Lebanon’s forgotten child laborers

Meeting the youth pushed into the workforce

In an alleyway corner in an impoverished Beirut district, a small group of youngsters gather. Nearby, barefoot infants play in wastewater falling from a drain, and a maze of loose electricity cables haphazardly zigzag overhead. While thousands of their peers across the country are sitting in classrooms, these children-cum-adolescents are typical of many from their neighborhood and have long since left education for a life of work.

“The situation at home was difficult and I didn’t think school would help me find a job in the future, so I decided it was better to go and work than to stay in school,” says Haydar, a 15 year old from the area. He dropped out of school when he was 12 and has since been working full-time in a number of different jobs.

Abboudi, 12, from the Syrian city of Aleppo helps support his family by selling flowers to revellers in the Mar Mikhael district of Beirut

 

 

Beside Haydar stand two of his friends who have also forgone any formal education in their youth so as to get to work and start earning as soon as possible: a boy who works in an aluminum workshop and a young girl who packs rat poison into little plastic bags. All of the youngsters, who are between 12 and 15 years old, work at least eight hours a day, often closer to 10, and receive around LL50,000 ($33.33) to LL75,000 ($50) for their services for a six-day work week.

The 12-year-old aluminum worker, Ahmad, is illiterate and never expected, nor desired, an education. “None of my three brothers ever really went to school, and I didn’t like it. The teachers weren’t good to us. We all try to get work when we can, which is the way it is for most of us around here,” he explains. Much lip service has been paid to decrying the problem of child labor and its increasing prevalence in Lebanon, but to date very little has actually been done to tackle it.

There are no accurate statistics on this issue, but between 2005 and 2006 the child labor unit at the Ministry of Labor (MoL) said there were around 100,000 youngsters engaged in child labor; it has since updated this estimate to 180,000. However, the unit’s head, Nazha Shallita, concedes that in reality the number is probably significantly higher, “with the effect of the war in Syria and the general declining economic situation.”

Ignored agreements

This kind of child labor is not about youngsters doing a couple of shifts a week in the coffee shop for pocket money or taking on holiday jobs to build up the resume. The worst forms of child labor are those kinds of work that expose children to physical, sexual or psychological abuse, deprive them of the right to education or endanger their health, safety or morals. Think factory floors, brothels, machinery workshops, agricultural fields and rubbish dumps.

Despite the scant attempts to remedy child labor on the ground, Lebanon is in fact a signatory to a number of international treaties on the subject and has made some strides in addressing its legal and policy framework to tackle the problem. However, “until now we are talking about planning and more planning, but in reality all we are seeing are small interventions from civil society,” complains Marie Assi Khayat, program manager and co-founder of Beyond Association, a Lebanese non-governmental organization that works to eliminate child labor and its root causes, such as lack of remedial education, vocational training and social services.

Ali Shahine, 15, works as an auto electrician at his father’s garage in Nabatiyeh. “I got bored at school, but I am happy now,” he said.

 

To bring Lebanon in broad accordance with the international agreements to which it is committed — the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 138 on the Minimum Age of Admission to Employment (1973) and ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (1999) — there have been several key adjustments to the domestic legal code. How rigorously these amendments have been implemented and enforced, however, is a different matter altogether.

In 1996, a special chapter dealing with working children was introduced into the labor code, and the minimum age of working children was raised from nine to 14 years old — 15 years old in industrial projects and activities which are physically demanding or detrimental to children’s health. The minimum age was also raised to 16 or 17 for occupations that are deemed to be “industrial, arduous or unhealthy”, such as smelting, slaughter and construction.

It is ultimately up to the MoL to monitor compliance with these laws and investigate any breaches, but in reality there is minimal action. In a recent pilot project, the NGO War Child Holland, based in Lebanon, offered training to 19 of the ministry’s 73 labor inspectors but, “the inspectors were not even aware of the child labor unit within the ministry or that they had any remit to inspect for child labor,” says the project’s advisor, Haifa Hamdan.

What is more, the labor inspectors are not permitted to delve into the informal sector, which encompasses those corners of the economy that are not taxed or monitored by any government institution nor directly included in gross domestic product calculations. According to the International Monetary Fund, the informal sectors account for just under a third of the Lebanese economy, and it is, of course, in exactly these kinds of  areas where child labor is most likely to be present.

“A draft of the labor law allows inspectors into the informal sector, increases the age children are allowed to work and criminalizes those that employ the worst forms of child labor, but it has been stuck with the Council of Ministers awaiting an implementation decree since 2001,” explains the MoL’s Shallita.

Implementation decrees are meant to be issued by the Council of Ministers, Lebanon’s cabinet, to bring into force legislation passed by Parliament. However, in this case and countless others, the intransigence, ineptitude or incongruity of the executive branch of government has squashed crucial statutes passed by the legislators.

