Ending Child Labor

Feb 012006
Authors: Meg Burd

"If something broke, like dishes of a glass, they would tell me they would take the money out of my pay and they beat me. They used an electric cord…" 11-year-old Najat Z., told Human Rights Watch (an international human rights group) about her time as a child laborer for a Moroccan couple. This testimony, among others, in a recent report by the non-governmental agency prompted a call for immediate action in the situation of child laborers around the world and in Morocco, particularly.

In 2005, UNICEF reported an estimated 246 million children are engaged in child labor. About 171 million of these children are working in hazardous conditions, such as mines, quarries, of handling chemicals, pesticides, or operating heavy machinery. "Children as young as five are forced to spend long hours doing back-breaking labor, often in harsh weather and without access to health care," noted UNICEF executive director Ann M. Veneman in the report.

With child labor (and the poverty that leads to such drastic measures for families and children) spreading and, some worry, resulting in an increase in physical and sexual abuse toward children, addressing the problem is becoming a vital necessity for the world.

As UNICEF found in Morocco, children were engaged in a variety of labor activities that placed them in precarious positions or exploited their labor, with the ceramic, carpet weaving and leather industries being major offenders. Human Rights Watch noted in the report, "Tens of thousands of girls working as domestics in Morocco."

These domestic workers reported a climate of abuse and a denial of their basic rights, the report emphasizes. "Current and former child domestics describe frequent physical and verbal abuse, denial of education and of adequate food and medical care, and sexual harassment by employers or their relatives," Human Rights Watch said.

As in the case of Rasha A., as reported by the organization, her first job as a domestic laborer for a household at the age of 10 forced her into an environment where she was not allowed to leave and was physically beaten.

Such things are often permitted to occur because, as Human Rights Watch notes, "Moroccan law denies these children basic labor rights, and authorities rarely punish those who abuse them."

As is found in many cases where child labor is severe around the world, poverty of families is often the reason many children are sent to factories, dangerous agricultural work, or to work as domestics at such a young age. In Morocco, for instance, "industries are trying to cut costs by replacing adults with child workers," noted a 1999 report by the BBC.

Starting a cycle of poverty, "Unemployed parents feel forced to send their children out to work," the report continues.

This is certainly not a crisis isolated to just Morocco. As the BBC noted in 1999, "It is estimated that in Africa as a whole, two in five children under 15 are working. And around the world the total is likely to be some 250 million."

Here in America, "Hundreds of thousands of children work under dangerous and grueling conditions as hired laborers in US agriculture. These children risk serious illness, including cancer and brain damage, from exposure to pesticides, and suffer high rates of injury," noted Human Rights Watch in a 2001 report.

While it is important to note the difference (as many human rights organizations such as UNICEF emphasize) between child work, which is usually children doing jobs to help their families (or side by side with their parents in some cases) versus the exploitative and dangerous child labor that exposes children to danger, deprives them of education and finds them in slave-like conditions.

Also important to note is the need to eradicate the root cause of this global problem: the crisis of poverty. With factories spreading and trying to cut their bottom lines, many parents of children are being laid off and children brought in as cheaper labor.

Indeed, epidemic poverty must be addressed to really rid the world of child labor, but in the meantime, passage of laws to uphold children's rights as well as tough enforcement of these laws is necessary to end immediate abuse.

All across the world, the children of a generation are being deprived of their childhood due to labor exploitation, and it is time for this to end.

Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian.

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