x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Illegal child labour still a problem for Jordan

The number of underage workers reaches 33,000 as employers take advantage of young people's desire to help their families.

Eyad Shaaban, 14, is one of many teenage workers whose employers are breaking the law in Jordan.
Eyad Shaaban, 14, is one of many teenage workers whose employers are breaking the law in Jordan.

AMMAN // Eyad Shaaban's hands and face are greasy. He is lying underneath a vehicle fixing a tyre in a car repair shop on the outskirts of Amman. "I have been working for the past two years. I quit school because I wanted to help my family," said Eyad, who is 14 Eyad earns US$50 (Dh183) a week, and for a family of nine including his parents, every penny counts. "I give all the money that I make to my father." While most teenagers his age go to school, Eyad works from 9am to 5.30pm six days a week. For nearly 33,000 children, child labour is a fact of life in Jordan, a 2007-2008 survey by the department of statistics showed. Children, mostly males between five and 17, take up jobs in repair shops, agriculture and construction, or work as blacksmiths, carpenters and rubbish collectors. They are often exploited, paid low wages and are at risk of injury from heavy machinery, noise pollution, poor lighting and exposure to chemicals. Under Jordanian law, including international child conventions the country has ratified, children under 16 are not allowed to work; the age limit is 18 for those taking hazardous jobs that involve exposure to chemicals. Employers caught violating the law by hiring underage children, or forcing those over 16 to work more than six hours a day without a break, face fines that range from 100 dinars to 500 dinars (Dh520 to 2,600) and are doubled if they are repeated. According to a survey by the ministry of labour on the worst forms of child labour, published in December 2006, 13 per cent of 387 children were subjected to conditions that put their physical and mental health at risk. More than 16 per cent earned just $15 to $75 a month, well below the national minimum wage. The minimum wage was raised this year to $210 from $155 a month. Child labour in Jordan is so worrying that Queen Rania took a public stance against it last month saying the statistics are unacceptable. "This is a big challenge that should be dealt with in a firm manner." But part of the problem is lax enforcement, including those laws that stipulate children should attend school until grade 10, or age 15. Last year it was estimated that four in 1,000 children left school early. Economic hardship is another contributor. In a country of nearly six million citizens, 14.7 per cent live in poverty, earning less than US$800 a year. "Two-thirds of students drop out of school because they want to help their families out," said Hussein al Khozahe, a sociologist and an expert in developmental studies at the Al Balqa Applied University. "The vast majority of the workforce in Jordan earns less than $450 a month. Even with $900 one can hardly maintain an acceptable living standard." On average, children work 42 hours a week mostly to support their families, the government survey said. It is also a common sight to see children working as street vendors and fruit and vegetable pickers. At times, children scavenge from dumps looking for metal scraps they can sell. "I have been working for a year helping people out by carrying vegetables to their cars," said Rashed, 10, who works so that he can contribute to the family income. Most days, after school and on holidays, he rushes to a nearby vegetable market and carries plastic bags full of fruit and vegetables to customers' cars, seemingly untroubled by the heavy weight. He earns about $7 a day from thankful customers. Jordan has intensified its efforts to fight child labour, ranging from establishing a child labour unit, created in 2001 to monitor the situation of children employed, to adopting a 10-year national plan in 2004 that seeks to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by the end of 2013 and cut down on the number of children under 16 working. The government is also making efforts to rehabilitate child labourers between nine and 17 years under a four-year, US$4-million, US government-funded development initiative that began in late 2008. The Combating Exploitive Child Labour through Education (CECLE) initiative is implemented by the CHF International and Questscope Fund for Social Development, a British non-governmental organisation operating in the field of social development, the National Council for Family Affairs and the ministry of labour. "We aim to withdraw 4,000 children from the worst forms of child labour that include more than six hours of work a day in jobs that are physically draining and that subject children to psychological abuse that hinders their future development. It also deprives children of education. We also want to prevent another 4,000 from getting involved in exploitive labour, particularly those who live in heavily populated industrial areas," said Salma Atiyeh, the programme director of CECLE. "We want to help eliminate child labour through education and provide other supportive activities to children who are involved or at risk of becoming involved in child labour. "For example, if a 13-year-old child quits school for one year, we can re-enrol him in formal education. But for those who skipped school for three years and are exploited by their employers, they are provided with non-formal education which includes maths and Arabic and ensures that they socialise with their peers because they have been out of touch." The challenge, however, is to keep the children in the programme, Ms Atiyeh said. "Children do not work because they want to. It is because they are in need and they want to support their families. There are children who are responsible for their brothers and sisters. Therefore, we are trying to engage the private sector … and we need the support of all government agencies concerned and their co-ordination is greatly needed to ensure the sustainability of this initiative." smaayeh@thenational.ae