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Suffer the children: Laos does little to tackle child labor

Many parents see little point in educating their children as schooling is not required for menial tasks and agricultural work

James Lovelock, Vientiane

James Lovelock, Vientiane

Published: June 14, 2021 03:54 AM GMT

Updated: June 14, 2021 03:57 AM GMT

Suffer the children: Laos does little to tackle child labor

An ethnic Hmong woman and two children work on a coffee plantation in Houaphanh province, eastern Laos. (Photo: AFP)

By some estimates, more than a quarter of children aged 5-17 are forced by necessity to work across the impoverished hinterland of rugged terrain in the communist nation of Laos. 

Numerous children continue to be deprived of the joys of childhood while also missing out on an education that could help them improve their lot later in life.

Ask the country’s prime minister, though, and he may simply shrug his shoulders at this sorry state of affairs. At least so it seems as Phankham Viphavanh downplayed concerns about child labor during a recent speech.

“It’s important to understand the context of child labor and why the prohibition of child labor has been encouraged by the international community,” Phankham said. “However, it’s impossible to absolutely prohibit children from working.”

Although it’s against the law in Laos to employ children under the age of 14, numerous youngsters of primary school age have abandoned their studies to work and help their families.

Lao law also makes it illegal to force children to work for more than 18 hours a day and to employ them in jobs, such as construction, mining and work with hazardous materials, which can be harmful to their physical and mental health.

Due to atrocious working conditions, these children are more susceptible to disease and illnesses

Yet officials often turn a blind eye when children are employed in full-time work, whether at home or elsewhere.

Most of the minors who need to work full time perform agricultural tasks on family farms and engage in fishing as well as hunting and gathering in forests across the impoverished countryside, according to experts. Yet many other children need to earn a living, however meager, by working in manufacturing and other industries.

Seven out of 10 children who work need to do so for more than 49 hours a week, which leaves them with no time to attend school, according to studies.

“Due to atrocious working conditions, these children are more susceptible to disease and illnesses,” explains Humanium, a Geneva-based group advocating for the rights of children worldwide.

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“Furthermore, in order to avoid such arduous forms of physical labor, some children proceed to work in bars and from there they move on to prostitution.”

Prime Minister Phankham cited a low level of development in the communist nation of 7 million as the main reason for the need felt by many parents to rely on their children to help out at home rather than attend school.

In addition, many parents in rural households see little point in educating their children as schooling is not required for menial tasks and agricultural work in a country where more than half the population live below the poverty line.

However, a lack of education condemns many of these children to a lifetime of poverty with few opportunities available for them outside their villages. Poverty and a lack of education also expose many youngsters in Laos to various forms of exploitation.

“Many children in Laos are victims of physical and sexual abuse. Such abuse can take place in the family circle and has detrimental consequences for children. A recent study has shown that nearly half of street children in Laos ran away from home because they were subjected to domestic violence,” Humanium says.

“Sexual tourism is another form of abuse that is commonly prevalent in Laos. Many children are bought by Thai or Chinese procurers to supply sex networks. These children are often imprisoned in brothels or used for pornographic purposes. They live in insalubrious conditions with little food and water and are often ill-treated by the procurers.”

Especially at risk of being trafficked in the mountainous nation are children from marginalized and impoverished communities of ethnic minorities

Over the years, numerous teenage girls and women in their early 20s from Laos have been trafficked into neighboring China under false pretenses to work in brothels or become brides.

Especially at risk of being trafficked in the mountainous nation are children from marginalized and impoverished communities of ethnic minorities, or so-called hill tribes. These youngsters often lack basic understanding of the world outside their villages, which makes them particularly vulnerable to being tricked and exploited.

This sorry situation will continue until Lao authorities begin to do more to ensure that no child in the country is forced by necessity to drop out of school in order to work.

Sadly, however, as the communist government has failed to lift millions of locals out of poverty over the decades, many more children will find themselves out of school and at work at an age when they should be having the time of their life. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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