Risks of Employing Schoolchildren


The global pandemic followed by the unprecedented economic collapse and now a new phenomenon; the Sri Lankan Government deciding to call for the labour of school children in the milieu, where even the most senior and the experienced labour force is facing the severe threat of losing their jobs.

Sri Lanka has decided to ratify International Labour Organization Convention 138 on the minimum age for employment, which has sufficient legislation for the eradication of child engagement in labour, ‘hazardous’ or otherwise; to link the minimum age for admission to employment or work with the age of completion of compulsory schooling, thereby raising the minimum age of employment from 14 to 16 years.

Further, for the purpose of employment of young persons, the definition of a ‘young person’ has been amended to be a person who has attained the age of 16 but is under the age of 18, whereas ‘children’ are defined to be persons who are under 16.

Accordingly, the government recently introduced a revised set of laws and regulations by passing four Bills in Parliament on 5 January 2021, with the view of implementing the above amendments to the following four Acts connected to the area of employment and labour.

Hazardous work

Accordingly, although a child over 16 could be employed, it is not possible to employ her/him for hazardous work. Government has also issued a list of hazardous occupations/activities where employment of young persons is prohibited. Employment of young persons at night is also prohibited.

The Government has compiled a list of hazardous job activities that includes 52 occupations and/or working conditions in which employing children under 18 is prohibited.

A regulation made by the Minister of Labour Relations and Productivity Improvement in Sri Lanka, under section 31 read, with section 20A of the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act, No. 47 of 1956, in accordance with the guidelines specified in section 20A of that Act, provides a list of hazardous occupations prohibited for children under 18 years.

These include slaughtering of animals; manufacture or use of pesticides; production, transport or sale of alcohol; work in liquor bar or casino; manufacturing, transport or sale of explosives; fishing in deep waters; mining or underground work; transportation of passengers or heavy goods; diving; and working at night between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

However, since domestic labour was not considered a dangerous occupation, it is still possible to employ a child over 16 years of age. According to the new amendments, the focus is on designating domestic labour as a dangerous occupation.

Accordingly, if a child is to be employed as a domestic in the future, he or she must have completed 18 years. The ‘hazardous work activities list’ which currently includes 52 occupations, is expected to increase it to 76 with the new amendment

Though this amendment allows school children over 16 to participate in a ‘work week’ with four hours of training per day in the private sector as a skill development, we should probe under which grounds this was implemented.

Already, children are leaving school because of the economic downfall since the Easter Sunday attack followed by Covid-19. We all know that school hours have been continuously curtailed or abandoned.

Surplus of labour in the job market

In the background where even the most senior and experienced employees including those who are self-employed are under the threat of losing their jobs due to the ongoing economic crisis and when labour of school children is being channelled to the labour market. further creates a surplus of labour in the job market. It will affect the ‘price structure’ of the system. And obviously the seniors and those who are already in employment for years will undergo job losses.

Child Safety

As we all know, there have been many reports of people dying in factories on various occasions. There are a number of Trade Unions in the private sector which claim that many incidents of that magnitude, go unnoticed or unreported.  In the circumstances, it appears that releasing the children to the labour world has not yet been the hot topic to those who freely express their opinions on social media, but it must be clearly outlined that the social column which has not yet even presented an injustice such as a police complaint, let alone social media, would have to encounter a grave social injustice.

Relevance of the amendment with our Education System

Generally, in low-income groups and families hard hit by the economic crisis, there is a tradition where children contribute economically along with the prime breadwinner. In such cases, this hinders the formal schooling of the children, but it is good from the point of view of getting used to the world since we have often seen how the lower middle class confine their children to only textbooks.

Children should be sent for training on selected professions under the supervision of the Ministry of Education, with their safety in mind.

On the other hand, as per our national education system, one should do not forget the fact that when a child does not do well in her/his exam, she/he will thereafter have to spend on extra classes and undergo a tiresome educational life. This being the culture, it is questionable as to how the child could manage both work and education if they choose to stay in school or continue studies.

