been developed to sensitise stakeholders about child labour and facilitate them to take up their responsibilities in addressing child labour,” she says.

Motsaathebe says among those trained on the manual are social workers, traditional leaders, teachers, and Labour Inspectors in the various districts. Although not many cases of have been recorded of people being tried for child labour violations the Children’s Act criminalises child labour and has set a fine of no less than 10 000 Pula and no more than 30 000. There is also an imprisonment term of no less than 12 months and not exceeding five years for any person convicted of violating child labour laws. The act places the primary duty of the care and protection of children on parents.

Children like Tshepo ,who are forced to spend their time out in the streets, selling stuff and acting (in some cases) as breadwinners for their families often miss out the on the opportunity to attend school. There are currently no laws making education compulsory in Botswana.

Speaking at a Child Labour Conference back in 2007 former US Ambassador to Botswana Katherine Canavan observed that this may have allowed some children to fall through the cracks and miss out on education. She said poverty is one of the factors that lead children to work rather than attend school.

“Child labour can be the start of a vicious economic cycle,” she said. “Children may work because their families are poor but if these children fail to get an education, as adults they will also be limited in the types of jobs for which they can qualify.” These uneducated adults may then in turn rely on their children to contribute to the family income, producing another generation unable to escape the trap of poverty, Canavan said.

Although education is not compulsory the Children Act has identified it as a right for every child under section 18. A penalty has been set for parents and guardians who fail, without reasonable excuse, to provide a child with an opportunity to go to school.
Primary school education remains free. In addition, the law provides that children from poor families are exempted from paying school fees and also receive free meals, toiletries, and school uniforms.

But the lack of a free secondary education and a compulsory education law may leave some children more vulnerable to involvement in the worst forms of child labour.

And until the number of reported cases of adults being tried for child labour violations becomes consistent with the 38,375 cases of violations as reported in 2005/2006, we can expect to see more children like Tshepo roaming the streets and selling door mats during school hours.

It may also be imperative for the government of the day to step up its efforts to improve families’ socioeconomic conditions so that children from poor backgrounds are no longer viewed as essential sources of labour and income.


Read this week's paper