 

The value of education

Back on the Beirut street corner, two of the young workers have differing views on the value of school. “I thought that work would be better for me than school but I made a mistake. School is better than work. I really regret so much that I left school for work but it is too late now,” says Haydar, while his friend Ahmad still feels that “school is a waste of time. I hated it then, and I don’t see the point in ever going back.”

The failure to keep more of Lebanon’s youth in education is one of the fundamental reasons for the high prevalence of child labor across the country. In the absence of any nationwide study, this is best demonstrated by a single November 2012 report by War Child. Based on interviews with more than a thousand workers under the age of 18 in Beirut’s impoverished southern suburbs, this survey found that approximately one out of 10 respondents had never attended school. A quarter of those who did attend school dropped out before they were 10 years old and 16 percent could not read or write at all.

While those statistics may be a sobering reflection on the state of education in Lebanon, the reasons given by the youngsters for leaving school reveal further systematic failings. Of the 96 percent of respondents who were no longer in school, a quarter were driven out for reasons such as repeated failure, bullying or ill-treatment by teachers, rather than having abandoned it for financial or other reasons.

Law 686, passed in 1998, made education free and compulsory until the age of 12. It was reinforced by Law 150, passed in August 2011, which reiterated these rights to education. While this could have amounted to a significant step forward in tackling child labor, the laws have essentially never come into effect because, once again, their implementation decrees were never issued.

“Free and compulsory education is quite frankly not implemented,” explains Hoda Kara, director of Bayt Al Amal, a Lebanese NGO that works with vulnerable children from very poor families. “There simply are not enough places, and they still have to pay fees.”

Some steps were taken in 2003 to help in the implementation of the law, such as exempting children in preschool and first and second grade in public schools from registration fees, establishing public schools in almost all regions of the country and subsidizing schoolbooks.

But these steps were also sporadically applied. Until the implementation decrees are passed, which can’t happen until a new cabinet is formed, there will not be free and compulsory education available for children. “Of course we need the help of other stakeholders. Once they are in school we will take care of them, but if families don’t send their children to school, for example, we advocate to get them into school and we need the help of other ministries to get them into school,” says Sonia Khoury, acting director of guidance and orientation at the Ministry of Education.

With his father’s gun around his neck, a young resident of Tripoli’s Bab Al Tabbaneh district tucks into lunch

 

Beyond asking the government to implement the decisions it made 15 years ago, advocates such as the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child are also asking for the maximum age of free and compulsory education to be raised to correspond to the minimum age for entering full-time work. The War Child report on child labor found that the average age for leaving school among the young workers interviewed was 12 years old, which corresponded with the average age they started work. The logic follows that were free and compulsory education enforced up until the age of 15, children would be more likely to stay in education and not enter the workforce.

In plain sight

In the pulsing nightlife districts of Beirut such as Hamra or Mar Mikhael, dozens of street children can be seen hustling among the nighttime partygoers. With a bunch of roses in hand, they banter with revelers hoping to pick up a dollar here and there in exchange for their flowers.

These street children, who can also be seen amid rows of traffic hawking tissues or chewing gum or anything they can get their hands on, are perhaps those child laborers who are most visible and commonly encountered by the public at large. While they are only the tip of the iceberg, their situation is somehow unique.

“I work until I sell all of these flowers and bring LL60,000 every night, normally until two or three in the morning,” explains Jihad, an 11-year-old flower seller outside the busy bars of Mar Mikhael. Estranged from his parents, who are stuck in war-torn Aleppo, he works the streets of Beirut six nights a week with his 12-year-old brother, Ahmad.

With an innocent enthusiasm that betrays his age and a savvy swagger that befits his trade, he tells of how he would love to be in school but instead spends his days and nights collecting the cheap nylon flowers from his brother-in-law’s friend’s factory, wrapping them in plastic and heading to the streets to sell them all.

While the Syrian crisis has compounded this issue, it was very much a problem beforehand. “Of course there are Syrians like me and my brother working these streets, but most of the kids you see are Lebanese,” says Jihad.

The main body responsible for getting these children off the streets is the Internal Security Forces (ISF), which falls under the Ministry of Interior. In 2002 a special unit was created to deal specifically with this problem. However, with the political crisis that followed the assassination of premier Rafiq Hariri in 2005, the funding dried up and the unit, which consisted of around 500 specifically trained staff, was disbanded.

“Our role regarding street children is to take them from the street but the problem then is what can we do and where can we put them… first we need to establish organizations that can deal with the children, and then we will be in a position to take them and keep them off the street,” says Lt. Colonel Ahmad Nazih Abu Dagher, the ISF officer now responsible for policing street children.

There is one main center where street children are taken to in Kahale in the Mount Lebanon region, but it is little more than a “dumping ground”, according to Hayat Osseiran, consultant at the ILO and the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor. Within days most of the children that end up in the center are back on the streets, and anyone that can prove they are a relative of the child can remove them, regardless of any suspicions that it is the family that is putting the minor to work on the streets in the first place.

