The ‘World Day Against Child Labour’ is marked this week, with yesterday being the main day. The theme for this year is children as domestic workers. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) is the chief organiser of the day, which has been observed since 2002. Other UN agencies, international and local NGOs join in.

Sadly, the subcontinent is not doing well at all and it will take time to end child labour. It seems to be part and parcel of the culture and mindset. Often, child labour is normal as adult labour - and as long working days.

Pakistan is a signatory to the international conventions on child labour, including the comprehensive ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child’. Its constitution prohibits slavery, forced labour and child labour. No child below the age of 14 is allowed to work and there are also restrictions on the type of work for adolescents up to the age of 18. The ILO gives particular attention to eliminating the “worst forms of child labour”, notably dangerous and hazardous work, mostly in factories, and work for long hours in brick making kilns, on farms and so on, which hamper a child’s health, development and well being.

Housework is not the most dangerous type of work, although it can be. In Islamabad, the wealthiest city in the country, some surveys have estimated that over 20 percent of households have children working in their homes, sometimes as young as 10, or even younger. These children may come from remote areas or be particularly disadvantaged, perhaps, with some mental or physical handicap, belonging to a minority group, or simply being very poor.

The employers may find ways of rationalising why they employ them; yes, to such an extent that they believe it themselves. They may think that they are helping the children, not exploiting them. Few of these children go to school, or are given opportunities to associate with other children. Many are sexually exploited and traumatised for the rest of their lives. Payment is meagre and usually given to their real guardians, who are often so poor that they find no other way of survival than to sell the child’s labour.

This indicates that the main cause of child labour is poverty, and the associated culture and traditions. It is estimated that worldwide more than 200-300 million children are working; more than 130 million are in South East Asia. Figures are just estimates, of course, since it is impossible to collect accurate information. In Pakistan, it is estimated that there are three to four million child workers, but again, figures are inaccurate.

And then, Pakistanis are not bad people! No, I’d say the opposite. Pakistanis are kinder than most people. Yet, the class differences and inequalities are large and seem to be accepted. Many Pakistanis, who belong to the upper strata of the society, seems to consider themselves above the rest, closing their eyes to injustices.

The acceptance of child labour - yes, because we accept it unwittingly or secretly - has to do with our mindset and values. If we really believe in our own values and what the holy books teach us, we know that all human beings are equal. Hence, a poor child is as valuable as a rich child. Then, we would certainly not allow child labour. Similarly, we would speak up against so many other social, gender and human rights abuses.

In Norway, it was some generations ago common for many young boys from the age of only 14 or 15 to take jobs on ships, carrying out hard and often dangerous work in entirely male communities. It was justified by parents - well, fathers and uncles - not least for slightly delinquent boys, who would then be disciplined, grow up and become men, as it were. Boys were also sent to work on farms with no labour regulations, as for working hours. Girls were sent to work as maids in wealthier houses in the city or in rural areas. Some were sent to work in factories. Many poor men joined the police. Since there is conscription in Norway, not a professional army, very few could find military employment.

Today, child labour does not exist at all in Norway. Furthermore, it has had compulsory primary education for over 200 years, from the age of 7-14 (and today, 6-16, plus free but not compulsory three additional years either in school or apprenticeship). It has always been common that children help their parents with farm work, fishing and housework, or they do jobs as errand and newspaper boys, weed vegetables, pick berries and so on, and girls do babysitting. This is not considered child labour, although it may sometimes keep children from play and games.

Today, as the Westerners are so righteous, we should not sweep this history under the carpet. We should also take a look at the way schooling is taking up more and more time. In our competitive world, children go to school the whole day, and sometimes, they have additional tuition classes till late at night. This can be as bad as many forms of child labour, especially for children who are not bookish.

Education should be compulsory, but it should be child-friendly, and there should be time for play and games. As children grow older, they can help their parents at work. In Pakistan, we should build on positive experiences in these fields and develop systematic school-work programmes. All children wish to help their parents and be part of the adult world, not just be pupils, learning for a distant future.

Social workers are better than teachers to be watchdogs against child labour and they should work with labour unions, and international and local organisations have major roles in advocacy. As always, it is the governments that are responsible for implementing rules and regulations. In a country with high unemployment, more youth and adults should be employed, not children.

Yet, child labour will not end any time soon. The worst forms of child labour should be eliminated immediately. Child labour will only end when awareness has increased and when poverty has decreased. It will end when we have compulsory universal primary education, and when guardians and employers of children are taken to court if they hire them. Child labour will end when it becomes shameful for adults to use underage children for labour.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.