Lebanon: children get to work early

By Mona Alami

Walid is a wide-eyed boy of 10. His frail figure, of the kind common in such poverty-stricken areas, seems smaller than for a child his age. His hands are covered in dirt and paint. Here, in Ard Jalloul (the land of Jalloul), located in the populous Tarik Jdideh neighbourhood of Beirut, he works as a painter from 8am to 6pm for 7 dollars a day.

Walid is not alone. There are around 100,000 children in Lebanon (population 4 million), including teenagers, who are victims of child labour.

Children roam the streets all hours of the day, and in the darkest hours of night, begging for a few dollars. Those who work are often spotted carrying heavy loads, or delivering groceries, employed by ignorant and unscrupulous individuals.

The statistics on child labour vary from one region to the other. According to figures provided by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), about 35 percent of the youth in the north work, 26 percent in Mount Lebanon, 13 percent in Bekaa, 11 percent in the south, six percent in Nabatieh, and eight percent in Beirut.

Most children are employed in artisan or small workshops (55 percent), with 17 percent in private occupation or self-employment, 14 percent in unskilled labour, and nine percent working with machinery.

Mahmoud, Walid’s Palestinian friend, collects scrap metal. He carries his heavy load back daily to a garage in the vicinity of the Sabra Palestinian camp where he works.

At 14, he’s been employed for two years, earning 50 dollars a week. Mahmoud is more fortunate than his young friend, who takes regular beatings from his employer. “He hits me with a stick or slaps me whenever I make a mistake or I’m too slow at a task,” says Walid. The child says he is forced to work to provide for his family, since his father is bedridden.

“Children are victims of forced labour, illicit trade and sexual abuse, as well as working in hazardous conditions,” says the ILO’s Nabil Watfa, who points out that Lebanon has ratified the ILO convention, which bans child labour.

It is also common for children, and more especially girls, to be “sold” by their parents for a period of time for a lump sum, a practice known as bondage labour. Rasha is one of these teenagers who was forced to leave her village to work as a housemaid in the industrial Aley area. Her “owner”, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the issue, believes that Rasha is fairly treated and enjoys better living conditions than if she had remained at home.

As children and teenagers are much cheaper to hire than adults 18 and over, employers are more inclined to employ under-aged youths in dire economic times. “Child labour is illegal, but because of the rampant poverty we try to regulate employment of teenagers and improve their working conditions,” explains Watfa.

Other than abuse, child labourers also face dangerous working conditions and are often exposed to disease-causing chemicals, like silicoses and asbestos. “We try to target factory inspectors and educate parents about the dangers of child labour,” says Watfa.

Another factor contributing to child labour is high dropout levels. “I left school two years ago. I don’t miss it, as I used to take regular beatings! I prefer my life here,” says Walid, sitting in the Ard Jalloul industrial area surrounded by garbage, car wrecks and bundles of scrap. The 10-year-old admits he is illiterate in spite of his few years at school.

“Child labour can be curtailed by reducing dropout levels as well as introducing remedial education,” explains Wafta. UNICEF education officer Leila Dirani emphasises that although 98 percent of Lebanese children attend school (according to official statistics), some will leave between the ages of 12 and 13.

Before the July 2006 war, an officially estimated 32 percent of children dropped out of school between the ages of 13 and 15. “Such figures may not accurately reflect the reality of the education sector, as no real data is available. The numbers have grown significantly since after the war,” says Dirani.

A lack of accurate statistics may stem from seasonal dropouts, with farmers and cattle breeders relying on their offspring during harvest season. Other reasons that may curb school attendance are the poor environment of public schools. “Some classrooms, which are not larger than store rooms, are crammed with children and remain without heat during the harsh winter. Some schools are often unequipped with playgrounds or bathrooms, and do not have running water,” says Dirani.

Figures show that boys are more at risk of dropping out early, as they are often forced to contribute to the family income, while girls tend to stay in school until a later age, usually until they marry. Watfa explains that the ILO is currently training teachers to address children at risk of abandoning school, and has witnessed a 90 percent success rate in targeted schools.

Regardless of efforts to address child labour, the sight of begging on the streets of Beirut is common. Nine-year-old Ali is often spotted running along the bridge linking Beirut to the downtown and the Ashrafieh district. “I left school in the Sabra Palestinian camp to make some money. Many rich people drive by in their large cars, and they will usually spare a dollar or two,” he says.

A few kilometres away, in Ard Jalloul, Riad, a 13-year-old who left public school because he could no longer afford the cost of books, hopes he can pursue his education again one day. “School will offer a brighter future than what I can ever hope to achieve here,” he says.  (IPS)

labour standards in Lebanon 

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