While many of the street kids, such as Jihad, are put to work by their family either out of desperate circumstances or cynical exploitation, it is also common for criminal gangs to organize the children into what can only be called slave labor. “We had a big project to deal with this problem and get the kids off the streets but very strong pressure was applied [on our supporters] and one by one influential and important people started to drop off,” explains lawyer and children’s rights activist, Khaled Merheb.  “There is a big mafia behind much of this exploitation.”

While the ISF’s ability to take and keep the children off the streets may be limited, they also have the responsibility and power to investigate and punish those adults exploiting street children for profit. Discussing what success his forces have had in this domain, Lt. Colonel Abu Dagher said his men detained and charged those responsible but when pushed could not provide any statistics. Merheb’s experience in the field is somewhat more revealing: “When we talk about cases against adults putting kids to work on the street, well these don’t really go to court. I’d be surprised if you found one,” he says.

Replacing books with guns

As violent fractures start to crack Lebanon and the specter of war rears its head once again, ever more children and young adolescents are prone to being pulled into the miasma. Perhaps one of the most malign forms of child labor, child militancy, is on the rise in many areas where poverty is crushing, the state is all but absent and sectarian sentiment is rife.

The Bab Al Tabbaneh neighborhood is in the middle of a belt of neglect and destitution in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, where frequent and fierce clashes have left dozens dead over the last few months. On the front lines of the battle on Syria Street, which separates them from their rivals in Jabal Mohsen, groups of local men sit drinking coffee as they take a break from their shifts behind the sandbags.

Among the militants, children as young as 10 handle M4 semi-automatic rifles and Kalashnikovs. While these youngsters are merely playing with the guns for show, their brothers and neighbors who are only a couple of years older have joined the real fight.

On one of the street corners, 14-year-old Ghadab sits with his father, each sporting a Kalashnikov rifle on his lap. The boy’s effeminate hands and hairless face would be completely incongruous alongside his rifle in most settings but somehow they are not so ill-fitting amid the bullet riddled destitution around him. “School? I don’t know school. This is my school,” he says as he points at the urban battleground around him as rifle shots crack in the air. When asked what he would like to do in the future, he shrugs his shoulders and gives a puzzled look as if it is the first time anyone has ever asked him the question.

On the same block, Fouaz Harouk, a middle-aged father of four and small time trader, rails at the political and business elite who have completely washed their hands of the neighborhood. “This unemployment and complete lack of activity, it drives you mad. It has been near impossible to provide for my family on my earnings this past couple of years. Many others have not earned a thing,” he laments.

A group of teenagers and young men surrounding him drop their bravado and give nods of regretful agreement when he talks of the lack of opportunity, hope or aspiration in the neighborhood. They share a sense of abandonment by those in power, except when it comes to providing them with arms so they can be “used as pawns” in the festering, internecine conflict in the area.

The great divide in wealth in Lebanon and the many pockets of neglect coupled with rudimentary social support systems are at the heart of the problem of child labor. In 2007 almost a third of the population lived below the upper poverty line of $2.40 a day, a rate which rose to over 50 percent in the north of the country, according to the most recent statistics from the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Considering the immense strain the Syrian crisis has put on the country, these numbers are likely to have risen significantly.

“For most of the kids the problem is poverty. They want to go back to school but there is a lack of hope,” explains War Child’s Hamdan. “We really need income-generating projects for their families. We can get some kids back into school but for many we simply can’t because they are the main breadwinners and their families rely on them.”

Child labor in the spotlight

Under the direction of the ILO and the Ministry of Labor, there is a drive to bring the issue of child labor back to the table and to implement laws and policies that will help tackle the problem. In May 2012, the national steering committee, which brings together all the main stakeholders in combating child labor, was reactivated and in October 2012 decree 8987 was passed, which classified in greater detail jobs that are considered hazardous and are therefore prohibited for youngsters under the age of either 16 or 17.

There is also a national action plan in the pipeline from the National Committee to Combat Child Labor, under the direction of the MoL, that has, “an emphasis on education, the capacity of labor inspectors and boosting the income capacity of the family,” says Shallita at the MoL. “Prevention, withdrawal and rehabilitation are the main objectives.”

The success of this drive will depend on the government’s ability to bring into force legislation that already exists, such as the draft labor code and compulsory free education until grade nine — and potentially older. Similarly, significantly more funding and resources need to be made available to those organizations and bodies that are working on the ground to combat child labor, such as the labor inspectors, the ISF, civil society groups and the social services offered by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Any investigation of the issue is hampered by the paucity of data on specific types of exploitation and abuse of minors in Lebanon, but it is unmistakable that child labor is not a trivial inconvenience on the margins of society. It is a blight that afflicts swathes of the nation’s youth, robbing them of their education and childhood. It is also a sad reflection of the poverty and dereliction endured by far too many families that call this country home. The matter of child labor is of considerable consequence for the stability, prosperity and harmony of Lebanon’s coming generations.

Zak Brophy was Executive's Economics and Policy Editor from 2011 until 2013.

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