Conflict and poverty forcing more children into labour market

88.3% of child labourers in Jordan are boys; 80% are Jordanians and 14.6% are Syrians.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Narrowing horizons. A boy sells second-hand items in Amman, on June 7.                                                                                                            (Reuters)
Narrowing horizons. A boy sells second-hand items in Amman, on June 7. (Reuters)

AMMAN - UNICEF marked World Day against Child Labour by revealing gruesome figures that put the global number of working children aged 5-17 at 218 million, including 73 million engaged in hazardous jobs.

Protracted conflicts, notably wars in the MENA region, produced large numbers of displaced people with most refugee children having to work to help their families survive.

In Jordan, the number of working children almost doubled since 2007, a figure that swelled significantly with the deterioration of economic conditions in the country and the influx of Syrian refugees in 2011.

Miraj Pradhan, head of communications at UNICEF’s regional office in Amman said there were nearly 76,000 “economically active children in Jordan, including 44,000 employed in hazardous jobs.”

“Most child workers are employed in the wholesale and retail trades, as well as the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries. On average they work more than 33 hours a week. They are exposed to a number of hazards, including dust fumes and exposure to physical and psychological abuse,” Pradhan said.

He pointed out that 88.3% of child labourers in Jordan were boys; 80% are Jordanians and 14.6% are Syrians. The largest number of working children are in Amman, (27,651 children) followed by Irbid in northern Jordan (13,899), Zarqa (9,523) and Balqa (1,952).

Jordanian law states that it is illegal to hire children younger than 16. Business owners are liable to pay financial penalties if they are found to be employing children.

Bassel — not his real name — 12, wanders around the parking lot of a mall in Amman selling homemade Syrian makdous, a healthy Mediterranean vegan experience made of eggplant stuffed with walnuts and dipped in olive oil and Syrian-style labneh (spiced yogurt cheese).

His tired innocent face says it all but his marketing skills are obvious as he explained the products made by his mother to feed the family.

“I am not begging, I am selling,” Bassel said. “My father was killed in Harasta (a north-eastern suburb of Damascus) and we had to escape to Jordan with my mother and five sisters. My mother works to produce these items. Sometimes I sell them all and other times nothing at all.”

Bassel insisted he is “not too young” to work. “We need to live and survive and this is the only way,” he said.

Bassel is just one among the many children forced to enter the labour market out of poverty.

There are many reasons why families might allow their children to work but for most Syrians in Jordan the reason is that they have run out of everything, Pradhan said.

“After more than seven years living as refugees, Syrians have run out of their own money and even people from whom to borrow. All they had, they have spent. Desperate for survival, thousands of families are adopting negative coping mechanisms — cutting on meals, eating poor quality food, dropping their children from school to work/beg and marrying their children early,” he said.

“For most children, 93%, the economic situation of their families is the main reason for working. Other reasons included dropping out of school due to violence and over crowdedness and the distance to school,” Pradhan added.

UNICEF, in collaboration with the International Labour Organisation, has been working with governments to enhance protection for children, both at policy and institutional level. It is focusing on beefing up the capacity of relevant ministries (Ministry of Labour, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Social Development) in supporting vulnerable children affected by child labour, Pradhan noted.

UNICEF’s Hajati programme is supporting the most vulnerable 55,000 Syrian refugee children with $28 per child per month, which is helping families keep their children in school. However, with massive funding shortfall in 2018, UNICEF is finding it increasingly challenging to continue its support.

One-in-five children across the region lives in conflict-affected countries, UNICEF said. In Syria, children risk being questioned at checkpoints while going to exams. The 7-year-long war has forced 2.1 million children out of school. In Yemen about 20% of schools can no longer be used because they are damaged, sheltering displaced families or used for military purposes. In Iraq, half of the schools need rehabilitation after years of fighting and violence.

In the Palestinian territories, more than 8,000 children and 400 teachers need protection to safely reach schools in some areas of the West Bank. In Sudan, students must travel long distances to reach schools. In Lebanon, more than half of all Syrian refugee children do not go to school and are forced to work. In Libya, about 260,000 students have been affected by conflict.