Ministry: Child labour cases on increase in pandemic

Stephen McClashie -
Stephen McClashie -

UNIVERSAL Children’s Day was observed on November 20.

It is a day established by the United Nations in 1954 geared towards improving the life of children.

Subsequently, international legally binding agreements such as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Rights of the Child were introduced, in which 194 countries have signed.

Trinidad and Tobago is also signatory to these international legally binding agreements, of which several ministries and organisations have developed policies to ensure that children’s best well-being are looked after.

TT has also enacted various legislation to protect children, such as, the Children Act, 2012; the Children’s Authority Act, 2000; the Children’s Authority Regulations 2014; the Children’s Community Residences, Foster Care and Nurseries Act, 2000; the Foster Care Regulations, 2014; the Children’s Community Residences Regulations 2014; the Adoption of Children Act, 2000; and the Adoption of Children Regulations 2015.

FILE PHOTO: The head office of the Children's Authority, Wrightson Road, Port of Spain. -

Of growing concern has been the issue of child labour, especially in a pandemic where many livelihoods were lost, and in TT this was no different.

While relatively small when compared to global statistics, the Labour Inspectorate Unit of the Ministry of Labour has found that reported cases of child labour increased from three in 2019 to five in 2020 and six in 2021.

The Labour Inspectorate Unit has been charged with the responsibility of ensuring employers and employees were aware of their rights, obligations and responsibilities as well as monitoring the workplace environment in accordance with labour laws.

In response to questions sent by Newsday, the Ministry of Labour said because of the economic impact brought on by the covid19 pandemic some vulnerable families turned to their children to earn income as a survival mechanism.

It said, “Due to the pandemic, measures had to be taken by government to curb the spread of the virus. This resulted in the closure of schools, the introduction of online classes, closure of businesses, loss of jobs and reduction of income for some families.

“In addition, some children do not have portable devices or internet connectivity to join the online classes, and this may have pushed some of those children into the job market. The pandemic has the potential to increase instances of child labour as children who were unable to continue their education over the last couple of months may eventually fall out of the education system when schools fully reopen, the ministry said.

Child labour is defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) as work that deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is harmful to physical and mental development.

It is further classified as mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children.

In TT the legal age for employment is 16 and is in alignment with the Education Act which states it is mandatory for children from five to 15 years to be in school.

According to the ministry, child labour has been known to occur mainly in rural areas within the informal sector and detecting it has been challenging because of cultural and societal norms.

“The public may not recognise it as an issue due to certain cultural and social norms. The slight increase in cases may be due to the economic effects of the pandemic as well as the increase in awareness among citizens to report cases,” it said.

Head of the Institute for Gender and Development Dr Sue-Ann Barratt also agreed that the issue of child labour was cultural which has prevented a lack of reporting, thereby allowing it to continue over the years.

Dr Sue-Ann Barratt -

“There has been heightened messaging about child labour which suggests there is a challenge. Also, culturally there are moments where children are seen working and it’s not during the holiday period. They can be seen selling on the side of the streets or markets.

“Even if it is one child’s development that is curtailed because they have to engage in labour at a young age, exclusively, then that is something that needs to be addressed,” she said.

There has been a very thin line between child labour and employment in work that does not affect their health and personal development. The latter has been generally seen as being something positive.

The ministry said, “Children's participation in work that is not hazardous to the child includes activities such as helping their parents care for the home and the family, assisting in a family business or earning pocket money outside school hours and during school holidays.

“These activities are not considered child labour and can contribute to the child's development and to the welfare of their families; it provides them with skills, attitudes and experience, and helps to prepare them to be productive members of society during their adult life.”

Barratt added that it was a good opportunity for young people to learn through apprenticeships or assist their families, but careful consideration should be paid to these situations.

“If the children learn things through these processes, it is another type of education, but when children have to give up everything and engage in productive labour, that is work for money exclusively, then it would affect their development.

“To manage the social conditions is a pressing concern and how that is addressed in a family. There must be options and alternatives when situations become desperate,” she said.

In a report carried by Newsday in June, Minister of Labour Stephen Mc Clashie pointed out that there was a lack of resources to monitor and safeguard children against exploitation and that the true status of child labour in TT was unclear.

He said then that, “We rely on people reporting the possible incidents of child labour. We do not have the budget or the people to go out into the communities and to look and to interrogate businesses to identify whether there is child labour taking place.

“Once it is reported to the labour inspectorate, their officers will go out and investigate the complaint. But it is not a proactive thing that we go out there looking for it.”

In its interaction with Newsday, the ministry said the Labour Inspectorate Unit faced to main challenges — under-reporting from the public and the occurrence of child labour in the informal sector which was difficult to detect.

“The Labour Inspectorate Unit are challenged by the under-reporting by the public of instances of child labour due to the lack of information about the issue and the second is the fact that it is invisible and exists mainly in the informal sector, within homes and rural areas hidden from the eyes of the inspectorate.

“Another challenge is the lack of current data on child labour by activity, sector and geographic areas. This data is critical in developing policies and programmes for a more targeted approach to addressing the issue, the ministry expplained.

It has been working with the ILO which provides financial and technical support, revision of laws and policies and training for the inspectorate.

The ministry has recently launched a yearlong campaign of awareness initiatives targeting citizens and stakeholders, along with the development of a national action plan for child labour.

The national action plan, it said, was not just a labour issue but a multi-dimensional one which included human rights issues, education issues, health issues and social issues.

The ministry said, “A national steering committee was established for the prevention and elimination of child labour comprised of technical experts from organisations across government, civil society and academia with responsibility for the protection of the rights of children.It will oversee research on the issue to guide the development of a national child labour policy and action plan.

“Currently, TT lacks up to date and reliable data on the child labour situation. The steering committee will oversee research on the issue which will guide the development of a child labour policy.”

Other initiatives by the ministry included media campaigns; collaborations with the Ministry of National Security Counter Trafficking Unit to combat human trafficking, child labour, forced labour and labour exploitation; and partnerships with the Children’s Authority, the Tobago House of Assembly and the Ministry of Education’s student support services division for monitoring, reporting and investigating incidents.

The Children’s Act part 16, Section 105 states that parents and employers can be fined up to $25,000 – and three years' imprisonment if found guilty of child labour.

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"Ministry: Child labour cases on increase in pandemic"

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