General manager of operations and logistics at Office Authority Ltd in San Juan, Mohan Ramnath has had less than an ideal childhood. One of five children born to parents who were young and very poor, at the age of 12 he was forced to leave school and get a job to help put food on the table – essentially becoming a child labourer.
The International Labour Organisation defines child labour as “work that is mentally, physically, socially or morally dangerous and harmful to children and interferes with their schooling by depriving them of the opportunity to attend school.”
“My first experience with child labour was dealing with a guy who was a contractor doing landscaping,” Ramnath said.
“I worked for him by prepping the place and doing manual work like cleaning and weeding the grass, tilling the soil and all those things. The hours of work was about eight hours and it was hard because you’re out in the sun. But you’re willing to try to do something…because you want to make something.
He said although at that age he felt he had all the energy in the world, the fact remained he was still a child.
“It is tiring…but you will want to do it because you’re trying to prove yourself to be a man at a tender age when you’re still a child.”
Ramnath said he worked for almost a year doing odd jobs and sometimes helping his mother sell soft drinks and food. He said the little income from that made him feel like he was uplifting his family.
“Our situation was such that we didn’t have television, we didn’t have proper furniture in our house, we didn’t have things. So when you feel like you’re making a contribution…you would have felt good in your spirit that you’re doing something for your household.”
Being an ambitious boy, Ramnath always had intentions of getting his education and becoming a police officer. But with this new feeling of accomplishment, he said he temporarily lost sight of the bigger picture.
“The monetary things got my mind thrown off from my dreams of getting my education to achieve what I wanted. But somewhere along the line it kind of struck me that I should be in school, I should be doing something.”
At 13 he decided to return to school at what is now San Fernando East Secondary, but it was easier said than done. Because he had lost a whole year of learning, he had to play catch up. He also had to speak with the vice principal to give him a second chance.
“He said, ‘Why should I give you an opportunity? Is there any difference from you to anybody else?’…and he said, ‘Listen to me, walk with me…So tell me why? Why should I give you a chance?’”
Ramnath said he felt deflated.
“This man didn’t want to give me this opportunity but he made me walk the whole school with him checking all the classes. And he said, ‘Allyuh always doing this thing. Dropping out of school and then want opportunities and want to come back here…If I give you an opportunity you have to come and see me every single day. Make yourself available, I have to see you in this school.'”
Ramnath agreed and tried his best to balance school and the situation at home. After writing the CXC exams he graduated in 1987 with three passes and was presented with the school’s award for the most progressive student. After leaving school he took minimum wage jobs, earning as little as $450 a month. But, he said, it was much more than he had before. With his support system in place, he pursued other O-Level subjects and subsequently attended the Cipriani College of Labour and Co-operative Studies, pushing him up the ladder to the position he holds today, and underscoring the weight of education and the impact it has had on his success.
“I will say to every child, focus on your education. That is the key to coming out of any sort of child labour issues, any sort of poverty. The key is education!”
Now, Ramnath has a family of his own and thanks God, his wife and his employers for helping him to get ahead in life, understand that children belong in school, and giving him the ability to break the cycle of child labour. He said teaching his son the value of education is one of the most important lessons he can ever pass down to him.
Today is World Day Against Child Labour and the theme is Universal Social Protection to End Child Labour. View Mohan Ramnath’s story on the Ministry of Labour website labour.gov.tt and on the ministry’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter platforms.