Photo courtesy of IPS

Today is the World Day Against Child Labour

In the South Asian region, Sri Lanka is a success story when it comes to tackling child labour. The widely prevalent forms of child labour in the 1990s and before, such as children in domestic servitude and children’s engagement in hazardous labour in industries, have drastically declined. This transformation has been the result of greater awareness among the public, law reform and enhanced law enforcement as well as more businesses steering away from the employment of children. However, two of the country’s biggest industries – tea and tourism – still engage children in their enterprises.

The data and its gaps

Child Activity Surveys conducted approximately every eight years by the Department of Census and Statistics provide statistical data on the situation of child labour. The findings of the surveys set the benchmark to understand the prevalence and trends of children’s engagement in different types of work, their nature and circumstances. The last survey, conducted in 2016, found that 1% of children (43,343) between 5 to 17 years of age are engaged in child labour with 90% of this population (39,007) being engaged in hazardous forms of child labour.

The definition of child labour used in the Child Activity Survey mostly aligns with international definitions of child labour[1]. The main gap identified in this definition is that children aged 5 to 11 years working less than 15 hours per week and children aged 12 to 14 years working less than 25 hours per week as contributing family workers in the agricultural sector are not counted as child labourers. Children helping out with family agricultural activities is widely accepted and part of family life in Sri Lanka, which is reflected in this adapted definition.

The definition of hazardous forms of labour is also taken from local legislation that specifies particular types of work in accordance with legal forms of occupation in Sri Lanka[2]. This does not include types of work that are done illegally, such as sex work and bonded labour, which are some of the worst forms of child labour[3]. A limitation of this research is that this was a household survey. Therefore, children living on the streets, institutions, workplaces or those who have no identified shelter have not been covered. These gaps have significant implications in arriving at a realistic picture of risks and vulnerabilities children face. Worst forms of child labour almost always fall beyond acceptable and legal forms of occupation as specified in ILO Convention 182:

(a) all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict;

(b) the use, procuring or offering of a child for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances;

(c) the use, procuring or offering of a child for illicit activities, in particular for the production and trafficking of drugs as defined in the relevant international treaties

Therefore, legislation and research that defines hazardous work discounting worst from of child labour leaves out the most vulnerable and at risk populations of children who engage in labour. Being illegal forms of work, it is unlikely that children who are victims of the worst from of labour are found within normal households. It is far more likely to find child labourers who engage in its worst forms in the settings that have been excluded in the Child Activity Survey.

The tea industry

Save the Children has been has been working on child labour issues within the tea industry and the tourism industry. Its research uncovered some worrying findings regarding the prevalence of some of the worst forms of child labour.

While Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) have adhered to a child protection policy that forbids the paid or unpaid employment of children under 16, they were less certain of the extent to which their supply chain was child labour free. Part of the supply chain is the smallholders from whom leaf tea is sometimes bought.

The mid-sized estates and smallholdings contribute more than 70% of the country’s tea production. During its research in the Southern Province, Save the Children investigated the extent to which children are involved in agricultural work within the estates. The research also delved into the circumstances of families who work in the estates and the implications on children’s wellbeing. Two key findings that emerged startled the child protection sector as well as the decision makers in the tea industry.

One finding was that 73.0% of children started to work before they reached the age of 12 years. Although this would not be classified as child labour under labour laws in Sri Lanka[4], it is evident that children’s involvement starts too early for a significant number of them, and that there is some risk of hazardous work and long hours. The majority of children, however, do not engage excessively and the data indicates that most parents understand that assigning hazardous work to their children is off limits.

The research also revealed the prevalence of a practice that was widely used and accepted in the mid-sized estates that has serious implication for entire working families – the practice of bonded labour. The average monthly income of a worker in a mid-sized estate is Rs. 10,207, with nearly half of labourers earning less than Rs. 10,000. In this context, it is a struggle for most families to afford food, children’s education and other basic necessities, and considerable portion of worker families (15.5%) take loans from the estate owners and have debts to repay. Estate owners also provide alcohol to the workers to encourage them to work harder. Sometimes this leads to addiction, and loans are taken to spend on alcohol as well. With mounting debts, more than a third (35.5%) struggle to pay back the money they owe. When estate owners provide loans to the workers, they hold their identity documents (birth certificates, national identification cards) as collateral. In some instances when they are unable to pay back the debts, the estate owner sells the workers (and family) to another estate. The receiving owner settles the debt and holds the worker (and family) in bondage for the payment made for them.

This practice has far reaching consequences for children. Apart from the obvious implications of slavery and bondage, the use of family’s identity documents as collateral prevents children’s access to basic services such as health and education, and their citizenship rights. Multiple transitions from one estate to another disrupts children’s education and may result in dropping out of school, impacting the children’s education and development, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty within these communities.

One key reason for such a stark contrast between the large tea estates and the mid-sized and smallholdings is the difference in the level of regulation and scrutiny that the different entities are subject to by the authorities. While the RPCs are bound by local and international regulatory frameworks and bodies to ensure socially responsible and ethically acceptable practices are adopted in their business operations, the mid-sized and small estates are not governed or monitored in the same way. Therefore, there is much leeway for these entities to do their business as they see fit.

