x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Child labour remains problem in the Arab world, says report

UN monitors warn that patchy data leave policymakers struggling against a problem that sees young people exposed to toxic chemicals on farms and life-threatening machinery.

NEW YORK // From shoeshine boys on the streets of Sana'a to underage labourers on Egyptian farms, a new UN report warns of significant levels of child labour in the Arab world and a lack of effective monitoring to tackle abuses. Child labour monitors warn that patchy data leave Arab policymakers struggling against a problem that sees young people exposed to toxic agricultural chemicals on farms and life-threatening machinery in factories and workshops.

The UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO) presents an estimate of 13.4 million child labourers - about 15 per cent of the region's junior population - but fears the real figure could be much higher because many work off the books. "Take Egypt as an example; it is visible to any visitor to the country that child labour is a problem. You can see it on the surface - but that doesn't give a basis for planning," said Frank Hagemann, the ILO's policy chief on child labour.

"We need to know where these kids work, how many hours they work, what dangers they are exposed to, the socioeconomic backgrounds of their households and whether they are working while also going to school." The new ILO report, Accelerating Action Against Child Labour, describes Arab officials embracing policy shifts and signing up to the global labour treaties in recent years after traditionally viewing child labour concerns with "indifference or a degree of scepticism".

The absence of "recent estimates on the extent of child labour in the region" means policymaking is little more guesswork, the 81-page document said. The release of Jordan's first child labour study this year was considered a regional breakthrough. The report revealed a "very low incidence rate" of child labour in Jordan - affecting 30,000 children, or 1.6 per cent of the child population, Mr Hagemann said. Officials hope to declare Jordan child labour a thing of the past within the next five years. The ILO is now focused on what Mr Hagemann describes as countries needing "priority attention" - Egypt and Yemen - where reports are due next year. The studies are expected to reveal "significantly higher" child labour rates than Jordan, with youngsters toiling on farms, in factories and as street vendors, he added. A fourth study is being developed for Syria, where labour officials fear widespread abuses. Even when data have been collected, UN officials expect they will still have little information on how many children are forced to work in the black market, in illegal sectors such as the drugs trade or those trafficked as sex workers. The recent conflict between Houthi rebels and government troops in northern Yemen has exacerbated the country's child labour problems, said the ILO's regional deputy director, Maurizio Bussi. Natural disasters and conflict typical push families deeper into poverty and to rely on children to make ends meet. "There is no parent in the world who wants their children to work," Mr Bussi said. "They work because they need to complement or supplement family income. So, in principle, if parents have better incomes, I think they would be happy for their children to go to school." jreinl@thenational.ae