The exact extent of child labour in Bhutan is not yet known 

Children: Child labour is an age-old practise followed around the world but the legal concept over the practise has evolved recently.

For Bhutan, the absence of any form of statistics on child labour including child trafficking has hindered the carrying out of a comprehensive study of the prevalence of violence against children.

The prevalence of child labour and trafficking however is evident in the country although stories are mostly based on hearsay, officials from the National Commission for Women and Child (NCWC) said.

Child labour according to a handbook of the labour ministry is classified as any form of work that children (below 18 years) engage in which deprives them of their childhood, their potential and their dignity. At the same time, it is a work that is harmful to the child’s physical and mental development which results in deprivation of education.

To initiate an end to violence against children, a two-day regional consultation workshop among the SAARC countries is underway in Thimphu.

The seminar seeks to build alliances among the eight countries in combating all sorts of child labour and in eradication of the worst forms of child labour including recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced labour, and human trafficking by 2025.

NCWC director Kunzang Lhamu said that although the goal is very ambitious, the need to intervene in such issues has become increasingly critical.

Kunzang Lhamu said that currently the extent of violence against children cannot be reckoned because of the lack of data on such incidents.

Kunzang Lhamu said that usually incidents of child trafficking are practised under the name of “missing” individuals. “This can be attributed to the lack of awareness and limited capacity of the Bhutanese to address such issues,” she said.

She added that agencies concerned also fail to follow up on the issues whereby, over time, the issues are forgotten and cases closed. “Sometimes there are specific cases that we know of but often many don’t even make it to our notice, which is why there is a need for an effective sensitisation programme on child trafficking.”

The child labour situation in the country today can be broadly classified under two areas of visible and invisible settings, which can be further categorised into concentrated and dispersed setups.

According to the labour ministry’s handbook for labour inspectors, the concentrated setups, which are visible, are settings such as confectionaries and supermarkets where children work as bakers, cooks, vendors, cashiers and cleaners.

Whereas the dispersed and invisible settings are those areas were children are exploited in an isolated and inaccessible setting to the public like domestic servants, children involved in stealing, picking pockets, smuggling and pornography.

The handbook states that children aged between 13-17 years are prohibited from working in confined spaces like in mining sites and quarries. They are not allowed to do work involving heavy lifting and manufacturing of goods with toxic materials. They cannot work in bars, discotheques and slaughterhouses.

But the guidebook does approve children in the same age group to be legally employed in entertainment businesses such as in television, theatre, modelling (exclusive of wearing revealing costumes), restaurants and as  sales boys/girls.

Labour official Kinley Dorji said that before a child aged between 13-17 years is employed, the concerned parties needs to get approval from the ministry.

The parties are then briefed on the dos and don’ts while employing a child. “We monitor if the child is being exploited once they are employed,” said Kinley Dorji.

However, Kunzang Lhamu said that there is a need to redefine what child labour is with respect to individual countries and their settings. Over the years the issues have changed and so has the implications of the issues on the child, she said.

She added that an effective coordination mechanism must be developed among all the relevant stakeholders within the country to address child labour.

“We know our problems best,” said Kunzang Lhamu. “Large or small, child labour should be a worrying concern for our country. It has to be addressed and addressed immediately.”

Younten Tshedup