Hazardous work: Thousands of children making surgical goods

Child labour still common in surgical goods, beauty and leather industries in Sialkot.

Sehar Mughal July 24, 2013
Child labour still common in surgical goods, beauty and leather industries in Sialkot.


Tayyab, 10, watches his elder brother Muneeb, 14, polish metal formed into half of a pair of scissors on a grinding wheel at a small shop carved out of an old building on a narrow street in the Sambrial district of Sialkot.

When Tayyab is not watching his brother work, to eventually work like him, he fetches chai or paan for the contractor running the shop – a chore he is not paid for.

Muneeb says he started working shortly after his mother died from tuberculosis in April. Since their father – a heroin addict – disappeared years ago their mother and older sister stitched footballs for a contractor for Anwar Khawaja Industries to support the family. Now without both their parents, the four siblings and their grandparents survive on Muneeb’s Rs1,500 and his sister’s Rs5,700, which she receives on a per ball basis, depending on how many partial balls she stitches in a day. She is not paid by the hour, but she works about seven hours a day.

Tayyab hopes to join thousands of underage children who still work in the surgical, beauty, and leather industries in Sialkot – a city whose football stitching industries boast of eliminating child labour.

Child Labour in the football industry was eliminated through diligent and continuous monitoring supported by large buyers such as Nike and Adidas, through the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

Nasir Mahmood Dogar, of the Independent Monitoring Association for Child Labour (IMAC), which was formed by the ILO and has been monitoring child labour in the football industry since 1997, says that in 2013, only one child was found stitching footballs in a contractor’s shop in a nearby village, compared to about 7,000 that were found in a 1997 ILO survey.

Buyers of surgical instruments, beauty instruments and leather products are less concerned with working conditions, says Dogar.

A 2004 study by the ILO found that 5,133 children were working in the surgical goods industry. Officials at the Sialkot Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCI) say that programmes similar to IMAC have been started by the ILO to monitor child labour in the surgical goods industry, but have been less successful because of the lack of pressure from buyers. Through one such programme, the Provincial Child Labour Unit, also created by the ILO in 2000, there had been a 50 per cent reduction in child labour in the industry until 2006 since the study began, but no statistics are available after that.

Sheikh Abdul Majid, the SCCI president, said that they don’t pay because buyers don’t demand elimination of child labour. “There was no issue in other industries. The issue was with the soccer ball industry,” says the SCCI official.

The factory owners, contractors and the children that The Express Tribune interviewed say thousands of families would go hungry if the children do not work.

Afzal, a contractor for the surgical instruments industry, told The Express Tribune that he hired children because “[T]hey do what we tell them to do and they take what they get without asking questions.”

“Having buyers leave because of child labour does not solve the [real] problem. The children need the work and they’re thankful for it,” said a surgical instrument factory owner who said he exported to the United States. He did not want to be identified and was reluctant to name the buyers he supplies to. “There is no child labour in our factories. What happens in the contractors’ shops and how much they pay the children is beyond our control,” he says.

Dogar says that the problem of child labour in contractors shops’ can be eliminated by projects such as the IMAC. He says that the IMAC has the capability to expand monitoring to other industries, such as surgical manufacturing, but that many manufacturers and the SCCI are not willing to pay to expand the operation.

For an hour every afternoon, Muneeb and Tayyab go to a tuition centre, down the road from the shop in which they work, to study the qaida, English and Urdu. The centre is called the Select Anwar Khwaja Health and Education Programme (SAHEP), run jointly by Anwar Khawaja Industries and its buyer in Denmark to support education and health among the families of those employed by the football factory.

Anita Khwaja, who runs the centre told The Express Tribune, that SAHEP supports the boys’ family by paying their electricity bill and providing transport from their home to the tuition centre.

“But the children cannot survive on that alone. By working, they will learn a craft that they will be able to use,” says Rehana, one of their teachers.

Khwaja says that Muneeb had been struggling in school for five years, before leaving school in 2010. He is now at government school level two.

Now she says, his family is not willing to send him to school. He is also too old to be integrated back into a school system. “I cannot force the family to send him to school,” she says of his grandfather and older sister.

There are days when the children find it hard to return to work after lessons, says Habibah, who teaches them Urdu and English.

“Once I found Muneeb hiding in a store room, playing with a deck of learning cards, an hour after his tuition was finished because he didn’t want to go back to work,” she says.

“I like studying better,” says Muneeb, “teachers are nice. Work is hard.”

But Muneeb says that he also looks forward to getting paid every month. “I give the money to my sister,” he says.

Rehana told The Express Tribune about another child, four-year-old Waqas, who used to work in the surgical instruments industry. SAHEP encouraged Waqas’ family to enroll him at the tuition centre full time by paying him equivalent of what he was making at the factory – Rs500 per month. “When he came to us [six years ago], he was so rough. He cursed and hit us,” says Rehanna. Now, she says, he has “completely changed.”

Khwaja, when asked why the centre had decided to pay Waqas to get an education and not Muneeb or Tayyab, says, “Because Waqas has parents. [Muneeb and Tayyab] don’t. They need to stand on their two feet.”

Is there a solution?

IMAC’s Nasir Mahmood Dogar says that if every factory owner paid their workers “enough” – money that would not only feed them but also provide enough for them to be able to send their children to school – the problem of child labour can be eliminated.

Salma Jafar, a freelance development consultant who has worked with the UNICEF, the ILO, and Save the Children, says that small projects to eradicate child labour often don’t work because of “a lack of coordination”. “Individually, the projects are so small that they really don’t have an impact on child labour on a large scale,” says Jafar.

The Labour Department chair in Sialkot, Malik Basharat Ali, did not respond to phone calls.

2004 ILO study on Child Labour

The ILO study showed that children are paid much less than adult workers, and that working conditions are poor. In the 2004 study of 400 working children:

• Over 47 per cent of the children reported making Rs1,000 a month or less.

• About 72 per cent said they had suffered from a work-related illness or injury at some point.

• About 40 per cent of children reported feeling intimidated or afraid of their employer.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 24th, 2013.


Amjad | 9 years ago | Reply surgical industry is already struggling for its survival due to shortage of skilled labor and other issues, these people who have highlighted this issue just wants to destroy this industry, they are just doing propaganda against Pakistan.
Farhan | 9 years ago | Reply

Good please write more on this.

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