In the western countries, there are systems in place to provide protection to children, under certain conditions. It is noteworthy of mention that the greatest asset in the US is the provision for ‘student debt’ which coincidentally has the biggest economic impact in the US and this kind of student-income earning mechanism have been introduced, enabling them to service loans.

Labour Department

When Ceylon Today contacted the Commissioner General of the Labour, B. K. Prabath Chandrakeerthi, he confirmed that in the midst of many challenges they will ensure that their labour rights are duly protected.

“There is no legal provision to provide transportation facilities to these children, but under the Labour Laws we will take measures to ensure their labour rights are secured. If they have any complaints and go through any uncomfortable situation they can make a complaint via our official website or the District labour office. If they have a general complaint, they can make it anonymously and we can carry out a probe on the said company against which the complaint is made. If they have complaints about something personal and cannot therefore openly make an official complaint, such complaints too would be entertained with confidentiality during the probing process,” he added.

National Child Protection Authority (NCPA)

To look further into this situation, Ceylon Today spoke to NCPA Chairman Chanaka Udyakumara Amarasinghe who explained the legal situation with regard to recruiting children.

“According to our law, a person below the age of 16 cannot be employed in the labour force. It has been made illegal. Earlier, the minimum age for employment was 14 years, which has now been amended to 16 years. There is a certain set of jobs that has been prohibited for those between 16 and 18 years; we call them ‘hazardous work’. This job category includes work such as factory work and even household work.”

Further reference: Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act No 47 of 1956 (Extraordinary Gazette, No. 2254/35 – Thursday, November 18, 2021)

He underscored that when it comes to the issue of children’s protection (child labour) in workplace, there are different types of risks that need to be identified.

He described that one of the main issues is the possibility of accidents in the workplace, which he said is likely regardless of whether the recruitment of the child is legal or illegal. In any case, the employer has a responsibility to ensure the child’s safety, according to him. Hindrance to children’s development, especially education, was also highlighted as another key issue in this regard. The third major issue he pointed out, was the possibility of various harassments such as physical and sexual harassments and exploitation of labour.

However, child labour related risks exist more in the informal sector where there is factory and construction work than in the formal sector which pays more attention to employees’ safety, it was explained.

Amarasinghe emphasised that these are some of the pressing issues the NCPA looks into, adding that the NCPA can be contacted via 1929 to report child rights related matters.

In response to a question, he pointed out the importance of raising awareness, adding that in addition to the NCPA’s district and divisional officials, there are other authorities who have been entrusted with that task, such as the Probation Department’s Children Rights Promotion Officer. ‘What’ s more’, he said, it is one of the duties of the NCPA, as per the NCPA Act No 50 of 1998.

“Not only the NCPA; there are other officials who raise awareness,” he stressed, adding that being safe from exploitation of labour is a child’s right.

When asked whether there is a system to monitor working children (between 16 and 18), Amarasinghe said there are practical difficulties in doing that, due to the fact that gathering data/information from the informal sector is an arduous task.

“When it comes to the formal sector, we can even check whether the employers have paid Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and Employees Trust Fund (ETF). However, there are issues, mostly in the informal sector that includes workplaces such as garages, roof tile manufacturers, brick manufacturers and animal farms. Child labour exists mostly in this sector. When it comes to household work, it should be a must for employers to provide/register details (of child workers). In addition, workers do not have proper contracts specifying their working conditions such as the contract period. In most cases, workers (in the informal sector) work for a daily wage. Sri Lanka’s child labour situation is comparatively better than other South Asian countries. Many assume that with the economic crisis, children can start working more.”

Speaking further of challenges in gathering data/information, Amarasinghe said, generally, adequate data/information does not come from the informal sector. To address the issue of lack of data/information, he noted, a nationwide survey could be conducted. He observed that however, even in that case, those who have recruited children illegally would try to hide it.

Moreover, Amarasinghe opined that the process of allowing school children to engage in part-time employment should be streamlined by the authorities of both labour and education sectors, for it to be a success.

