In a chorus, the children sitting in the makeshift class spoke: “We don’t know what Labour Day is, neither do we get an off.” Their little hands and feet were greased and bruised, yet their smiles wouldn’t leave their faces.
Despite the hardships, this group of five talked to TNS with great joy, their faces radiating a sense of pride in their classroom — a makeshift setup in a mechanic’s shop in Kotha Pind area of Lahore.
Usually there are about a dozen children attending the class but the day I visited them there were only five of them. The youngest was eight years old and the eldest, 13. These poor children could not continue their education due to lack of money and family issues, and had to work in these jobs to help their parents make ends meet.
Siddique School System for Skilled Juniors, a mobile school system set up for poor children working as chhotas at automobile workshops so that they can be educated at workplace. The idea is to help them start their own business in the future.
The system of education is based on unconventional methods of teaching with a view to attracting children and inspiring them to experiment with ideas according to their level of smartness and knowledge.
The project is the brainchild of Mubashar Aslam, the Pakistan Country Head of a Denmark-based software house. He is assisted in its implementation by Qasim Cheema and Rabbia Arshad from the organisation, while Sarfaraz Ahmad and Akhtar Hussain provide services as teachers on a pro-bono basis.
These makeshift schools have so far been set up in four different locations in Lahore inside auto and motorcycle workshops. The workshop space is used as classroom with the owner’s consent. The idea has been a success so far because of the cooperation of their ustaads (vernacular for shop owners) to whom they are apprenticed as assistants, and due to which the initiative has been able to get off the ground.
Considering the special needs of the children in mind, and also to save time since these little boys can only be spared for an hour or less by their ustaads, a special course has been designed to cater for the variations in uptake and intelligence levels for different children. The project seeks to not only make these children literate enough to sign and read a document, but also to prepare them for education at Board level and above.
Talking to TNS, Sarfaraz Ahmad who teaches these children said, “These kids are very smart, and pick up things easily. They are willing to put in more time [than the one dedicated hour a day] for three subjects [English, Urdu, and Maths], but they are bound by their ustaads at the workshops.”
When asked if they were happy to learn new things, the children said yes. Their eyes lit up.
Various reasons are given for children not being able to get education. Adnan, 12, said, with a naughty look, “I was asked to leave school because I beat up a child after he insulted me. But I am not sorry; I am at a better place!”
A number of other children who attend these mobile schools belong to families that send them to school, however disinterestedly, so that they are taken apprentice at the dedicated workshops.
The faces of these kids sitting in a room that is rather hot on a late April morning, amidst tools and parts used in repair, also betray a certain stress. Perhaps, it is because they have to report back to their ustaad who relieved them from work for an hour only and is hovering nearby, keeping a check on their activities.
When the Siddique School System for Skilled Juniors was initiated, the owners faced a lot of trouble in trying to convince the ustaads to allow their little apprentices to make some time for studies. Majority of them said the kids were better off without education. They neither knew nor seemed to care about the fact that Article 25 of the Constitution of Pakistan speaks cogently of the children’s right to education.
For a large number of families, working kids help the family by contributing in the home budgets. Naturally, they don’t want the income to stop, even if that is below the daily wage rate laid down by law. As Suraiyya, a house help, said, “My youngest son works at a grocery shop in Ghalib Market [Gulberg]; he gets paid Rs2,500 a month. For us, this is a big amount. What will we get if he takes up studies?”
Like any other children, these “skilled juniors” have many hobbies that they wish they had the time to pursue. Ali Hamza, for instance, “love watching C.I.D [a detective series broadcast on an Indian TV channel], but I am at work from 9 in the morning to 9 in the night. When I reach home I am generally too tired and go to sleep.”
Another student said he wanted to sing, before he went on to display his talent by chanting a famous qawwali.
I also spotted a student with swollen lips. When asked what had happened, he revealed that the “ustaad beat me up.” A menacing silence fell. The children looked like a deadly secret had been leaked. This gave me to understand the kind of situations these little workers have to deal with, in a day’s work.
While laws exist, their implementation is the issue. Kashif Bajeer of the Society for Protection of the Rights of the Child explained, “The last survey on child labour was conducted in 1996; it showed 3.3 million children working in this particular area. Since then no proper survey has been taken, but rough estimates suggest that there might be 12 to 13 million children employed as labour.
“It is the state’s responsibility to provide everyone with justice, education, health, food, and employment. When the state does not fulfill its duties, such illegal practices come to light, even though we have the stipulated rules,” he added.
Child labour is a global issue, and is part of the Sustainable Development Goals. According to the 2017 Global Estimates of Modern Slavery and Child Labor report prepared by the ILO, there are 151.6 million children, aged 5 to 17, in child labour globally.
Towards the end of our meetup, the kids said they supported the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI). The discussion took a serious turn, as one of the kids commented that Imran Khan is a pathan but they (the children) are Punjabis so they ought not to support him. And I was left wondering if this kind of narrow thinking was due to the extreme gap in the way the upper middle class children who know only of Disney and DC comics are raised and these little labourers who have been deprived of a beautiful childhood. These kids have not been allowed their mistakes and the perks and privileges that come with being this young.