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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 09:20 GMT 10:20 UK
Rough ride for Pakistan's boy-mechanics
By Sohail Ahmed in Peshawar

Six-year-old Rashid says the future is bright.

Boy repairs axle
Nimble fingers make light work: 5,000 children fix cars in Peshawar

He works in Shoba bazaar in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, an open-air marketplace teeming with thousands of cars, workshops and mechanics.

Rashid's job is to repair dents in the cars.

His father is dead and he is the sole breadwinner in his family.

There are estimated to be another 5,000 children like him, fixing motors in workshops across Peshawar.

Untroubled by the greasy hands and the tough treatment that come with the job, Rashid remains optimistic - he believes he will go far with the repair skills he has learned in the bazaar.

"My mother says that you are poor and have no right to an education, because you have to feed your two sisters," Rashid says.

The average weekly wage for Rashid and the other children like him, working in Peshawar's 3,000-odd car workshops, is roughly 70 cents, according to the International Labour Organisation.

Wages were never good

It is no secret that child labour is widespread in Pakistan.

The country may have signed and ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, article 32 of which protects children from employment which is hazardous or hampers their education. But these laws have not been enforced.

For many poverty-stricken families, sending the children to work makes more sense than schooling them.

"We can't refuse parents who bring these children because of their poverty. And we are imparting skills to them, free of cost," said Raja, an employer at the market.

Qaiser, a motor mechanic who has taught many youngsters the trade, sees no reason for paying them better.

Vehicles await repair in Shoba bazaar
A schoolroom for some: Shoba bazaar has 3,000 motor workshops

"We have worked for 15 years without a decent wage ourselves. Why should we offer a better wage to the children?"

The North West Frontier Province (NWFP), of which Peshawar is the capital, is one of the least developed parts of Pakistan.

Eighteen million people live there, making up roughly 13% of Pakistan's total population.

The province also has a disproportionate amount of child labourers - at least one million, or nearly a third of the Pakistani total.

And these census figures do not take into account several tribal regions such as Malakand, or the province's Afghan refugees, who number over 2.5m.

Persistent poverty

Zakir, 15, came to Peshawar from the tribal belt at the age of seven to learn to work as a motor mechanic.

He now helps feed his family and his divorced mother.

16-year-old Zarif is also supplementing the family income. "I came to this market some six years ago to become an engine expert. Now I have learnt a lot and can open an engine for repair."

A survey conducted in 1996 by the national government found that two-thirds of those people younger than 15 years old were economically active.

Boys fix Toyota engine
The authorities say there will soon be raids on the workshops

In real terms, this means that out of 60m children in Pakistan, 40m work for a living.

Auto-mechanic Naseer says labour inspectors used to raid the workshops to inquire about child workers, but most employers managed to hide them.

"Why should we expose these children to labour inspectors, when their parents put them in auto-workshops because of poverty?" asked Naseer.

An official from the provincial Labour Department said there were few economic incentives to lure children away from labour.

"We have been concentrating on making these children aware of the hazards of labour - but their main problem is poverty, and the government has limited resources to offer alternatives to child labour," he said.

He added that the government was planning to launch a survey next year, at a cost of 1.8m rupees, which would look into the size of the child labour problem.

Law minister Malik Zafar Azam said a government appointed commission to review child labour would also order raids on workplaces which employ children.

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