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It isn’t child labour when …

There is a clear line between engaging young workers to do light duties and exploiting them.

Youngsters who help their parents to manage makeshift stalls at the side of roads or night markets are learning about the real world and in the process acquire skills which might come in handy.

The abuse begins when they become the sole breadwinners or carry out “difficult, dangerous and dirty” (3D) jobs to supplement their family incomes.

That is the message from union leaders and the head of an employers’ organisation in Peninsular Malaysia.

The issue of working youngsters came under the spotlight when Parliament recently passed the Bill of the Children and Young Persons (Employment) (Amendment) Act 2010 which seeks to change the current legislation, 13 years after Malaysia ratified the Minimum Age Convention (C138) in 1997.

Malaysia’s Children and Young Persons (Employment) Act 1966 (CYP Act) — which only applies to the states of Peninsular Malaysia — allows children and young persons to do “light work” in family enterprises and licensed public entertainment establishments besides engaging in approved internships and apprenticeships and government-sponsored work.

The East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak have similar Acts.

Some economic activities performed by children and young persons are good for their development, says A. Navamukundan, National Union of Plantation Workers’ national executive secretary, who speaks from personal knowledge.

He fondly recalls his childhood on a rubber estate in Negeri Sembilan during the 1950s.

Households on the estate had to grow their own food under the British colonial government’s food control policy, a measure adopted during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

As children Navamukundan and his siblings helped their parents to raise cattle and poultry as well as tend the family’s vegetable plot.

“Was there some value of work? Yes, everybody in the household contributed to the food supply. The combined cash income that our parents got as plantation workers went towards paying our education. Our parents used their wages to send us to an English school and in those days that was a big deal,” says Navamukundan.

Navamukundan and his siblings (“there were 10 of us”) did not feel that their parents had taken advantage of them.

In fact, they learned a lot about agriculture and the benefit of staying together.

He describes the experience as “family solidarity” and that was “our strength”.

And this cooperation was not peculiar to Navamukundan’s family. His neighbours also worked together towards a shared aim.

However, this “quality of family solidarity no longer exists in Malaysian society and young people today are not aware of the realities of life” of the time.

Malaysian Employers Federation president Shamsuddin Bardan makes a similar point when he refutes the suggestion that child labour exists in Peninsular Malaysia.

Young Malaysians who lend a helping hand to their parents are doing just that — assisting the family to manage an entrepreneurial activity for the benefit of everyone.

“It is not child labour because the parents are not making use of their children for profit. It is for the family,” Shamsuddin says.

“They are training the young ones to understand the world of work and the value of hard work. The whole purpose of the exercise is to turn their children into better persons.”

The Malaysian Trades Union Congress has no problem with children working but they should not do it at the cost of their education.

“Parents should not tell their children to drop out of school to help them in the plantations, for example,” says MTUC secretary general G. Rajasekaran.

“By taking them to the plantations they are actually encouraging their children to stop schooling at the age of 10 or 12. Parents should think about their children’s future,” he says.

Rajasekaran, Navamukundan and Shamsuddin, are united in their observation that Peninsular Malaysia does not have the kind of child labour situation seen in other countries.

Just because there are no reported cases of child labour in Peninsular Malaysia doesn’t mean we are free of it.

It may well be that labour inspections have not been thorough.

See also When work is child’s play.

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