Factory collapse in Sundar industrial area on the outskirts of Lahore exposed the issue of widespread child labour in Pakistan. The tragic incident left 19 underage boys among 48 dead and nearly half of the 100 injured. Reading complete list of dead and the injured gives you the full picture and it is alarming. The youngest to die in the tragedy was a 12-year-old child. Most of the trapped workers age was between 13 years to 19 years old. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers contribute to their families’ income by doing laborious jobs in factories and mills. We have just seen tip of the iceberg.

Teenagers doing odd jobs to earn money for themselves or to contribute to families income is something that is not new in any society of the world. Whether it is developed country like Japan, USA or UK or countries like Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia teenagers and even children work but after attending school. They help their parent or do odd jobs in the neighbourhood. However, there is very little exploitation. In our country children and teenagers work but most of them have never gone to school or started working after completing four or five grades (primary education). The situation can be reversed if the government changes its priorities. The fact remains that development has always been priority of our governments but never development of human resources. We have failed to build our human capital or invest in our people. The countries of the Pacific Rim realised this factor and have made great strides in progress and development mainly due to investing on people rather than just going for development projects. The Asian tigers all built their economies by building human resource capital.

The factory collapse made headlines in media for some days but the agony of the teenagers will soon be forgotten. Five years ago in 2010 a 12-year-old maid Shazia was killed after torture by the employers. It made headlines for some days. Civil society came out to protest.

There was demand for legislation and punishment to the guilty. Till now no legislation has been made nor was anyone punished. Thousands of such cases have been reported but all in vain. It is hard to ban child labour, as it is too deep rooted in our society. The need is to regulate things to ensure that there is no exploitation. For example the young boys who were working at the factory were reportedly paid Rs 200 on daily wage basis while the other factory workers were paid a better amount. Daily wagers (adults) usually get paid Rs 500 per day for 10 to 12 hours shift.

There have been campaigns like ‘Declare an education emergency’ in the country by some NGOs. There has been a lot of rhetoric from politicians in every era whether it was Musharraf’s rule or democratic governments after his rule that World Bank is helping in the education sector. Now DFID programme of UK is also in place. But unfortunately the trickle down has not reached the masses. There are 65,000 government sector schools in Punjab but the government instead of improving their infrastructure embarked on making new schools under the banner of Danish schools.

The question arises that even if government provides facilities for education the poor would still prefer to work to run the kitchens of their houses. We don’t have a proper social security system for the citizens of Pakistan. Nor there is any plan to introduce one in the country. So if you are jobless there is no mechanism due to which you could feed yourself or your family. If a woman becomes a widow she is provided money by the government to take care of herself and her family. The amount of money that is given after recommendation by the Chairman Zakat Committee of the area may come as a shock to many. She is given Rs 500 monthly from the Zakat fund. Imagine feeding a family with the same amount. The widow if not educated will be forced to do odd jobs in others houses and she will never have her children study in school. They would all be working to earn money for food and modest living.

Then we have Employees Old-Age Benefit Institution in Pakistan. The number of EOBI’s registered pensioners is 525,000 but there are only 360,000 people who regularly receive their pensions. The minimum pension is Rs 5,250. Imagine after completing your service surviving on this amount for your food and accommodation. You will have to pay all your utility bills from this amount. It is a scary scenario but it is happening in Pakistan. One can see the priority of current government and all the governments in the past. The stress is on development and showcasing that development while the general masses continue to suffer.

In the end there is need to go back to the factory collapse incident. All the children and teenagers, who were killed or injured, were working on daily wage basis. This means that they were not registered with EOBI. They had no insurance nor were being given any benefit under the labour laws of the land. They will not have access to any psychologist to overcome the trauma they went into. For example take the case of 18-year-old Shahid who was recovered from the rubble of the factory after 50 hours. The doctors declared that he was safe and had no major injury. Imagine Shahid breathing under the rubble to stay alive and the nightmares that he may had there. Think how the incident will continue to haunt him for days and weeks ahead. The experience of being buried live under the rubble will be hard to erase from his mind.

In Karachi there is the Sindh Building Control Authority. In Lahore we have the Lahore Development Authority, whose performance is not satisfactory. Go to any locality of Lahore and you will see construction work going on. LDA inspectors never check the construction work or perhaps there is too much corruption. Whatever the case it is high time the government shows some good governance. The need is to not just to monitor the work of its executing agencies like LDA but also to change priorities for the good of people.