When implementing such a proposal, he suggested, it would be better to implement it in collaboration with the education sector to prevent disruption to children’s education. Adding that there should be awareness-raising efforts to educate children, he said, it is necessary to assure children’s education health and safety. He pointed out that the failure to raise awareness would result in more children giving up school, to join the workforce.

He emphasised that this endeavour is a collective effort.

Shop and Office Employees (Regulation of Employment and Remuneration) Act No 19 of 1954

Salient Provision:

A person who has attained 14 years-of-age, but is under 18 years of age, shall be employed in or about the business of a shop or office as per the regulations set out in the Act. (Section 10)

Amendment: [Certified on 18th of January, 2021]

Section 10 of the Act has been amended to increase the employable age from 14 years to 16 years-of-age. (Clause 2 of the Bill)

Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children Act No 47 of 1956

Salient Provision:

A ‘young person’ is described as a person who has attained the age of 14 years but is under the age of 18 years of age, whereas a ‘child’ is described as a person under the age of 14years. (Section 34)

Amendment: (Certified on 18th of January, 2021)

Section 34 of the Act has been amended to describe a ‘young person’ as a person between the ages of 16 and 18, thereby increasing the minimum age of employment of ‘young persons’ to 16 years of age.

A ‘child’ is described to be a person under the age of 16, and the age of a person attending elementary school also has been amended to be increased to 16 years of age. (Clause 7 of the Bill)

Accordingly, Section 3, Section 9, and Section 20 of the principle enactment have been amended to be on par with the above new definitions of a ‘young person’ and a ‘child’.

Principal Enactment: Factories Ordinance (Chapter 128) No 45 of 1942

Salient Provision:

A ‘young person’ is described as a person who has attained the age of 14 and has not attained the age of 18. (Section 127 of the Act)

Amendment: (SEPTEMBER 27, 2019)

Section 127 of the Act has been amended to describe a ‘young person’ as a person between the ages of 16 and 18, thereby increasing the minimum age of employment of ‘young persons’ to 16 years. (Clause 7 of the Bill)

Any reference to ‘young persons’ would now mean ‘all persons who had not attained the age of 18’; Sections 68, 78 and 86 have been amended accordingly.

Principal Enactment: Factories Ordinance (Chapter 128) No 45 of 1942

Salient Provision:

The hours of employment in the case of a young person depends on the age category they fall into: those who have attained the age of 16 shall not exceed 12 hours (between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.), and those who have attained the age of 18, hours of employment shall not end later than 8 p.m. while the hours shall end by 1 p.m., on one day in the week. Section 67(b) of the Act)

Amendment: (SEPTEMBER 27, 2019)

The amendment to Section 67 has been made to broaden the choice of hours which a ‘young person’ could work within a day. Accordingly, the period of employment of a young person shall not exceed 12 hours in any day (between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.), and on one day in the week, hours shall end by 1 p.m. (Clause 2 of the Bill)

Principal Enactment: Minimum Wages (Indian Labour) Ordinance No 27 of 1927

Salient Provision:

 The employable age to work in estates is for persons who have attained the age of 14. (Section 4 of the Act)

Amendment: [Certified on 18th of January, 2021]

Section 47 of the Act has been amended to increase the employable age from 14 years to 16 years of age. (Clause 2 of the Bill)

Principal Enactment: Minimum Wages (Indian Labour) Ordinance No 27 of 1927

Salient Provision:

An able-bodied unskilled female labourer above the age of 15 years is entitled to minimum rates of wages. (Section 4 of the Act)

Amendment: [Certified on 18th of January, 2021]

Section 18 of the Act has been amended to increase the age limit of female labourers to 16 years in respect of payment of minimum rates of wages. (Clause 4 of the Bill)

Note: The public can contact the NCPA via the hotline 1929 or the 1929 child protection app to inform of the recruitment of children less than 16 years, and the recruitment of children between 16 and 18 years for dangerous or unsafe jobs, and it is the public’s responsibility to do so.

By Nabiya Vaffoor