To tackle this issue, some recommendations arising from the research were made to strengthen child protection mechanisms. The tea sector should develop and share clear guidelines on child protection for smallholders, mid-sized tea estates and leaf-processing factories. There should be a multi-stakeholder initiative to push for the implementation of child protection laws and regulations. Parents and stakeholders should be trained on child protection.

The key issue that propels workers to become indebted to their employers is their level of income. It was suggested setting up a livelihood fund that supports labourers in need and creating minimum income level guidelines for labourers.

The tourism industry

International and local tourists come to popular hotspots for child sex tourism. Sri Lankan is known as  a paedophile paradise in the Western world and tourists travel to Sri Lanka to solicit children for sexual purposes. Popular destinations for local tourists to procure children for sex have been associated with local festivals (Kataragama), places of religious worship (Anuradhapura) and the coastal belt of the Western, Southern and Eastern provinces, which are also the locations of choice of international tourists who victimize children. In the current context of COVID-19, although international tourism has severely declined, local tourism remains a risk and concern for children’s protection.

Child sex trafficking

Research by Save the Children[5] identified the incidence of child sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children in the tourism sector across six districts. The research findings clearly indicate the trafficking of children for the purposes of sexual exploitation and use of children for prostitution or other forms of commercial sexual exploitation, both of which are among the worst forms of child labour.

Although these are not recognized forms of hazardous labour within the employment laws of Sri Lanka, they are punishable offences under the Penal Code of Sri Lanka. Child trafficking is defined in the Penal Code (in complete alignment with international laws and treaties) as an act that “(c) recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives a child or does any other act whether with or without the consent of such child for the purpose of securing forced or compulsory labour or services, slavery, servitude or the removal of organs, prostitution or other forms of sexual exploitation, or any other act which constitutes an offence under any law, shall be guilty of the offence of trafficking” (Section 360c).

 Push and pull factors

The research investigated push factors that draw children into the sex trade and pull factors that make them remain in the trade. A main factor of victimisation relates to economic difficulties within the family that have resulted in family dysfunction, the neglect of children’s basic needs and impediments to education and health. The other factor is the lack of protection mechanisms within the family, community and the State. Poor parenting, the loss of a parent, parental migration (overseas or domestic), emotional distress and the muted voice of the child are significant factors. Victims of sexual abuse are more likely to be trafficked and exploited. The stigma and shame associated with abuse that result in social exclusion and secondary victimisation make child abuse victims an easy target for traffickers. Child victims of trafficking also become re-victimised due to actions or inaction of the State authorities; they are often re-united with their families without any case management intervention or re-integration plan. They then return to the abusive environments they came from and become victims once again.

Pull factors are identified that prevent children from escaping exploitative conditions. Children prefer to live with perpetrators because they enjoyed their new lifestyle with good food and comfortable living standards and the economic benefits that assisted their families. Most children were also addicted to drugs, which was funded by the perpetrators. The perpetrator often protected victims from other perpetrators, though on his/her terms, in his/her favour.

Based on the findings of the research, strengthening the family, school and community is strongly recommended, and that community-based child protection mechanisms are linked with strong social protection mechanisms. Child-centric support services targeting children who are particularly vulnerable to trafficking is also highlighted. Victims of trafficking require well planned mental health and psychosocial support through a strong case management process that eventually results in suitable re-integration of the child. Stronger law enforcement and strengthened mechanisms to enable this is also suggested, recognising that currently there are no specific investigation procedures for trafficking offences. Finally, the importance of engaging with the tourism industry is recommended based on Child Rights and Business Principles[6] to ensure ethical business practices that do not harm children.

Impact of COVID-19 on child labour and child trafficking

Although the research did not focus on the impact of COVID-19 on child sex tourism or child sex trafficking, research across the world has highlighted the heightened risks for child labour and child trafficking for commercial exploitation during the pandemic as world economies plummet[7]. Child sex trafficking and exploitation via online spaces is recognized as one of the greatest threats to children’s protection during the pandemic; one such incident was recently reported in Sri Lanka[8].

Save the Children’s experiences in the tea and tourism industries have clearly demonstrated how child labour, including some of its worst forms, are in existence in Sri Lanka. Their hidden nature prevents them from being identified by authorities and captured in data, which in turn allow them to thrive behind closed doors. The critical need to fulfill children’s rights to education – not only ensuring access but making concrete efforts to keep children in school and addressing gender norms and structural discrimination that make particular communities more vulnerable than others to fall prey to commercial exploitation – must be considered as a priority by State authorities and civil society.

The author is Senior Technical Advisor Child Protection at Save the Children

[1] International Labour Organization (ILO), Minimum Age Convention, C138, 26 June 1973, C138

[2] Government of Sri Lanka. Hazardous Occupations Regulations, 2010, No. 47. Enacted: August 17, 2010.

[3] International Labour Organization (ILO), Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, C182, 17 June 1999, C182

[4] Government of Sri Lanka. Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act (No. 47 of 1956)

[5] Peiris, P. (2021) ‘Child sex trafficking in the tourism sector in Sri Lanka’, Save the Children: Colombo

[6] UN Global Compact (2012) ‘Child Rights and Business Principles’.

[7] UNODC (2020) ‘Impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Trafficking In Persons’, UNODC: Vienna

[8] ’35 year old arrested for using teenage girl for sex trafficking via internet’. Newswire (Sri Lanka) 9 June 2021.