Agencies involved in childcare and protection yesterday came to a more logical conclusion – to define child labour in the Bhutanese context.

Every year, we join the world in observing the international day against child labour.  Meetings are held, workshops are conducted and not much achieved once the day is done.

This is evident from data available in the country on the status of child labour.  The only data available on the status of child labour in Bhutan is from the 2011 Labour Force Survey.  About 4,400 Bhutanese children between 13-17 years were found working outside their home.  We are not sure if children in the country are forced to work and, if so, how many.

The most recent study carried out to understand the situation of child labour was carried out in 2013.  The results are still being analysed.  The Labour Act prohibits child labour and forced labour.  This is to ensure that, unlike in many countries, we do not want to encourage workers from farms to sweatshops just because people perceive higher cash earnings.

Discussions on child labour in Bhutan always bring out a debate.  One group sees it as an exploitation of children.  It often throws up an image of minors working in automobile workshops or babysitting for others at a bare minimum wage.  The other group sees it as something to be appreciated. They see it as learning the ropes of a trade that would employ and teach them the concept of dignity of labour.

Views differ since child labour is subjective because of our culture and traditional values.  A farmer will encourage his young son to handle a pair of bullocks in the farm to learn the skills.  Some parents send their children to sell doma to earn some extra cash income.

Child labour or forced labour in the true sense, as in exploiting children to work for their masters at no or a minimum wage, many believe, doesn’t occur in the country.  A detailed updated study only would establish this.  Therefore, what we need, as the participants pointed out, is an implementable and inclusive road map to eliminate the worst forms of child labour in the country, if there are any.

For that we need surveys and studies.  It is easier to establish the presence of child labour in some countries, because children are trafficked or lured to work in towns and cities.  Most times, they are exploited and even tortured.  Thousands of children, for instance, in India, are rescued by non-government organisations.

Our tradition has it that it is bad parenting if children are not taught to work in the fields.  The children will always take pride in helping their parents.  Some have actually benefited from this mindset and found jobs, odd as they might be.

Stopping them will be depriving them of a job and the extra source of income for the family.  Therefore, it is essential to fine tune legislation keeping in mind a lot of factors.  While children shouldn’t be exploited at all cost, it is best if we understand the ground reality and localise the legislations.

What we can focus immediately is on monitorng  how much employed children are paid.  They shouldn’t be exploited for their innocent efforts.