In January 2016, the Punjab Government enacted a law titled the Punjab Prohibition of Child Labor at Brick Kilns Ordinance 2016 (No V). The law defines a child to be someone who is under the age of 14 years. Section 5 of the Ordinance prohibits an occupier who is defined as the owner of a brick kiln from employing, engaging or permitting a child to work at the brick kilns.
Even if a child over the age of five years is found at the brick kiln during school timings, he shall, until the contrary is proved, be considered to have been employed, engaged or permitted to work at the brick kiln (section 6); and the occupier of the brick kiln shall be held to be responsible for such contravention (section 7). The Inspector appointed under the Ordinance has the power to seal a brick kiln for a maximum of seven days if it appears to him that a child has been engaged on work or found at a brick kiln in contravention of sections 5 and 6 of the Ordinance, or if the occupier fails to comply with any direction under section 18 which gives the Provincial Government to issue such directions to an occupier as may be necessary for the effective enforcement of the Ordinance.
If any question arises as to the age of any person who is employed, permitted to work or found at a brick kiln, the person shall be presumed to be a child unless the contrary is proved through the computerized national identity card or registration certificate (Form B) with NADRA or the birth certificate issued by the competent authority. The burden lies on the occupier to prove that any person found or working at the brick kiln is not a child.
Contravention of the above provisions is liable to punishment with simple imprisonment extending to six months but which cannot be less than seven days and fine which may extend to Rs 500,000 but which cannot be less than Rs 50,000.
The conditions at the brick kilns are harsh and the people working there are poorest of the poor. Any step taken by the Government to help them, including their children, is thus a welcoming step. It is known to everyone, as stated in the preamble of the Ordinance as well, that the environment at a brick kiln is hazardous for children, adversely affecting their growth, health and education.
However, it remains unclear as to what prompted the Government of the Punjab to take this urgent action in the form of an Ordinance which can remain in force only up to a maximum of 90 days. After all, the law prohibiting bonded labor has been on the statute books since 1992 in the form of the Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act. The latter law has already been adopted for the Province by the Punjab Bonded Labor System (Abolition) (Amendment) Act 2012 (No XXIV).
The fact is that there was no need to enact a separate law; all the above provisions dealing with the employment of children at brick kilns could easily have been incorporated in the Punjab Bonded Labor System (Abolition) Act. Some of the other provisions of the Ordinance are already present in the 1992 Act as adopted in the Punjab in 2012. If there was a need to modify any provision, it easily could have been done in the existing laws, including enhancing the punishment for employing child labor.
The intention of the law-makers for enacting this Ordinance is good. The only thing that I am advocating here is that there is absolutely no need to have a separate law, and the provisions of the Ordinance dealing with child labor can be incorporated in the existing 2012 Punjab law. Modifications can also be made to the existing law.
Most importantly, the Ordinance recognizes that the environment at a brick kiln is hazardous for children. There is no reason than for any children below the age of 18 years to be employed at a brick kiln. It is thus crucial that the age of employment at brick kilns should be raised to 18 from the current age of 14 years mentioned in the Ordinance. Incidentally, such change will be in conformity with the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor to which Pakistan is a signatory; and also with article 25-A of the Constitution which makes it a fundamental right of each Child to be given free and compulsory education up to the age of 16 years, and not 14 years as stated in the Ordinance.
Ignorance of law is not an excuse but laws should not be turned into a bottomless pit, making it difficult for a common man to comprehend and thus follow them; it also leads of corruption. This is particularly so in the case of brick kilns where most folks associated with them, including the owners, are illiterate. And lastly, please implement the laws dealing with child labor, including those dealing with bonded labor, as it is as important as making new laws.